A while back I made a solemn vow that I would stop obsessing over texts and emails. I decided that anytime I heard the bing indicating I had received a message, I would not feel the urgency to check immediately. And when I did check, I would not reread and reread what the other person wrote. I would then not rewrite and rewrite my response. My digital resolution lasted … well, honestly, I don’t think I ever stopped obsessing over texts and emails. Not only did my vow not last; I didn’t even start!
The problem with how we attack our problems is that we go after the problem. We focus solely on the behavior by making a commitment to start or stop doing something.
You’ve done this too, right? You’ve decided, perhaps even declared, that you were going to change.
- This year I’m going to eat healthily and exercise every day!
- I’m going to stop dating anyone who is mean to me. In fact, I’m not going to date at all!
- I’m tired of wasting my time on social media and comparing my life with everyone else’s. I’m getting off for good this time!
- That’s it. This is the last time. I will never look at pornography again!
- I’m not going to exaggerate or lie or gossip to get attention or feel better about myself. No more!
- I’m going to read the Bible every morning this whole year!
Whatever your vow was, how did it go?
I would guess not well. Why? Behavior modification doesn’t work, because the focus is only on modifying behavior. You don’t get to the root of the problem, which is the thought that produces the behavior. To be more specific, the problem is the neural pathway that leads to the behavior.
Let’s say you hate an ugly tree in your yard. You want that tree gone. Finally, you decide the time has come to take care of the problem. So you march into your yard with a small handsaw. You pick an ugly branch and cut it off the tree. You smile and walk back into the house, triumphantly singing a medley of “All I Do Is Win” and “Another One Bites the Dust.” The next day you are shocked to see that the tree is still standing strong. As you stare out the window, you could almost swear it’s smirking at you.
I know. The analogy is absurd. You would never try to kill a tree by just removing a branch. Because the branch obviously isn’t the problem. The tree is the problem. Actually, the root system of the tree is the main culprit. If you don’t remove the root system when you cut down the tree, it could still grow back.
Well, if we decide, I’m going to stop yelling at my kids or I’m going to stop isolating myself and living a lonely life or I’m going to exercise every day, we’re just sawing off a branch. We’re setting good goals, but we’re ignoring the real problem of the lie we believe and the mental rut we fall into. Attacking only the symptoms, not the source.
Thinking I can change a behavior just by removing the behavior is absurd. The behavior isn’t the root problem. The neural pathway that leads me to the behavior is the problem. If I stop a behavior, it will come back, unless I
- remove the lie at the root of the behavior, and
- replace the neural pathway that leads me to the behavior.
Where will we get these new thoughts? Hint: we won’t get them from scrolling through social media posts, listening to our favorite playlist, or phoning a friend for their opinion.
To stop the lies and replace them with truth, we need to look to God’s Word.
That’s what Jesus did. When Satan tempted Him, Jesus couldn’t whip out his iPhone and open up the YouVersion Bible app to search for a verse that might help. He had already internalized truths from God’s Word that created a helpful neural pathway. When tempted, Jesus followed that path, leading Him to obedience and freedom.
That’s what we need to do. We need more than good goals. We need a good God, who has given us His living and active Word.