Have you ever been to a modern zoo, the type where the animals are not caged? Instead, they usually are separated from zoo patrons by either large ditches, small canals, or non-descript fencing. I lived in Miami for 15 years and often visited the zoo, at least in the winter when the weather was not too hot. Whenever I went to the zoo, I could easily spot the animals that had been kept in cages for most of their lives. Now, even with the freedom to roam over a much larger territory, most of them just walked back and forth in an area the size of their former prison. Nothing held them in that confined space except the force of habit.
Even if we are sincere about our spiritual growth, we may often behave in ways similar to these zoo animals. Like the zoo animals, we are now free to choose new ways of living – and a fresh approach to life. Tragically, many of us keep walking in our old familiar ways, even though a new, exciting world awaits us if we progressively allow ourselves to be controlled by our spirit rather than our ego. We know we are on the spiritual path, but we don’t act like it. Instead of exploring fresh and free ways to be salt and light in this world, we just pace back and forth within the confines of the ruts our negative, habitual behaviors have created for us.
And keep in mind, my friend, a rut is nothing but a grave with the ends kicked out.
We can read all the right books, listen to all the right tapes, hear all the right sermons, and go to all the right seminars – but the fact remains that we often feel completely overwhelmed when a big problem hits us. Life’s storms can be terrifying at times and it is at just these times we need to apply the principles we have learned through all of our diligent study to the process of riding out the storm. The problem is, it is at just these critical times that we find ourselves least able to apply the truths that we have learned. As a result, we often make little headway toward finding a positive solution to our dilemma.
I wish I could tell you that there was a magic answer to this problem, but I can’t. Fact is, we have to gird up our loins and get to work. There are a number of things that we can do to initiate the process of confronting our habitual patterns of negative behavior and disobedience to God. Our first priority should be prayer. We need to ask God for help and strength to deal with the particular issues we face. It is vital to keep God at the forefront of our struggles with these old parts of our selves because without his help we will ultimately fail.
In addition to prayer, we also need to deepen our awareness of these patterns of disobedience and note several things about them. First, we should see what kinds of situations trigger these near-automatic responses. Usually, we will find some specific form of temptation that is directly related to our particular problems. It could be food, or drink, or an attractive member of the opposite sex. It is vital that we be rigorously honest with ourselves concerning what we discover. If we become aware of a specific issue, then lie to ourselves about it, our progress will stop right there.
After looking at the triggers for our behaviors, we then note the actual behavior itself. What is it we actually do? In what way is this behavior disobedient, sinful, and counterproductive? The next step is to take note of what happens immediately following the behavior, especially paying attention to how we feel. Do we feel positive and satisfied? Or, do we begin to sense a gnawing guilt inside, a growing feeling of remorse over the fact that, in spite of our best intentions, we have engaged in the pattern yet again?
Experience has taught me that one of the most fruitful strategies in dealing with these types of old behavior patterns is to interfere with their process of unfolding at the beginning, not after the train of thought has pulled out of the station and reached full speed. It is much easier to bring the train to a halt if it is still moving slowly or, to use another analogy, it is much easier to put out a fire when it’s at the match head than when it is raging in a forest.
Many people will object to this strategy, claiming they are unable to intercede in their thought processes. My answer to this objection is simple: Yes, you can! Will it be difficult? Yes. Will I sometimes fail? Yes. The point is, however, you can do much more than you think you can. Don’t sell yourself short; it may take discipline and repeated effort, but you can do it. And don’t sell God short, for with Him, all things are truly possible.
I have often felt that I was open-minded and prided myself on my lack of rigidity. Although my close friends often made comments to the contrary, I believed that I was fairly comfortable with change. I don’t say that I always welcomed it, but I at least tolerated and accepted the fact that life was not always stable nor predictable. However, careful examination of my life revealed a pattern that was at times startling to my false sense of openness and flexibility. This hanging on to the comfort zone, that which was familiar, showed up in many areas of my life. I often use the story of my old softball glove to illustrate this point. Forgive me if you have heard this before.
From the time I was five years old I have been an avid baseball fan. I played the sport throughout my school years and, once I became an adult, played competitive softball for many years. I normally played middle infield, either second base or shortstop.
For many years I used the same softball glove. In fact, I used it so long that the strings kept breaking, all the padding was gone out of the pocket and the leather was cracked in several strategic places. Nevertheless I refused to buy a new glove, in spite of the frequent protestations of my teammates. The reason was simple. I was comfortable with this old glove. It molded to my hand perfectly over the years and it felt reassuring to put in on before I took the field. All too often, however, I would catch a hard line drive right in the pocket and my hand would sting, then remain numb for several minutes. Still, I wanted no part of a new glove. A new glove, as anyone who has played the sport knows, is a real pain for awhile. It feels funny, awkward and stiff. It is easy to make errors with a new glove, at least until it is broken in properly. No, my old glove was find thank you very much.
One day our third baseman wasn’t able to make the game and I played the so-called “hot corner.” Things went okay for the first two innings. Then, in the third inning the batter hit a hard liner right at me. I responded quickly and raised my glove, only to have the ball break right through the ancient webbing and hit me square in the forehead, knocking me out cold.
Two days later I bought a new glove.
My experience with my old softball glove is not unlike my experience with the behaviors that flow from my old self. No matter how much I try to take off the old and put on the new, the old keeps rearing its head and biting me. I suspect that I am not alone in this predicament. Many of my old behaviors, like my old softball glove, may hurt me time and time again. But, they are comfortable in the sense that they are familiar and predictable. My old self resists change and it is here that we are vulnerable to our habitual responses to life, however unhealthy and painful they may be.
Still, I know from personal experience that change is, indeed, possible. Although I am far from perfect, by examining my habitual patterns of negative behavior and taking specific and direct action I have been able to make significant progress. My level of flexibility and adaptability has increased and, overall, my almost-mechanical responses to trigger situations have decreased. It seems as if I have been able to increase the time between the trigger event and my response. This allows me to make more productive choices about how I will respond.
I encourage you to implement the strategy described above, as well as experiment with your own methods of fostering positive change in your life. Believe in yourself; have confidence in yourself; and get to work. Eventually, you’ll be glad you did.