By Barney Armstrong, MA, LMHCA, Bellevue Christian Counseling
Addictions are powerful forces that many of us experience in one form or another. We struggle to break free from them, often with little success. We tend to think that we can overcome addictions simply by changing our behavior, only to discover that it doesn’t work like that. We honestly think that we should be able to do something if we put our minds to it, but it doesn’t take us long to discover that life is not so simple. Why is it so difficult for us to change? And what is going on here?
The reality is that our actions are not only based on our decisions, but also on our desires. If we are to change our actions, we need to understand and change those desires that make us act in a particular way. In this two-part series I am going to be looking at the roots of addiction in our lives, and at how we can overcome our addictions by purifying our hearts.
You Don’t Actually Want To Change
You might think that the knowledge that an activity is ruining your life would be enough to make you stop it. But the reality is that we often don’t really want to change. If you ask what I mean by this, I would say that your “decider” and your “wanter” are in two different locations in your brain. In your left brain and other parts of your neo-cortex, you make a decision and plan to not engage in a particular addictive behavior again. But the reality is that, in another part of your brain – the part that does the “wanting” – , the switch is still flipped to the “on” position. You still want it in the “wanting” part of your brain, but not in the “deciding” part.
Our Reactions are Predetermined
Which part of the brain is this, and why is it not accessible to the linear and planning part of your brain that makes your decisions? Parts of the midbrain, and possibly also the right brain, are more concerned with desire and emotions than they are than linear planning, strategizing, or administration. Consider how we learn from experience and react to rewards. If you touch a hot burner for the first time, you feel pain and your traumatic experience ensures that you will not do that again. By contrast, your experience of eating ice cream for the first time leads to a feeling of elation, ensuring that you will always respond positively when you see ice cream. The switch is automatically set to the “on” position. The good feeling kudos that resulted from your decision to eat ice cream ensures that you will react in the same way when you see it again. Your reaction to your next encounter with that same trigger is already predetermined.
The Place of the Heart
This place in the brain is actually the heart. This is the place where we make decisions based on our experience of rewards. It is the place where our intentions take shape. These intentions are based on and rooted in our deepest, desires, longings, and wants. If a couple has a history of rewarding emotional experience with each other, then they will set their hearts, on future encounters. Their intention as lovers is rooted in their , longing for one another, precisely because they desire more of what they have experienced.
We all have this place within us that the Bible calls the heart. Consider a particular place that you love, or a piece of music that moves you, or anything else that makes you respond by wanting more of it. Such desires are not rational decisions, but are the longings of the heart.
The Double-Mindedness of Modern Man
I suspect that for pre-modern man the separation between these two parts of our brain was not as endemic as it has become. It seems that this global “double-mindedness” is a product of modernity, and of the Enlightenment’s, exaltation of human reason, together with its exclusion of all that it deemed frivolous and unscientific, namely the emotions, feelings and desires that are, matters of the heart. This double-mindedness explains the dissatisfaction of modern and post-modern man who decides one thing and yet desires another. It accounts for our inability to control our desires and makes visible; the instability of those whose hearts and minds are not unified. (James 1: 8)
The Meaning of Repentance
The question is how we are to change this. The problem is not that you haven’t decided in your linear brain to change something, but rather that you don’t want to! That is, the problem is in your heart , rather than in your mind. Or, more accurately, it is in that part of your mind where your intentions are based on desire.
When the Bible calls us to repent, it is telling us to change our minds about something. But this does not just mean that we must change the decisions we make. Rather, it is referring to that part of the mind that we call the heart. To repent means to change your mind by changing your heart. It involves making a reversal in how you embrace the emotional or feeling kudos that you associate with a particular action, and which cause you to automatically flip the switch to “on” whenever you encounter that trigger.
Overcoming Your Addictions with the Help of Christian Counseling
In my next article, I will be looking more closely at what this repentance means in practice. The Bible calls us to purify our hearts and this can be a complex and painful process as we engage on a journey that involves transforming our minds and hearts. A trained Christian counselor can support you on this journey, helping you to shed light on your hidden motivations. As you gain a better understanding of why you engage harmful activities, you will be in a better position to change the desires that are threatening your life.
From Freedigitalphotos.net: Strawberry Flavor Cone Ice Cream Stock Image by Sura Nualpradid, published on 17 September 2011; Stock Image – image ID: 10057709 Woman Holding Gambling Cards And Wine Stock Photo By marin published on 11 January 2013 Stock Photo – image ID: 100132581