THE ART OF SELF-SABOTAGE
Written by Doug Ponder on June 15, 2013
How I Self-Sabotaged My Plan to Lose Weight
I gained nearly 50 pounds in my last year of college. After months of coping with tiredness, depression, and a wardrobe of clothes that used to fit, I decided that I needed to drop the extra weight. I began running a mile several times a week with a close friend. Each week we’d add a little distance to our run, until eventually we were running two miles, then a little further, and so on. My friend began losing weight immediately. I didn’t.
A quick look at my eating habits revealed why that was the case. I worked at a steakhouse, where I ate red meat at least four times a week. Additionally, I bought a piece of chocolate-peanut butter pie every night for dessert, which I polished off with a tall glass of milk. If I remember correctly, the pie alone was somewhere about 1200 calories per slice. Thus, the exercise I had been doing didn’t make a difference because my eating habits were working against my exercise efforts. It was like dietary self-sabotage. Once I quit eating the pie and cut back on the steak, however, the pounds began falling off. (I lost 30 pounds in just over a month’s time.)
The Art of Spiritual Self-Sabotage
Many Christians commit a similar kind of “spiritual self-sabotage.” They engage in practices and behaviors that undermine their desire for change or growth in Christ.
Often this happens because we don’t understand how change happens. As James K. A. Smith, one of the leading Christian scholars in our generation, has pointed out, many Christians (including many pastors and authors) have unknowingly bought into a view of change that greatly overestimates the role of thinking in our lives. We have wrongly assumed that our actions are the outcomes of decisions we make on the basis of what we know. In other words, we say things like, ‘If only we knew better, then we would do better.’ Or, ‘If I think the right way, then I will live the right way.’
But that’s nonsense, and everyone knows it. We don’t fail to follow Jesus because of a lack of information. Most Christians know very well what Jesus has called us to do, yet we still fail. Why? The reason is that our failures to follow Jesus also stem from a problem with what we desire, not just what we know (or don’t know).
Whence Comes Desire?
According to the Scriptures, our desires come “from within” (Mark 7:21-23). But they don’t just appear at random. No, our desires are formed within our hearts as we interact with the world around us. John Owen, a Puritan author and scholar, wrote at length concerning how sinful desires in our hearts are both expressed in and reinforced by our actions. They are expressed in our actions because an action reveals a desire. (You do what you do because part of you wants to do it.) But you also do what you do because your previous actions have reinforced, strengthened, and nurtured this sinful desire or “heart-habit.” Thus through repeated sinful actions your heart is “trained to love” that which it ought not love.
This kind of “heart training” almost never occurs at the conscious level. That is, we are rarely aware of how our actions are training our hearts to love (or not love) a certain thing. But they do, and practices that we might think of as neutral, saying, “They’re just something that I do,” are actually doing something to us. They are shaping our hearts. They are forming our desires, our heart-habits, our loves and longings, which in turn drive us to act the way we do—even without a “choice” being made in the moment. Often the choice, if any choice was involved at all, occurred long before the present situation.
Consider what happens to your heart every time you visit a local mall. Everywhere you look there are images of “the good life,” presented to you as something you can buy or achieve through looking a certain way, acting a certain way, or buying a certain product.
You can hear the objections now. “That’s ridiculous! I’ve never thought of my trips to the mall that way before.” Yes, well, that’s the point. A mall is like that, whether we think of it in that way or not. And the point is precisely that we don’t think of malls like that, yet they still affect us in such ways. Studies have shown, for example, that people who “window shop” (who browse but can’t afford to buy what they look at) routinely leave malls feeling less happy and/or more depressed than when they first arrived. Why is this? Because in everything from the parking lot to the pictured models to the glistening displays, malls are designed to entice you. They are meant to make you want. They form desires within your heart as you interact with the sights, sounds, smells, touch, and taste of the environment.
In a similar way, our actions throughout the week partially shape or form many of the desires in our hearts. Thus many people engage in the art of self-sabotage when it comes to change by their repeated engagement in activities that form sinful heart-habits that oppose the very behaviors that they truly want to be rid of.
Examples of Self-Sabotage
A man struggling with pornography is a fool if he prays for change in this area while continuing to watch sexually explicit TV shows and movies—not to mention magazine adds, pictures of models at malls, even most beaches. Those images will reinforce the lust in his heart, even training his heart to continue desiring what he says he wants to be rid of. Every week he prays, “God help me be free from these lustful desires.” Yet every week he stokes the raging fires of lust by immersing him in images that only add fuel to the fire.
A lady who struggles with never feeling pretty enough, talented enough, or good enough at being a wife or a mom should realize that Pinterest is the last place she ought to spend her time. There’s nothing wrong with a picture of craft ideas or new hairstyles, but there’s everything wrong with thinking that craft or new hairstyle will make you prettier or more valuable in any way. It would be self-sabotage for her to stare at Pinterest all day while praying against her struggles for not feeling pretty enough or talented enough. Her prayers for help in this area would be drowned out by the noise of the fantasy world she has pinned to her board, which screams much louder than the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit.
A man who struggles with self-control in eating almost always struggles with self-control in other areas. He probably oversleeps, and overindulges in alcohol, in video games, and in other things that might be perfectly acceptable in moderation. The problem is that why he sings the tune of moderation, he practices the art of self-sabotage by overindulging in all manner of things throughout the week. He then wonders why he has such trouble saying “No” to the lusts of his stomach or the desires of his wandering eyes. But when you’ve spent all week training your heart to love excess in every area, is it really any wonder why this happens?
How to Stop Sabotaging Yourself
How can we get out of this mess? How can I stop feeding the sin that I desire to fight? The answer is threefold: we have to know what’s right, want to do what’s right, and practice what is right. To know what is right we need only look to the Scriptures, which give us God’s commands in very clear and straightforward fashion. But we can’t stop there, as so many Christians do, for our biggest problem isn’t knowing what is right.
We also need a change of desires. This isn’t something that we can do to ourselves, but it is something that we affect. That is, we can’t make our hearts change—only the Spirit of God can do that—but we can do things that position ourselves to be changed or not to be changed. As John Piper, a well-known pastor and author, has often said, “I can’t make the wind blow, but I can put the sails up.” The movement of the Spirit of God is the wind, and “putting the sails up” are the means of grace, which God has given to us as a way to receive his gracious work in our lives.
Finally, God calls us to put into practice the desires that he places in our hearts. We must ‘work out what God works in’ (Phil. 2:12-13). We do this through practicing what is right, through reinforcing proper heart-habits with actions that accord with godliness. So instead of immersing yourself in situations that will only tempt you beyond what you can bear, immerse yourself in the gospel through listening to sermons, talking about the gospel with friends, and taking part in the everyday life of a healthy, gospel-centered church. As we open ourselves up to the conviction of the Spirit through the word of God and the people of God, we may also find areas of our lives where we are undermining the very changes that we wish to see happen. And if so, the person who truly desires to change will happily say goodbye to the things, scenarios, and environments in their life that tripping up their attempts to overcome sin and temptation.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.