Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The season of start and stop.

The season of start and stop.

January is the best month to start or stop something in your life. It’s fresh in a way a month like April isn’t. What feels impossible in say August, suddenly feels a little more possible when you stare out at a blank calendar. You can stop smoking, start going to the gym, stop watching so much television, start reading more and so on.

But in the midst of all this opportunity, I think there are two dangers lurking. Simple, subtle little snares, but traps nonetheless that all too often hurt our chances of ever really truly changing. So today, instead of a Rah Rah, Braveheart, Just Do It, get sweaty with excitement kind of post, I thought I’d kick out two warnings about staying true to whatever it is you’re trying to start or stop this year.

1. The mixed up missions of the mind.
In the book, Addiction and Grace, Gerald May laid out a simple idea that blew me away. He said essentially that when we determine to start doing something new, the part of our mind that doesn’t want to do this new thing actually pretends to be helpful. It rallies the troops, leads the cheers and encourages us to start. For instance, the part of you that doesn’t want to run or exercise, actually says, “Let’s do it for real this year, let’s get a trainer and some new shoes and tell all our friends we’re going to run a 5K.” For years it might have told you that fat was who you were and who you were always going to be, but out of the blue, it’s suddenly your biggest cheerleader. Why? Because secretly, a bigger goal potentially means a bigger failure, which potentially means a bigger relapse into old behavior.

Your mind, at least the part you’d expect to resist, is hoping that if you fail in a big, spectacular way, your 180 back into bad decisions will be cataclysmic. This was revealing to me, because I never understood the degree to which my own flesh actually plotted and planned against my success. I’ve read a billion verses about that, but the concept of deception like this was surprising.

The lesson I took away was that it’s OK to start with small goals. To run a mile before you plan to run a marathon. To build a foundation of tiny successes before you try to climb Everest. And, to not trust yourself when it came to changing old behaviors.

2. The replacement theory.
Counselor #4 came up with this concept and I think it’s a good one. Basically it goes like this, when we stop something in our lives we have to replace it with something. That’s it. When you take something out, you have to put something else in its place. There’s an example of this in the Bible. A man is healed of a demon but leaves his house and life empty. In that one demon’s place, seven return, more powerful and more destructive than the first.

You see this concept a lot in addiction. An alcoholic will quit booze but become a raging workaholic. One addiction was just replaced with another. The tricky thing is being realistic with what you replace in your life. I have a lot of friends that will stop doing something and tell me that with that new time they’re going to read the Bible. They’ll stop using the Internet at home say instead, with those 20 hours a week, they’re going to spend time in God’s word.

That is adorable.

It’s not real though. What usually happens is that it’s fairly impossible to go from 0 minutes in the Bible a week to 20 hours. And when they finally brush up against this reality, they find themselves right back online.

The other thing that this does is make God really small. Did you notice that when the Prodigal Son returned, the father didn’t replace his junk with a religious ceremony? He replaced it with a party. Instead of working in a pigpen, there was a party. Why don’t we ever treat things like that? Maybe, when you quit doing whatever it is you don’t like about your life, it’s not just that God wants you to read the book of Micah all day. Maybe he wants you to join an ultimate frisbie league. Or go to movies with your friends. Or eat sushi or a thousand other things.

I think he wants us in his word, but I also think he knows we won’t become monks just because the calendar says January 2 and we’ve quit watching television.

I wish you the best in this year’s resolutions. I hope they’re small and real, but above that, I hope you’ll remember that when the Prodigal Son returned, in what was arguably the biggest “fresh start” moment, he didn’t get any. He got a party instead of resolutions.

And that’s what I think God wants to give to you.

p.s. I wrote a new devotional today on
It's called "You're not going to Guam." Check it out.


Alan Gable said...

Good stuff, Jon. Happy New Year.

rosa said...

I have come across the trickiness of myself more than once. I'll have an idea and because my mind never stops working within a day I will have gone from teaching a class to having a business devoted to all thing gardening with a big attic room with skylights that is devoted to classes on gardening ect... As the final result in my mind is overwhelming and seems unacheivable I then don't even start the class! Pure sabatage! This year my goal is to start a gardening blog. I'm already struggling with whether to just jump right in or do a lot of research on the best way to present it ect. I've decided just to jump right in and learn as I go along. Just to let you know, I enjoy reading your site. It is one of a few that I read that helps me to focus more on my faith everyday. I am going to check out your new devotional now. Have a great day!