Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology
WHEN IT COMES TO appetites, we must be able to choose. To allow our appetites to choose for us is the hallmark of obsession and addiction. Mastery over our appetites is not out of reach, but it often feels that way while in the grips of an active addiction or compulsion. Christians who struggle with addiction are caught in a tug-of-war between the pleasures and comforts of the flesh and the desire of the spirit to find peace, meaning, temperance, and freedom. The results of walking according to the flesh are self-evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these (see Gal. 5:19-21). It is possible to desire the fruit of the Spirit over the lusts of the flesh, yet remain unable to change your focus from flesh to spirit.
One reason the trap of active addiction is so difficult to escape is we have allowed our appetites to become idols to us. We have served them rather than God. Our need for instant gratification outweighs the harms our addictions cause our bodies. We compound the situation by making excuses for our bad behavior. It’s not our fault, we cry. We do everything in our power to avoid taking any personal responsibility, blaming anyone we can. We live our lives based on rationalization. There is a line in the movie The Big Chill that I’ve always loved. One of the friends says, “Oh, that’s nothing but a rationalization!” The character played by Jeff Goldblum says, “Don’t knock rationalizations. They’re better than sex.” When someone takes issue with this statement, Goldblum adds, “Oh yeah, try going a week without one.” Blaming others doesn’t absolve us from responsibilities, and neither does making excuses.
My struggle was the same as Paul describes in Romans 7. I did not want to keep doing what I was doing. Moreover, I could not seem to do the good I wanted to do. Paul admitted his struggle. I, on the other hand, could not. I remained convinced that my excuses were good enough to make my choices okay. You’d use drugs too if you had my childhood. Parrot writes, “We shop, we drink, we eat; we do anything and everything to distract ourselves from the pain of feeling alone” (1). It took me a great deal of time and effort to finally see the invisible strings tied to my feelings, playing me like a marionette. Any present-day situation that reminded me of something from my past triggered an overwhelming emotion that had more to do with then than now. I read a statement in a book on Buddhism some time ago that still rings true for me today: If you do not deal with the emotional baggage of your past, your present behaviors are not so much undertaken by you as they are driven by the past.
We blame the person who sold us the drugs, the pharmaceutical companies who made the drugs, the bartender who continued to serve us when we were obviously drunk. We blame our parents. Certainly, no other relationship shapes who we are more than our family. Most of what we think, feel, say, and do is in response to the home we grew up in. On the conscious level, we either buy into or reject the lessons learned from family. We absorb ways of thinking, feeling, and being. Either way, we cannot escape its influence. But, as Parrot puts it, “You can’t afford to be like a rider on a runaway horse. Even if you feel out of control, you have everything you need to take the reins and determine your own destiny. You’re not helpless. And you are not simply a product of the way you were raised. From here on out, the kind of person you’ll be is a matter of perseverance, not parenting” (2) [italics added]. In other words, no matter what kind of family background you had, chronic resentment and blame will only further entrench the negative qualities you’d like to escape. Don’t be caught up in the blame game.
When Satan reminds you of your past, just remind him of his future.
It is crucial that we forgive those whom we believe have caused us harm. We must forgive as the LORD has forgiven us (see Col. 3:13). If we have any hope of being forgiven by those we’ve harmed by our bad behavior, we must learn to forgive others. We have to put our pride aside and face the pain of how our choices, behaviors, and word have negatively impacted the lives of those around us. Arterburn writes, “If you hope to make peace with your appetites, you must realize that you are responsible for yourself, your choices, the consequences of those choices, and seeking the help necessary to change” (3). There is no one else we should blame for the problems we face today. Regardless of our background, childhood experiences, or current situation, as adults we are responsible for ourselves and how we choose to live. Moreover, there is no one else who can make these changes for us. Any change that you hope to make must be made by you and accomplished through the power of the Holy Spirit.
As Christians, we tend to forget we have access to the power of the Holy Spirit living within us. It is God’s Spirit that fuels regeneration, and it is God’s Spirit that provides for our sanctification. Jesus told the disciples, “These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:25-26). When we accept Christ as our LORD and Savior, we are sealed by the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, we forget what this means for our lives. Paul writes, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Eph. 1:13-14). Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, we receive wisdom, power, encouragement, and strength as we battle the enemy. The fruit of this presence in our lives includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law (see Gal. 5:22-23). Having been crucified with Christ, we are no longer under the authority of sin or Satan (Gal. 5:24; 1 John 2:14; James 4:7).
Our appetites will naturally grow out of control when we focus on ourselves and our wants. We become obsessed with our own needs and desires; self-indulgent and self-centered; intent on pleasing ourselves instead of God or others. Developing a sense of purpose is a critical first step; it involves asking what we can do for the greater good of society. Contributing to society in a positive manner takes our focus off of self. Twelve-step programs call this “getting out of your own head.” Discovering our purpose in life helps improve our self-esteem and find true meaning for our existence. Mark Twain said, “The two most important days in your life are the day you were born and the day you find out why.” Consider the four great questions man asks himself: Where did I come from? Why am I here? What is the basis for good and evil? Where am I going when I die.
When we are growing spiritually, the fruit of the Spirit becomes very appealing to us. We come to understand that only this fruit will truly satisfy our appetites. When we are filled with the Holy Spirit, we have less desire to be filled with the lusts of the flesh. This is why Paul writes, “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor. 10:13).
Amazingly, the same temptations we face were presented by Satan to Jesus in the wilderness: the appetite for food (Matt. 4:2-30); the appetite for status and prestige (4:5-6); the appetite for power and control (4:8-9). We have three choices available to us as we take on the temptation of our out-of-control appetites. First, we can respond by giving in to the flesh. Second, we can use rationalization or intellectualizing to excuse our fleshly responses. Third, we can respond with the wisdom and power we have through the Holy Spirit. Remarkably, God is not telling us to eliminate all desire. Rather, we are told “…delight yourself in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psa. 37:4).
(1) Les and Leslie Parrot, Real Relationships: From Bad to Better and Good to Great (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 21.
(2) Parrot, Ibid., 57.
(3) Stephen Arterburn, Feeding Your Appetites: Take Control of What’s Controlling You (Nashville, TN: Integrity Publishers, 2004), 49.