Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Adventures in Accountability (AKA: Why Silly Schemes Never Work)

Money: Good for spending, good for saving, good for deterring sin...

Or so I thought...

As a broke, hormonal college student, I came up with a seemingly brilliant plan to kick my lustful habits after taking in a particularly fascinating lecture on the Psychology of Learning. We had been studying various theories of behavior modification, including the infamous concepts of punishment and reward, and it got the wheels in my mind a turnin' as to how I could implement greater self-control in my sex life (ahem, "sex life"...I don't feel as though I need to elaborate on that for you singles...).

Sheer willpower alone simply wasn't cutting it: When the frustration was high, I threw consequence to the wind and allowed lust to take over. "I could be strong if I wanted to...," I reasoned. Yet, I often wasn't...simply because I didn't want to be. In those moments, I wanted fun and feeling more than I wanted a particular fruit of the Spirit. So, without plain ole self-control, I decided to become my own psychological case study and test out some behavior mod plans. The first and most infamous involved a valuable and rare commodity on

Money, as we know, is a powerful motivator (ever get paid for doing your chores or getting good grades as a kid? Well, neither did I, but you see my point in principle...). By default, then, I assumed that lack of money would create an equally substantial push towards transformation. Especially for a college student (The saying is true: "There's broke...then there's college broke..."). In my ORU days, I could not conceive of anything more tragic than losing a precious $20 bill. And BOOM, in that instant, that dramatic possibility fused together with the concept of "negative punishment" just extrapolated upon by Dr. Feller.

"THAT is how I'm gonna kick this lust problem!" I shouted in victory (okay, maybe not shouted...) and ran to tell my brilliant little plan to my best friend down the hall.

"Okay, you have to be my accountability partner," I told her (busting out the requisite Christianese that my pricey Christian education taught me).

"Um...okay. For what?"

"You know what..." I glared at her, "but I have this AMAZING plan that's gonna help so much!"

I then proceeded to tell her the details of what has now become infamously known as the "Burn a $20 experiment." Yes, you read that right. Just like the name implied, every time I found myself indulging in a particular lustful habit, I would force myself to confess it to my friend, grab a lighter and painfully watch a $20 bill from my own wallet slowly disintegrate in flames. The very thought was disheartening. Surely, I would never give into lust again!

"Whoa, that's intense!" my friend said, "Are you sure?"

No price was too high to maintain my purity, I declared. Yes, THIS would be the elusive sin cure I had been looking for! (I had high hopes to market this wonderful little scheme to the rest of the college population soon...).

For weeks, I victoriously prevailed. Until one day...I didn't.

Uh oh. Here goes "the plan"...

Trouble was, I was broke. I didn't even have $20 in my bank account...much less my wallet! Hmmm...this unfortunate scenario had not been factored into my clever scheme...

I DID, however, confess my folly to my good ole AP. She told me not to feel bad...she had screwed up too and was in the same boat (lust runs rampant on the Christian college campus...).

"Just call this grace this time..." she told me.

Long story short, grace became the name of the game. It was so "convenient" that every time I fell into sin, I didn't have enough money to punish myself for my mistake (or I did, but I had a bill to pay or some other excuse why I couldn't part with my precious dinero). Eventually, the sin debt I racked up was far too high for me to pay back (much less keep track of). Thus, I dubbed the whole ritual ridiculous and abolished it. Never once did I bust out a lighter or a match. In theory, my plan was fool-proof. In practice, I just realized how much "brilliant plans" tend to suck. Especially when all they teach you to do is become a little Pharisee...

Years later, I look back at that stage and I laugh at myself. I really did think that behavior modification techniques would keep me out of trouble. Trouble is, they only dealt with my actions...not with my heart.

Jesus said the heart is what counts. He condemned the Pharisees for being "white-washed tombs," striving to look all holy on the outside (doing all the "right" things), while inside they were rotting away with the sin of pride. In the case of King David, the Bible tells us very clearly that "Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart" (1 Samuel 16:7).

Creating our own little rules for minimizing sin gets us nowhere. It might work for a season (or in the case of "Burn a $20," not at all), but in the end, it will never get us what we want. Behavior modification will never lead to heart transformation...which is ultimately what we are so deeply craving...

Don't fool yourself: A lust problem (as with any sin problem) is always a heart problem. As much as we try to sugarcoat it, chalk it up to "just feeling horny" or rationalize that it affects no one else but us (ahem, lie), it is very much connected to the deepest emotional/spiritual needs within us.

I dare you to be honest with God the next time you want to give into lust. Tell Him what you're feeling...honestly ("I really wanna ______ right now!"). He knows your sex drive...He created it! Trust me, He can handle anything you have to confess to Him. So, in that moment of decision (where you always have a window to escape from the intensity of the temptation...1 Corinthians 10:13), I dare you to ASK God: "Why do I want this so much?" I can guarantee that if your heart is not calloused and you still actually DO desire purity, the answer will relate to your heart, not your hormones...

We give into lust for a lot of reasons...we're bored, depressed, stressed...but primarily, we go there for one very significant (and deeply painful) reason...we're lonely. We long for a love that is deep, transcendent and real. When we are honest, we want more than just an orgasm. We want to be close to someone. We want to be embraced. We want to share that moment with someone who knows us deeply...someone who we trust.

Blame it on the romantic in me, but THESE are the desires reflected back at me every time I ask God to reveal my heart in moments of lust. Lust is so painfully counterfeit...and always leaves us empty. That's because deep down, our hearts know we were made for more...

For years, I thought I had "overcome" sexual sin through behavior modification. Living by a series of pop-psychological (Pharisaical?) techniques, I learned to carefully control my actions whist carefully neglecting my heart (it hurt too much to deal with...). I even taught those willpower methods to my discipleship students (lol...and "Burn a $20" didn't make the list, fyi). And although I do think those techniques were wise discipleship methods, without deep soul surgery, they only bandage a wound. I know that because for all those years I abstained, old habits returned shockingly quickly and became just as ritual as they once were when I abandoned my self-control. Simply because I failed to keep my heart pure.

My life as a white-washed tomb...

Yet, my friend was right...we can always call it grace. Or call on grace, to be precise. Jesus rebuked the Pharisees because they thought they could count on their clever rules to fix their lives. They thought they could forget the internal stuff. They thought they didn't really need God...or His amazing gift of grace.

But nothing else...and no one else...can heal a heart. And if you struggle with lust, odds are, you need less "rule making" and behavior modification...and much, much more of the Heavenly Father's life-transforming love invading your heart.

Got idle hands? Take hold of THAT...

"And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God."
Ephesians 3:17-19