Whether we struggle with harmful relationships, substance abuse, addictions, or other conflicts, lasting change can seem impossible. Yet, the transformation God offers is the most natural thing in the world—humans responding to their Creator’s love and compassion. The human soul was designed for this intimate relationship; recovery occurs when we are restored in oneness with our Lord.1
Your response might be, “I tried praying more (or going to a support group, or…) and it didn’t work! What are you saying that’s different from all those other so-called solutions?”
To understand how this approach is different, we must move from the minutia of your specific problem to a larger view of the dis-integration of the human person. To help set the framework, consider the story of the Titanic.
In its day, the Titanic was hailed as an engineering marvel—the greatest sailing ship ever built. Despite his responsibility for more than 2200 passengers and crew, the captain ignored numerous ice warnings in an effort to prove the ships’ superiority. When the ship finally struck the iceberg, the crew was ill-equipped to handle the emergency and many people were denied entrance to the lifeboats that could have saved their lives. In the end, a lack of foresight and planning, the failure to heed clear warnings, and a pride placing image above safety led to one of the greatest maritime disasters ever.
We are all familiar with this story, but few of us see the parallels to our own lives. We often act self-assured and reckless, convinced of our superiority, even as we navigate the same dangerous courses. People said of the famous ship, “God, Himself couldn’t sink the Titanic.” Isn’t this how many of us approach our own lives? Whether or not we say it as plainly, an attitude of invincibility is evident in how we drive, eat, relate, and amuse ourselves.
The parallels don’t end there: The Titanic’s owners failed to set proper priorities. One would think, with a first class ticket costing about $50,000 in today’s currency, they would have purchased a few more lifeboats! Hindsight allows us to shake our heads at their oversight, even as many of us barge headlong into our own treacherous waters.
A warning of inclement weather would not delay the Titanic’s much-heralded maiden voyage. In fact, in an effort to get there quicker (and make the new ship even more marketable), the Captain sped up. In similar ways, we also ignore warning signals in our lives, aggressively promoting ourselves to gain others’ approval.
A computer simulation of the crash indicated there would have been less damage and loss of life if the ship had hit the iceberg head-on, instead of trying to skirt around it at the last minute. That point hits close to home, too, doesn’t it? Even when our foolhardy behaviors lead us on a collision course, we do all we can to avoid the impact, rather than face our struggle head on. We deny, lie, ignore, shift blame, lash out, and further medicate ourselves to avoid coming to the conclusion that our life is quickly sinking.
Ironically, it is often only after we hit our own iceberg and begin sinking that we are willing to acknowledge all the icebergs dotting our course. Many require a disaster in the making before waking to inherent dangers we have invited for so long.
This is what some call a moment of clarity: We finally see the truth that things are not right in our life. We want to change, but have no idea where to begin. If you are at such a point, you can apply the lessons learned from the Titanic to your own conflict and how to work toward a transformed life.
A simple diagram
These ideas will make more sense if you diagram them on a sheet of paper. All you need is piece of paper, a pencil, an honest approach, and a desire to truly understand what has gone wrong in your life.
Start by drawing a triangle. This is your iceberg. Next, add a horizontal line just beneath the peak to represent the water level. Then, draw two more horizontal lines, dividing the “underwater” section into three levels.
The tip: my behavior
Label the tip above the water “behaviors.” To the side, list all the specific actions related to your struggle. This may include viewing porn, gorging on food, yelling at the kids, treating people disrespectfully, or any other undesirable behavior. While you’re not yet able to change these behaviors – since change begins in the deeper levels – the goal here is to help you get out of denial and take ownership of your problem.
For most people, a serious look into their problem behavior (sin) brings shame and fear of disapproval and rejection. Before succumbing to those negative reactions, remember to not be concerned with what other people think of you. You belong to God and should focus on pleasing Him.
Looking at our list, it is easy for us to see how we have disobeyed and displeased God. Yet, the Bible is full of stories of God’s compassion. Recall the story of the shepherd who left 99 sheep to look for the lost one, or the woman who searched her entire house for one lost coin. God delights in our love and obedience, but He also tells us that all of heaven rejoices more over the repentance of one sinner than from the prayers of many righteous men. God desires not to punish us, but to draw us close in an embrace. He’s not the traffic cop; but the Dad calling for His child to come out of the busy street.
Nevertheless, bad behavior demands attention. Whether it’s uncontrolled anger, marital infidelity, or compulsive shopping, habitual sin hurts us and those we love. Unfortunately, our solutions typically concentrate only on fixing the offending behavior. If it were possible to lop off the top of an iceberg, would the danger be gone? Of course not. A new portion of the iceberg would rise to the surface and replace the old tip. Trying to correct the behavior, without identifying the larger issues, simply leads to new “bad” behaviors rising to the surface.
The behaviors you listed earlier are the first visible warnings that your ship is in trouble. Like the tip of Titanic’s berg, these behaviors signal the presence of a larger danger lurking below the surface.
Instead of trying to fix our behaviors at this point, let’s learn from them instead. View them as a signal, indicating “Here lies something deeper!” Long before we develop problem behaviors, our thoughts, emotions, and spirits are in turmoil.
Beneath the surface: my thoughts
The next section of the iceberg, just beneath the water, represents our thoughts. Distorted thinking usually fuels bad behavior. Instead of responding appropriately to troublesome people, events, urges, etc… we react, caving in to our damaged thoughts about them. We can’t change a single behavior until we change the thoughts that sanction and sponsor them.
David Walsh, Ph.D., President of the National Institute on Media and the Family, stated, “Our mental operating software is being formed from the moment we are born.”2 Therefore, what is downloaded into our minds form the building blocks of not just behavior, but character.
Most of the time, we move through life without conscious awareness of our thought life. It’s sobering to realize our thoughts reveal our belief systems about ourselves, men, women, God and every other aspect of life. What do your thoughts reveal about you? Take a few minutes to jot down a thought “inventory.” Ask yourself:
What are my compulsive and/or self-defeating patterns of thought?
Maybe you struggle with intrusive thoughts, such as shame about past mistakes, worry over the future, or just preoccupying compulsions in the here and now. Many people particularly struggle with pornographic images they cannot escape, even some from years ago. If your thought life were a budget, would it contain wasteful items? Simply being aware of how we’re spending our mental energy is an important first step toward cognitive wholeness.
Are there things I can learn from my conflicts? What might they be?
Have you been trying the same solutions hoping to get a different result? How might you be perpetuating your own problems? Especially if this is a long-term problem, what might God want to teach you through it? Think of ways He might help you respond, rather than continuing to react.
What authors, counselors, and helpers will I trust?
I’ve never personally met some of the best mentors I’ve ever had. My wife even teases that I only read things written by “the dead guys.” I once that we will be the same a year from now as we are right this minute, except for the people we meet and the books we read. Avail yourself of the wealth of wisdom to be had from Godly counselors – dead or alive!
Will I screen everything by a Biblical worldview?
Our worldview determines our approach to everything we encounter. Do you base your choices on God’s principles or just bounce along reacting to each situation, trying to avoid conflict? Confusing problems become simpler when viewed through the filter of God’s Word. It’s much safer to let the compass of Scripture determine the course than to just go in the direction appearing least treacherous at the moment.
What do I think about God, others, and myself?
Imagine your thoughts as books on a shelf. Various people, such as parents and teachers, contributed volumes through the years. Which ones have served you well? Are there any you would throw out? Do you believe things about God based on what He says or what someone else told you? Instead of absorbing others’ opinions of you, find out what He thinks about you. You might be pleasantly surprised.
What have I downloaded into my mind?
Our culture continually spams our minds. Friends, politicians, authors, family members, pornographers, teachers, scriptwriters, preachers, salespeople and countless others vie for the opportunity to drop thoughts into our brains. Even my efforts in this article are designed to challenge how you think about yourself and God.
Our brains are the most sophisticated computers ever created—designed with unlimited hard drives. We take everything in, good and bad, as the brain scans the environment through our senses. Men, women, and especially children are incredibly susceptible to whatever hits their senses with the greatest frequency and intensity.