Part 3 of the series:
When Faith Doesn’t Work
by Don Enevoldsen
The problem is simple: How do we stop running from bees, the sound of bees, the thought of bees, and maintain a rational, controlled reaction to life?
Perhaps I’ve over-personalized that. Let me rephrase the question (which is still pretty simple): How do we overcome those behavior patterns that we’ve never been able at any time in the past to overcome?
In nearly five decades of involvement in church life, most of it in ministry, I’ve tried (and watched others try) basically five different methods. There are many nuances to these solutions, but this covers the basics. None of them have worked. The following synopsis will undoubtedly upset some because it will contradict a substantial amount of sacred preaching, but I would be disingenuous and hypocritical if I pretended any of them did work. And we have more than enough disingenuousness already. We’ve learned to repeat the religious mantra that we are blessed, delivered, healed, etc., regardless of the reality. Don’t let anyone think you’re a failure, after all. You might be asked to leave the church.
I belong to a people of faith, so naturally I turned first to prayer. I’ve seen amazing and miraculous things happen as a result of prayer. And on occasion, people seem to be genuinely delivered and the problem goes away.
At least that’s what I would like to believe, because it fits with my understanding of faith. But to be completely honest, the cases of miraculous deliverance that I’ve been around, when tracked for a period of time afterwards, usually showed unmistakable signs of relapse. Even if they managed to avoid the original behavior, they still struggle with the temptations. It is generally a partial deliverance at best.
Before you conclude that I’ve taken leave of my spiritual stability, let me explain what I have seen prayer do, and what I have seen prayer unable to do. Prayer removes external influences that wrap themselves around a problem. This generally can be defined in a couple of categories.
When circumstances such as poverty, physical health or an oppressive environment (work, family, etc.) create so much distraction, pain or pressure that a person can’t really find a moment of peace to take a deep breath, much less pray or study, deliverance from the circumstances can provide the window of opportunity needed to deal with core beliefs. The prayer of faith can bring miraculous provision so that every waking moment is not consumed with survival. The prayer of faith can bring miraculous healing so that pain or nausea no longer keep a person’s mind preoccupied.
When the external problem is a demonic attachment or a generational curse, people often can’t see through the spiritual fog enough to even figure out what they need. The prayer of faith can deliver us from those spiritual influences that obscure our perceptions of reality.
What the prayer of faith does not do is change the core belief that caused the problem in the first place. Spiritual opposition and generational curses did not attach themselves arbitrarily. They came into the picture because of the faulty core belief that made room for them. Jesus described a situation in which a demon was cast out and then came back later to find his former residence swept clean and empty (Matthew 12:43-45). He got some friends and moved back in.
Demons can be cast out, but you cannot cast out yourself. Laying hands on yourself might attract enough attention to get you locked up somewhere, but it won’t get to the root of the problem. If you don’t change what you believe, you will continue to have the same problems you always had.
Dennis Burke said it this way: “Faith changes things. Grace changes people.” You can go to the altar for special prayer every time there’s a service, and you will experience renewed freedom from a variety of external hindrances, which will undoubtedly feel like deliverance, but until your belief system changes, the relief will be temporary.
2. Just Say No
The logic behind this solution is simple and compelling: Before you were saved, sin ruled your life. Now that you are saved, you still have a sinful nature residing in you, but you also have the choice to decide not to sin. So just say, “NO!” (For an amusing illustration of this technique, watch the Bob Newhart sketch called “Stop It” on YouTube.)
Unfortunately, this whole idea is directly contradicted by Scripture. As simple as it sounds, and as often as it has been propounded in religious conversation, not even the apostle Paul could conquer everything. He admitted to the believers in Rome that he had the “desire to do what is good,” but instead found that “what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:14-15) Apparently will power isn’t enough.
Neither is knowledge that something is wrong:
“Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.” (Colossians 2:20-23)
My experience in ministry tells me that if you CAN say no, it really wasn’t a problem stemming from your core beliefs. I can easily and consistently say no to a second helping of pumpkin pie. But I don’t like pumpkin pie. Chocolate is a very different problem.
3. Take Every Thought Captive
Taken from 2 Corinthians 10:3-6, this idea suggests that it is a matter of catching yourself every time the thought of your besetting sin comes into your mind, capturing that thought before it has time to develop, and replacing it with some other thought. Think only about things that are good (Philippians 4:8-9) and you will never be drawn into wrong behavior.
I believe there is great value in positive thinking. The problem is in the effort to constantly do that when contrary thoughts keep slipping in every time I let my guard down. When the negative thought is created in my core beliefs about myself and about life, putting a positive thought over the top of it is about as effective as putting a band-aid over a knife wound. It covers the blood so I don’t have to look at it, but the pain is still there and impossible to ignore, no matter how much I focus on the band-aid.
When the real problem is in your core beliefs, the effort to guard your thoughts will prove downright exhausting. Sooner or later you have a weak moment, your guard drops, and you succumb. Even when you don’t give in, the thought refuses to go away for more than a short time. It is almost as though by taking the thought captive, you trap it inside your head where you have to live with it constantly, twenty-four hours a day. There is no escape from it.
4. Get an Accountability Partner
Find someone who will regularly check on you to make sure you are staying true to a commitment to stay pure and sinless. The scriptural basis for this is James 5:16. Confess your weaknesses to one another and pray for each other so that you may be healed.
This is a good practice, and will help move you closer to the goal, but as with the other attempts, there is usually some behavior characteristic that can’t seem to be touched by this.
The biggest problem with accountability is that you will only be as accountable as you choose to be. Most people answer truthfully when their partner checks on them—until they actually fall. Then they lie, say that they have been clean, and tell themselves that they will not do it again. That was the last time. Before long the lies become the regular answer. Even if you admit to an accountability partner that you have failed, the worst you can expect is a reprimand and an encouragement to try again. The problem is still there.
5. Give Up
Most of us eventually just quit trying, trusting to the mercy and forgiveness of a loving God to avoid punishment for what we have been unable to change. Of course God is merciful, but that doesn’t make us any less miserable as we live in the consequences of our sin and the shame of knowing we are failures and hypocrites.
Do you have an additional thought on this subject that will assist our search for truth? Please join the discussion and share your insights.