This article is about both who we may be now, and who we can become even though it may be so hard that it appears impossible. I’ll start off by saying that at one time I was a smoker, and even though after a while I didn’t want to be a smoker I couldn’t just stop being a smoker. I was a smoker and my mind and body were determined that I was going to stay a smoker! It was a huge struggle for me.
The Apostle Paul writes in the book of Romans about the struggles with following God. He doesn’t mince words either. He calls it a war!
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (Rom 7:14-24 ESV)
This is no joke or hyperbole. And I believe that Paul is talking about believers here, although I acknowledge that some teach that this was only the struggle of those under the law while others teach that this war is the inner struggle of many believers.i
If you are struggling with something that you may even see as impossible then you are experiencing this war. There are people who want to change something about their life but for one reason or another struggle to the point where the change just doesn’t happen. It could be quitting smoking or drinking too much, or not taking care of your body, or being in a wrong relationship with someone you shouldn’t be, or working in a dead-end job when you have the desire to do something more suited to your talents and dreams.
Let’s talk about decisions. Everybody knows that some decisions are harder than others. You’re in a hurry to get somewhere so you quickly eat some cereal and take a cup of coffee for the road. That was an easy decision. And lots of decisions are easy. We have a number of clothes outfits we wear on a regular basis. We may or may not take a minute to decide which, but the decision is still relatively quick. Innumerable decisions are made this way; which shoes to wear, what time to leave, where to walk today, what to have for lunch etc. Oh, we might occasionally agonize on important dates or momentarily day to day, but there is just not time to agonize over everything so we decide rather quickly on many decisions.
However, I have seen that the more expensive something is and the longer that I will own something I take more time and effort to choose carefully. So I may make pro and con lists, spreadsheets comparing qualities and quantities, and pour over review sites. Buying a car, choosing a school, deciding which job to take, these are huge decisions for a lot of us and we can really focus and put all our skills to use to make these. But they are still not that hard to make, relatively speaking.
Some decisions we make can be easy to make but have hard to change consequences later, When I was a senior in high school I was with people that smoked cigarettes. I decided to do that occasionally when I was with them. My dad had smoked most of my life and so many adults smoked that it wasn’t funny. Yes, there were Surgeon general warnings on cigarette packs but the media, TV shows depicting cool characters smoking, TV ads doing the same, made whatever risk appear not very impactful. The media promoted smoking literally everywhere you looked. When I was in college so many smoked there I decided to start smoking cigarettes daily. Nicotine seemed to give me an edge and help me focus,
It is important to realize that my decision to become a habitual user of cigarettes was a gradual one that was many years in the making. In fact, for a long time, I thought I could quit at any time, the foolishness of my youth.
I didn’t suddenly wake up in college and realize I was a smoker. I was seduced by it, the taste of it, the quick rush of nicotine, the relaxing effect sometimes, even the social aspect of gathering regularly with the smokers. I had a little reservation about the surgeon general’s warning but the lure was too big. After about 5 years I was a pack and a half a day man.
So by then, I was one of the people that started realizing that I needed to change something. I started trying to quit, but never for very long. The illusion that I could stop like I could years before was a fantasy I quickly realized as I tried to stop and failed numerous times.
By the time I was was in my thirties I was smoking even more but I coughed regularly, and cigarettes along with my allergies combined to give me chronic bronchitis.
I tried quitting any number of times and fell back into it every time more quickly each time. There were so many times when a “smoke” just felt good and when I was in one of those times I really had a powerful urge to smoke. There’s first thing in the morning, and there’s after meals. There are the coffee breaks where I was used to gathering with the smokers, and there were times with beer and friends. The urge at any one of those times was powerful and relentless.
I had researched stop-smoking programs, and I had heard some training on what was required to genuinely commit to stop smoking. The concept boiled down this: no matter what aids you use you have to decide that you want to NOT smoke more than you want to smoke. That sounds easy, but it’s not. It’s very hard. The urge to smoke was overpowering me every time I tried to quit. This was no light whim or fancy. I was discouraged by the number of times I had so easily started back smoking.
But the concept made sense. To quit successfully you have to have more of the desire to NOT do it than to do it at every possible temptation.
Have you ever heard the expression, “God is in the details?” This expression refers to the truth that an overview of the plan doesn’t work. Just saying I want to quit without thinking it through was my recipe for disaster. You have to do the detail work. In this case, the detail work is to build up the desire for each and every case where I might be tempted to stop. I recognized that I had some desire to change but when that temptation came, my desire wasn’t stronger than the temptation. So I learned to focus on each scenario when I was in it. I thought about waking up and feeling the desire to smoke and then I focused on building my desire to NOT smoke when I was in that scenario. I rehearsed what I would say to myself in that scenario. I did each scenario that way. I started building the desire to NOT smoke in each situation like waking up, breaks, when I feel stressed, around other smokers, having a beer, etc.
The next part of the plan involves what to do in all the tempting scenarios. We do things because we get some benefit from them. Smoking is relaxing, Smoking has a taste. Smoking and talking go together for a lot of smokers. Smoking gives a pickup. How was I going to replace those benefits? Part of this concept of quitting smoking involves replacing the benefits of smoking with healthier alternatives.
It was months before I finally decided I had the desire to overcome smoking. For actions, I decided to chew gum, do deep breathing exercises, exercise more, drink more coffee if I needed a pick me up, talk with the non-smoking crowd, and avoid the scenario altogether if possible.
The gum was easy to do. I bought lots of gum to always have a taste I liked, and something to do with my mouth. I exercised more and did more deep breathing exercises. I did allow myself to drink more coffee, I stopped hanging out with the smokers, and started talking with the non-smokers. And I tried to stay away from the smokers even in a bar having a beer, but that wasn’t easy at that time because the second-hand smoke in bars back then was so bad. Eventually, I had to avoid bars with any significant smoke.
Every time I was tempted to smoke I focused on the desire I had built to NOT smoke more than that desire to smoke! It was working! It took time because I knew the desire to not smoke had to be more powerful than the very powerful urges to smoke that I was experiencing.
I stopped successfully! Or so I thought! I lasted six months. Then I was at a bar having a beer with a friend, and I thought to myself, I have cigarettes beat, but that smoke smells so good. I know I could have just one and not start again. Boy, how wrong I was! Soon my habit was back full strength. I was so disappointed! And my bronchitis was back, and the cough! And, my wife was pregnant with my son!
I prayed about my dilemma. I knew that the plan had worked except that I hadn’t seen one detail The one scenario I hadn’t planned for was after I had quit for a while and I am tempted to think that I can have one cigarette now and then like before I smoked habitually.
The plan needs to have a provision for handling a relapse and mine didn’t at that point.
So I followed the plan again. And this time it included the scenario of having just one cigarette after I quit for a while. I again took my time, And before my son was born, I quit for good.
I’m proud of that decision and that I was able to carry it out.
So it took me maybe 5 years to quit smoking from my late twenties to the age of thirty-three, But after I failed a bunch of times and really planned it right to the point I knew I could quit it took only about a minute to quit. I just knew I was ready this time.
This time I still was very tempted all the times I had been before; after a meal, with a beer, at a break and so on and so forth. And this time I knew I knew I couldn’t just smoke one. And I haven’t for thirty-some years.
There are people who say that God just takes away the desire for something and they can stop doing something they have been doing wrong for a long time. I believe that some people do get that blessing. Or maybe we all do on different things. But, at least sometimes, stopping something we know we need to stop can be very, very hard and take a lot of work. And even then, only if you want to do the right thing more than the other option will you be successful. You may need to get help for any number of sources including counselors, programs, support people, and more. And you need to not be shocked if you relapse and need to further intensify your efforts to make the change permanent.
Years ago I was running a fellowship when a younger man started attending. After a meeting, he asked if he could talk to me. He told me he was gay and asked what I thought about it and what he should do about it. He didn’t have a long term partner, he was in a series of short term relationships. He said he wanted to get out of the lifestyle but just couldn’t after repeated attempts.
I told him along the lines of what I have written about here on this website (see H1 Homosexuality Revisited). He said that he had tried reparative therapy but it didn’t work for him and some others he knew that had tried it with poor results. He told me of strategies that included professional help, all unsuccessful to that point. The lure of the gay lifestyle overpowered him time and time again even though he had decided to stop numerous times,
I told him that I had little experience with the area other than hearing what a difficult struggle it was. I prayed with him and shared with him my struggles with cigarettes and other things. What I had heard were key elements were thinking through the steps to get out of the lifestyle including avoiding places, media that promoted the gay lifestyle, other gays, and so forth that are part of the lure and replacing them with people, places, and media that promote Godly sexuality. I advised him to find more qualified people than myself to help him. I told him we could talk and pray whenever he wanted. He occasionally came to the fellowship, and we would talk afterward. But He couldn’t break free. I didn’t see him after a while.
Then after years had gone by he caught up with me just to tell me that he had done it. The key for him was finding someone else who had done it and really connecting with that person.
He did it. But even though he had wanted to do it for years it took him all those years to finally get there. He had stopped the lifestyle and relapsed numerous times. But he didn’t quit and kept going. He finally was very happy and at peace with where he was.
There are other hard decisions that could apply here as well. Most people who lose a lot of weight gain it back. Most people know that maintaining weight loss is very difficult. There are articles that say the failure rate is as high as 90%ii Additionally one article says that more weight you gain the slower your metabolism becomes. This makes it harder to lose weight the more weight you gain.
Yet there are people that do.
Also I wasn’t a nonsmoker who happened to smoke, I was a smoker. My friend wasn’t a straight person who had a few gay experiences: he was totally gay.
I was a smoker, now I am not, My young fried was gay, now he is not. But it was neither easy nor fast
Words are often easy to say but the action behind those words can be very difficult.
The Apostle Paul’s solution to the war is at the beginning of Romans chapters 8 and 12:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. (Rom 8:1-2 ESV)
As believers, we have this very Spirit of life in us. But we need to follow it with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. Here’s how:
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. (Rom 8:5-6 ESV)
These verses lay out the battle strategy for winning the war, When I smoked my mind was set on the lifestyle of smoking, I looked forward to the morning smoke, smoking with the crowd, having a smoke after this event or that. My gay friend looked forward to his encounters and relationshonips with other gays. Our minds were set on these things and we stayed in them even though at times we wanted out. That was death to us.
But when I started scheming in my mind about life without cigarettes I started winning the war. When my friend connected with an ex-gay and followed his lifestyle his mind became set on the victory he wanted. When we finally got our minds changed we won those wars,
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Rom 12:1-2 ESV)
The world may tell you how appealing it is to smoke. It may lure you with the concepts of casual sex, adultery, the gay lifestyle, and more. You may want to comfort and indulge yourself with the deliciousness of food way more than you need. These concepts apply to every area of life. Gossiping looks like fun, the next thing you know you are part of the evil rumor mill. The world says “everyone cheats”, maybe you should, even if just a little. The world says “everyone lies. go ahead, everyone does it”. The world says “you can take that. They have plenty.” Or “it’s covered by insurance.” The list goes on and on.
But Romans chapter 12 starts with saying that presenting our bodies as holy sacrifices, giving up these attractions of the flesh is our spiritual worship!
And Romans 12:2 says that it is in the changing (renewing) of our minds that this process can happen! Changing your mind may sound easy. But it can be very hard, and take years on some things.
Victory is available, and hopefully won’t be that hard, but you must be ready to go to war if necessary.
iiWeighing the Facts: The Tough Truth About Weight Loss, MARSCHALL S. RUNGE, M.D., PH.D. April 12, 2017 , at https://healthblog.uofmhealth.org/health-management/weighing-facts-tough-truth-about-weight-loss