March 7, 2010
The Third Sunday in Lent
The television commercial for one of those electronic stores opens with a couple of guys ‘vegging’ on the couch, watching TV. A voiceover says that on average, Americans watch six hours of television every day. Then, boom! The screen comes alive with shots of brand-new television sets, including flat-panel plasma screens, rear-projection and surround-sound systems. The voiceover now says: “Let’s try to up that to seven hours a day!”
Watching television is no sin, but it might be an addiction — a soft addiction, according to Judith Wright, author of There Must Be More to Life: Finding More Life, Love and Meaning by Overcoming Your Soft Addictions. She compares two women in her study. The first uses television as a learning tool to explore the world and understand history and culture. She finds it rewarding to learn about the eating habits of the African Ashanti tribe of Ghana, or the mating habits of the Big-Headed Amazon River turtle in South America.
The second woman doesn’t use television this way. For her, after a stress-filled day, television is a means to get away from it all. Rather than wanting to be stimulated, she wants to be numbed. So she ‘vegges’. Wright says that “the first woman uses television to enhance her life; the second woman uses it to escape from her life.”
You gotta do what you gotta do, right?
But the apostle Paul has another approach in this well-known passage about temptation. Unfortunately, any discussion about temptation and addiction goes right past most of us, because most of us (not all) do not have to deal with hard-core addictions and temptations.
Paul admits that in the past, the Israelites had some serious addictive behaviors to deal with. They “set their minds on evil things”; idolatry, sexual immorality, grumbling and complaining. For the Hebrew children, these were some of the quintessential “deadly sins” which left “their bodies … scattered over the desert.”
But soft addictions and temptations are another matter. Maybe like working too much, consumerism (we spend too much on things we don’t really need), chocolate, neglecting the family, spreading gossip, undermining a coworker, neglecting your daily prayer life, chocolate, preferring to read anything but the word of God, a hankering for the latest and most fashionable clothes, spending too much time at Car Toys, and did we mention chocolate?
Or that need, that deep, probing need to get the new I-Phone that allows you to browse the Internet at speeds faster than most dial-up connections; check personal and corporate e-mail; watch clips and stream audio for news and music; download polyphonic, animated and voice ringers, and that has full-color, graphically rich games and screen savers. Yes! Exciting, isn’t it? What we live for!
Things like that could be “Soft Addictions”.
We’re talking about behaviors that in and of themselves are neither moral nor immoral, good nor bad, right nor wrong. The goodness or badness, the rightness or wrongness of these things are determined entirely by motivation, intention and attachment. When you’re watching television like the second person of Judith Wright’s study; wanting to escape, looking for an altered state of consciousness, and find yourself doing that a lot, then you’ve got a problem.
The big problem, however, is not what soft addictions do to yourself, or to others, but what they do in your relationship with God. When we’re tempted to give even soft addictions priority in our lives, God tends to get shoved aside. And that leads to a spiritual desert of parched earth, barren soil and a fruitless life.
Paul reassures us that the temptations we face are “common to everyone”. Neither we nor the temptations we face are unique, but they do impact our relationship with God, and that’s a problem we can’t, or we shouldn’t ignore.
Not sure you have any soft addictions? Check it out:
Do you Zone Out? When you’re doing this, your eyeballs go on screen saver mode and your mind is somewhere outside your body. Granted, we all need time to decompress from the stress of life, but there are more productive ways of doing it than numbing ourselves through mindless activity. If you have to zone out, meditation might be an option, or Centering Prayer.
Is this behavior Compulsive? A soft temptation is usually something that an irresistible urge drives you to do. You feel helpless and powerless when doing this activity, and you probably feel guilty about it when it’s over. Whether it’s eating too much, watching bad TV, surfing the underbelly of the Internet or even impulse shopping; the compulsive nature of temptation drives us into a very isolated corner of our souls. You swear you’ll never do it again, but though you try to stop, you can’t. It’s a vicious cycle.
Excuses and explanations are the grease that keeps the wheels of soft addictions turning. If we feel a need to justify our activities to ourselves or others, then we’re probably hooked. The distorted thinking that got us into the addiction in the first place makes it easier to justify the indulgence. Some examples:
· “This designer dress is really an investment.”
· “This doughnut has no calories if I eat it standing up.”
· “I can’t exercise this afternoon because I already showered this morning.”
· “Wide-screen TVs are easier on your eyes.”
· “All of this shopping is good for the economy.”
· “But I’m earning frequent-flier miles.”
Do we attempt to hide the behavior? A habit becomes a soft addiction when it must be done in secret in order to be enjoyed. Lying, backtracking and covering up the evidence are the methods of operating for the seriously tempted. In other words, you feel ashamed of what you’re doing and that’s why you want to hide it from others.
Are we looking to avoid feelings? Many of us spend our lives avoiding deeper issues and feelings, whether positive or negative. Soft temptations put us into an “emotion-muting state” where numbness, exclusion of others and wallowing in unsettled feelings become a way of coping with both the good and the bad of life. It’s a fact that leads many of us to be more engaged in watching and experiencing the feelings and emotions of a TV family than we are in our own.
The bottom line is that soft addictions/temptations are symptoms of deeper needs in our lives; needs for relationships, intimacy and meaning, and they can keep us from living an abundant life, the life that God wants to give us.
Paul reminds the Corinthians that “God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear”. In fact, God offers an alternative way out of temptation if we’ll only make the decision to take it.
The simple answer to changing our behavior is to just stop it; but addictions by definition require more than sheer personal willpower to get over. It has been suggested that by adding real, life-enhancing, nourishing activities to your life you will naturally subtract the need for a soft addiction, literally pushing it out of the way.
A quick glance at what St. Paul wrote shows us how much God has added to our lives so that we can live addiction-free.
1. Temptations are a common experience.
2. God is faithful.
3. God will not let us be tempted beyond our ability to withstand it.
4. God will provide a way out.
5. This will allow us to “stand up under it”.
That is more than enough! We are also urged to add to our lives behaviors and activities that give us the rush we need in a wholesome and positive way. Coming to church can be viewed as one of those wholesome behaviors. It is here that we can meet with others like us and be part of a larger ‘support-group’.
The early Methodist movement was characterized by the “class meeting” — an accountability group in which every member had to participate. The meetings began by asking everyone around the circle, “How is it with your soul?” In turn the participants would respond with both the success and the struggle of their spiritual lives and would be prayed for and supported by the community.
“How is it with your soul?” It’s a great Lenten question. And in Jesus Christ, we have found the great Lenten answer. Truth is that we can learn new behaviors and feed the real spiritual hunger in our lives. Enough with the temptations of instant gratification and superficial spirituality. Let’s take care of our souls.
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.