The truth is, almost every single one of us knows that we need to change at least one specific behavior because it is harmful. Maybe it’s smoking, drinking, over-eating, or maybe it’s not exercising. Whatever the behavior is, we know, usually without any doubt, where that behavior will lead, and yet, we continue along our current path.
It’s not because we don’t know the consequences, right? Can any of us say that we don’t know where smoking will probably lead? Since the ‘60s we have been hearing that smoking causes cancer. Yet people continue to pick up their first cigarettes and begin smoking every single day. No amount of warning, it seems, will stop them.
Someone donated to my stash of teaching supplies this week, some empty cigarette packages from Mexico. Of each individual package, at least two thirds of the outside of the package is covered with warnings about the health risks of smoking, including horrifying photographs of cancerous lesions in someone’s mouth on one and a premature and underweight baby on another.
The packages are empty, though. Someone picked up one of those packages however many times it took to smoke every cigarette in the box, probably looked at the picture, absent-mindedly read the statistics listed on the side and lit another cigarette.
Smoking is kind of the easiest to pick on, but certainly not the only habit that leads to serious health problems. I know of several of my own behaviors that are equally dangerous, that I have not managed to quit. Knowledge alone does not change behavior.
Author David Brooks summarizes this concept nicely.
“Both reason and will are obviously important in making moral decisions and exercising self-control. But neither of these character models has proven very effective. You can tell people not to eat the French fry. You can give pamphlets about the risks of obesity. You can deliver sermons urging them to exercise self-control and not eat the fry. And in their nonhungry state, most people will vow not to eat it. But when their hungry self arises, their well-intentioned self fades, and they eat the French fry. Most diets fail because the conscious forces of reason and will are simply not powerful enough to consistently subdue unconscious urges.
“The evidence suggests reason and will are like muscles, and not particularly powerful muscles. In some cases and in the right circumstances, they can resist temptation and control the impulses. But in many cases they are too weak to impose self-discipline by themselves. In many cases self-delusion takes control.”1
What needs to happen before we will change our behavior? What if the smoker thought he had cancer? What if the over-eater was told he was about to cross into diabetes? What if the impaired/distracted driver has a close call? Well, sometimes those close calls will help the person change the behavior, and sometimes not.
So imagine how much more difficult it is for God to entice us to repent of our sinful behaviors? The consequences are infinitely worse, and yet somehow not as immediate as cancer or diabetes or an automobile accident.
In the book of Joel, we can read about how God used a plague of locusts to remind His people (past and present) that we need to make our decision to follow Him soon. God has Joel tell people of the terrible time that is coming and how they can survive that time. Then He sends the Holy Spirit to lead them into readiness.
Why do you think it is that we often need some kind of major catastrophe to remind us of our need for God in our lives? The Bible tells us over and over again that having a relationship with Jesus Christ is our only hope to spend eternity with Him and yet, we let that priority slide into the background – we quit listening for the still, small voice.
But then, our God is so gracious, He will send the Holy Spirit to nudge us back toward Jesus again. He often uses something that is happening in this sinful world to catch our attention: terrorists, hurricanes, shootings, earthquakes, and any other natural or man-made disaster.
Whatever He uses, He’s reminding us that a time is coming when our decision needs to be made, one way or the other, and that we need to be ready for that time.
So, why isn’t everybody ready right now? Well, I believe that Satan wants us to think that we’re not so bad, that we have plenty of time to make our decision, and that we are able to get ourselves ready. And with Satan’s lies humming happily in our ears, we don’t hear the call of the Holy Spirit telling us it’s almost too late.
Ellen White calls those delusions an “imaginary religion.”
“The tremendous issues of eternity demand of us something besides an imaginary religion, a religion of words and forms, where truth is kept in the outer court. God calls for a revival and a reformation. The words of the Bible, and the Bible alone, should be heard from the pulpit. But the Bible has been robbed of its power, and the result is seen in a lowering of the tone of spiritual life. In many sermons of today there is not that divine manifestation which awakens the conscience and brings life to the soul. The hearers cannot say, ‘Did not our heart burn within us, while He talked with us by the way, and while He opened to us the Scriptures?’ Luke 24:32. There are many who are crying out for the living God, longing for the divine presence. Let the word of God speak to the heart. Let those who have heard only tradition and human theories and maxims, hear the voice of Him who can renew the soul unto eternal life.” (Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 626.)
In the book of Joel, God is pleading with us to repent and come back to Him now so we will be ready when He comes to take us home.
“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days. I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls.” Joel 2:28-32
Am I waiting for the next major catastrophe or health crisis to change my behavior and find God? Or am I listening for the still small Voice? What do I need to change in my life so that I can hear that Voice? I want Him to make me ready, don’t you?
- David Brooks, The Social Animal (Random House, 2011), pp. 126-128 ↩