5 Often-Missed Steps to Real Lasting Transformation
March 22, 2022
Ever feel like you are confessing the same sins over and over again, or that you’ve got bad or vicious habits running on default that no amount of white-knuckling effort has been able to reduce?
Issues like these show up a lot in our coaching, and the common solution we hear clients share (which often happens to be well-meaning advice from priests or friends) is, “keep trying” or “give it over to Jesus.”
Mind you, these are both beautiful things. But other than giving you a boost of encouragement, arguably, they really aren’t that helpful. It leaves the questions:
Keep trying what exactly?
or, Give what exactly over to Jesus?
When we fail to define the what of these words of encouragement, we can experience growth in virtue and holiness as an endless hamster wheel of striving–no matter how hard or fast we run, we’re still not getting anywhere.
On the contrary, when we can grow in an acute awareness of what exactly we must keep trying to do, and what exactly to give over to Jesus, then we can start to experience real freedom and transformation. And, it can happen surprisingly quickly!
In this short blog, I’m going to share five key steps and questions to getting laser-focused on the what so that you can get unstuck from vicious habits or habitual sins and start experiencing lasting change.
Step 1. Admit that you prefer your bad habit or sin.
If we’ve got a habit of eating at McDonalds, there’s a reason for it. Those Big Macs and fries are so dang good!
But how often do we approach habit-change with this lie that we don’t actually like, or prefer, our current habit? We may not want it to be true that we want that juicy steroid-injected meat patty covered in cheese and special sauce, but its true, and denying the truth will never help us grow.
But that isn’t any reason to despair! Being made in the image and likeness of God means that at the core of our desires, even the ones that are disoriented toward the artery-clogging cheeseburger, we are seeking the true, good, and beautiful. That means whenever we are doing something that we don’t want to do, we still have a reason that we prefer it over the actions we know we ought to do. Which leads us to our next step.
2. Answer the question: “What is the payoff I’m hoping for with this bad habit or sinful action?”
Sticking with Big Macs, there is something true, good, and beautiful that we perceive in that juicy double-stacked cheeseburger. Perhaps it’s returning to a childhood memory of a grandparent who would take you out for Happy Meals as a kid and you’re longing for that same experience of communion. Maybe the jolt of glucose you get from that processed sesame seed bun allows you to forget the stressful argument you just had with your spouse. Maybe you want a moment of pleasure at lunch time in the middle of working a job you hate.
Whatever the perceived (keyword–> perceived) payoff is, that’s why you prefer that current habit or sin. That’s why you prefer the cheeseburger. And here’s the thing, it’s probably a good reason. It’s good to want to reminisce about special times with your grandparents. It’s good to engage in activities that reduce stress. It’s healthy to pause from work to have mini-Sabbaths throughout your day.
But we also have to ask, “Is my perceived payoff in keeping with reality?” Is the end I’m hoping this habit will achieve actually being brought about? Are there weeds amongst the wheat, or some unwanted rotten fruits in my harvest? Which brings us to our next step.
Step 3. Answer the question: “Am I really getting the payoff that I’m hoping for?”
Now that we know why we are choosing that Big Mac and dialed in on how we perceive it is helping us experience the true, good, and beautiful, we have to pause, take an objective view and assess if that’s really the case.
Let’s get all the facts on the table. Maybe you’re enjoying that fond memory of time with grandma but you’re also having to keep letting your pants out to make room for a growing fat tire around your waist. Maybe you spend your time communicating more with the person in the drive-through than you do with your spouse. Maybe that sugar rush from the bun and soda gives you momentary enjoyment and distraction from your job, but then the caffeine and impending sugar coma that hits you at 2PM causes you to fall further behind in your work.
Christ tells us that we will know a tree by its fruits (Matthew 7:20). In the same way, we will know the goodness or rottenness of our habits by their fruits. When rotten fruits (i.e. growing obese, reduced communication with your spouse, increasing stress and decreasing productivity) are showing up, its indicative that your perceived payoff is not fully delivering on what it promises.
To take it a step further, we can start calling this “perceived payoff” what it is–disordered. Notice we are not calling ourselves disordered, but our perceptions. They are disordered because we believe that they will achieve something that, by their nature, they cannot achieve.
It’s disordered to think that the only way to remember grandma is by eating a 563 calorie sandwich.
It’s disordered to think that when we distract ourselves with food rather than confront our communication challenges in our marriage that we will ultimately be happier.
It’s disordered to believe that the permanent fix to the job you hate is a Mcflurry.
Which leads us to our next step.
Step 4. Answer the question: “Do I want to keep choosing this disordered belief?”
Notice, I am not arguing whether or not McDonalds reminds you of grandma, or if fries distract you from thinking about your marriage struggles, or whether or not you truly experience momentary relief from your job through your Big Mac. I’m also not telling you that your subjective feelings are irrelevant. But, which power of your soul do you want ruling your life? Your intellect and will, which literally distinguish you from the animals, or your momentary and fleeting appetites?
If we want to be reasonable, then reason demands that we consider all the evidence. When we choose to disregard the weight-gain, the growing bickering with our spouse, or the rising stress at work, we’re nothing more than slimy lawyers intentionally hiding relevant evidence from the jury.
Here’s the truth, fellow humans. By God’s design, our higher powers of reason and will are designed to WIN over the smoke and mirrors of our disordered beliefs and lower appetites. But if we aren’t willing to engage them, then we also aren’t willing to be fully human. We’ll feel the affects of treating ourselves and others like animals. They won’t be good.
Step 5: Answer the question: “Why do I hate the idea of continuing to believe this disordered belief?”
It’s not enough to recognize that your disordered beliefs are completely unreasonable. We have to learn to hate the Big Macs in our life!
That may seem a little harsh, but if we want to be truly free we’ve got to be willing to take up the sword and hack our disordered beliefs to pieces like Samuel did to King Agag (1 Samuel 15: 33). We must take up the charge to grow in holiness as St. Catherine of Sienna said, using the double-edged sword of hatred for sin and love of virtue.
Mind you, we aren’t hating them because they are worthy of hatred. Rather we are hating them because they distract us of those things truly worthy of our love and affection. They pull our affections downward rather than raising our hearts upward. They keep us striving from the things of this world that are fleeting and passing away, and keep us from pursuing things which are above, treasure in heaven, eternal life, Beatitude, SUPREME HAPPINESS!
It’d be a lot easier if habit change came from some life hack.
Come to think of it, maybe it does.
Maybe the life hack is simply to follow God’s design for human transformation. This is not a design that demands we grow instantly, be perfect today, or assent to truth without the grace to grasp it. What if we brought Christ back in to personal growth? What if we surrendered our weakness to His grace to cleanse and elevate?
For those who start to walk this path to transformation, from the outside looking in, it can seem like they’ve stumbled upon some life-hack. They are unfazed by circumstances, are eager to admit flaws, and maintain a peaceful disposition even while the rest of the world panics.
But, when a gamer finds a hack to next-level his game quicker, he may be breaking away from the status quo, but he’s still operating within the confines of the game design. Perhaps the hack we are looking for is inscribed deep in our very nature, yes wounded by sin, but also redeemed by Christ. Perhaps by learning that design, and choosing to walk the narrow path it provides, is when we can start to experience the transformation that we desire so deeply which is only accomplished by His grace.