Help. Hope. Healing.

Focus on Changing Our Hearts, Not Just Our Behavior

By Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D.


Sex Addiction Recovery Tips from Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D.

Focus on Changing Our Hearts, Not Just Our Behavior

Imagine that you are determined to circle the globe in a rocketship, and you could choose between two different ways of doing it. Here’s the first option: you could expend enough fuel at the outset to project yourself up and out of the earth’s atmosphere. How much fuel would it take to travel around the earth once you were at this altitude? Of course, it would require very little energy to travel this way. Since you are beyond the pull of the earth’s gravity, you could travel with only the minor corrections necessary to keep you on your intended course. How likely would you be to run out of fuel and come crashing down to the earth? Actually, in this mode of travel, you could stay up almost indefinitely.

You could also choose to stay within the earth’s atmosphere as you flew your ship. What would happen then? How much energy would you have to expend to circle the earth? How likely would you be to run out of fuel and come crashing down to the earth at some point? The truth is, of course, that in this mode of travel you would remain subject to the law of gravity and would use up most of your fuel fighting to stay up. Even if you had no intention of returning to earth, it wouldn’t be long before you ran out of fuel and wouldn’t have a choice in the matter.

I see a pattern that is analogous to this second mode of travel in the way many of us battle temptation. We feel like our goal is to avoid the “crashes” of sinful behavior. We might toy with temptation throughout the day, but if we can avoid “acting out,” we feel like they have succeeded. However, when we operate in this way we are failing to recognize a vital truth: if our focus is upon the things of the flesh, if we view the world through carnal eyes, this orientation will eventually and inevitably shape our behavior.

As rocketship pilots, some things are within our control and others are not. Once we choose to remain within the earth’s atmosphere and fly at a lower altitude, we have chosen by default to remain subject to the law of gravity, which in turn makes an eventual crash inevitable. Similarly, the apostle Paul taught that we have a choice as to whether we will mind the things of the flesh or the things of the Spirit. However, he made it very clear that once we choose our focus, we become subject to the law of that realm. By minding the things of the flesh, we subject ourselves to the law of the flesh and visa versa. This is why he could say that “to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace” (Romans 8:6).

In the Church’s Guide to the Scriptures (available on CR Rom), Repentance is described as “a change of mind and heart that brings a fresh attitude toward God, oneself, and life in general.” Similarly, in the Bible Dictionary we learn that “the Greek word of which [repentance] is the translation denotes a change of mind, i.e., a fresh view about God, about oneself, and about the world.”

Think for a moment about the radical implications of this definition of repentance! The vital core of repentance is not a change in behavior but the capturing of a fresh and refreshing view. If we adopt this definition, when do we need to repent? If repentance is not primarily a change of behavior, then we don’t need to wait until we engage in sinful behavior in order to repent any more than a rocketship pilot would wait until the ship is at ground-level before he or she tries to gain altitude. We need to recapture and be refreshed by the spiritual viewpoint whenever we start losing it, rather than waiting until our behavior reflects the lower, carnal, flesh-oriented view of ourselves, others and life. We are in need of repentance as soon as our mindset is such that sinful behavior seems appealing.

Righteous behavior flows naturally when we maintain a spiritual view of who we really are, our relationship to God, who others really are, and the true nature and purpose of our lives and this earthly existence. Although it takes a lot to attain this spiritual “altitude,” once we reach this realm we are propelled along by the power of the Spirit and we feel rejuvenated more often than we feel drained.

In Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig points out that “It’s the way you live that predisposes you to avoid the traps and see the right facts. You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That’s the way all the experts do it. The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle (or the management of temptation, we might add) isn’t separate from the rest of your existence. If a sloppy thinker the six days of the week you aren’t working on your machine, what trap avoidances, what gimmicks, can make you all of a sudden sharp on the seventh? It all goes together” (p. 292-293).

The scriptures say it another way: “The light of the body is the eye: if therefore thine eye be single, thy whole body shall be full of light. But if thine eye be evil, thy whole body shall be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is in thee be darkness, how great is that darkness! No man can serve two masters: for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon” (Matthew 6:22-24).

I have discovered in my life that if I want to avoid getting caught up in those seemingly customized temptations which most “easily beset” me personally, I don’t have the luxury of sinning in other ways that in the past I have rationalized away as minor or insignificant. I cannot afford to dwell critically upon a family member or gossip about an acquaintance. I can’t harbor resentment over a perceived slight or recite in my mind the ways in which other people are being unfair to me. I can’t dwell greedily on money and the things it might buy. I can’t treat other people as though their time is less valuable than mine.

I used to think that I could “get away” with slouching when it came to the little things, but I have seen again and again that the way I do anything soon becomes the way I do everything.

It may sound like I.m describing a way of life that sounds impossibly strict and narrow. That’s what I used to think when I read Mosiah 4:29-30: “And finally, I cannot tell you all the things whereby ye may commit sin; for there are divers ways and means, even so many that I cannot number them. But this much I can tell you, that if ye do not watch yourselves, and your thoughts, and your words, and your deeds, and observe the commandments of God, and continue in the faith of what ye have heard concerning the coming of our Lord, even unto the end of your lives, ye must perish.” I no longer see a conflict between this verse and the promise from Jesus that his yoke will be easy and his burden will be light. I now I hear the following message in King Benjamin words: “I can’t warn you about all of the traps that you could get in. There are simply too many. Therefore, the best counsel I can give you is to live in a way that will enable you to see the traps for yourself.” Or, to paraphrase him again from a slightly different angle: “I could go on and on warning you about the behaviors that can get you into trouble, but the list would be too long. Instead of an exhaustive inventory, I.m going to help you prioritize. Focus instead on receiving a change in your hearts. Then, once you have, expend whatever energy and vigilance necessary to avoid the kinds of thoughts, words, and deeds that could drag you back down to the carnal way of life.”

We can focus primarily on changing our behavior. If we do, however, we may forever be struggling against our natures. If instead, we first focus on becoming partakers of the divine nature, “doing what comes naturally” takes on an entirely different meaning, and staying on track is not nearly so difficult.


Mark Chamberlain, Ph.D. is Salt Lake City-based clinical psychologist specializing in the treatment of sexual addiction. He can be reached at 801-564-7566. His offices are located at 1258 West South Jordan Parkway, Suite 202, South Jordan, UT and in Davis County at 1785 East 1450 South #233 Clearfield, UT. Mark is author of Wanting More: The Challenge of Enjoyment in the Age of Addiction and coauthor of Willpower Is Not Enough: Why We Don’t Succeed at Change. He specializes in the treatment of addictions and compulsive behavior. Contact Dr. Chamberlain to try out his eWorkbook, “Turning from Other Dependencies to God.”

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4 Responses to “Focus on Changing Our Hearts, Not Just Our Behavior”

  1. Tim B said:

    While I hadn’t read this piece before (as I recall), the solution he outlines here is the same solution I’ve found to work — focus on changing who I am, and changing my behavior gets easier. Relying on God to keep his word, and doing what I can to follow him brings the real improvement.

    It does sound hard to do — even too hard to do — and trying something half-way sounds much easier. But the half-measures end up not taking you half as far — it’s like cutting off the puppy’s tail an inch at a time, rather than making one good cut and being done.

    Now, we can’t really make one good change and be done with our addictions — that would defeat the purpose of the addiction — but making bold and faithful steps in recovery makes further bold and faithful steps easier, and step after step is the way of progress and improvement.

  2. Rex Goode said:

    You made an interesting statement that if we make one good change, that won’t make us be done with our addictions because that would defeat the purpose of the addiction. What do you see as the purpose of the addiction?

  3. Tim B said:

    Oh. I thought that was clear (and I tried leaving this before, but I guess it got eaten). The purpose of addiction is to allow us to be humble. Without weakness, we couldn’t be humble.

  4. Rex Goode said:

    Excellent! I think that is right on!

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