3 Ways Behavior Modification Fails Every Addict
Many Christian men who deal with strong sexual temptation are likely familiar with techniques such as ‘bouncing the eyes when a pretty women comes into view’ or ‘snapping a rubber band on their wrist when their mind wanders into lustful thinking’. These methods are examples of “behavior modification” - the process by which someone forms new and harmless reactions to sexual stimuli in order to replace unwanted reactions. They are derivations of the original theory of behavior modification by psychologists Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner, but are now common-place for Christians trying to deal with sexual addiction.
The men familiar with these techniques are also likely familiar with the inadequacy of them. For many, it doesn’t seem to matter how many times they look away or snap themselves with a rubber band, the sexual desire is still there and eventually they do act on it.
I am approaching this topic for those who have from the perspective of someone who has truly been born again by the Spirit of God. Being acceptable in God's sight is not merely a matter of modifying certain behaviors. If salvation could be achieved by doing right and avoiding wrong, then it would be according to works, and not by grace through faith. In other words, just because a person successfully rids his life of sexual addiction does not mean that he is righteous in God's eyes.
So, in light of the gospel, behavior modification cannot be the best strategy for the born-again believer who is struggling to overcome sexual addiction in his life.
Here are 3 reasons why.
1. Behavior Modification Makes it Seem Like Sexual Sin is THE ISSUE
Over the decades that we have ministered to men in sexual addiction, we have come to know that there is a mindset that is common to them. It comes out something like this: "I only have one small problem." Often, when asked to describe themselves, they see themselves as being godly, kind, generous, loving, etc. When they do acknowledge that they fall short, it's usually in the area of self-control. In other words, "I am a very godly person, I just need to learn how to overcome in this one area of my life."
But if we can look at sexual addiction objectively, then we have to acknowledge that sexual addiction is not a weakness in one isolated area of a man's life, but a total spiritual breakdown. I say this from personal experience.
This can be difficult to swallow, but the hard truth is this: a man in sexual addiction has proved, by the general tone of his life, that he is almost completely devoted to himself. He habitually transgresses the biblical commands to “abstain from sexual immorality...[and] know how to possess his own vessel in sanctification and honor, not in lustful passion, like the Gentiles who do not know God.” (1 Thessalonians 4:3b-5 NASB) When his duties as a husband or father or son conflict with his desire to satisfy himself, he neglects the good of others in order to satiate his lusts. If he is aware at all that his actions are inconsiderate of others and may cause them great pain, he chooses to please himself at their expense.
Beyond the acts of sin themselves, the sexual addict reaps a harvest of other sinful attitudes and behaviors as well. (Galatians 6:8a) He becomes increasingly more selfish, more self-centered. He may become protective of his time and money, intending to use it for sexual indulgences. If his lifestyle is questioned, he often deceives others to protect himself. The conviction of living contrary to God's will often becomes overwhelming, and he lashes in anger out at anyone who makes him feel badly.
Behavior modification may help us control a certain area of our lives, but if our consciences are never sensitized beyond fighting against one certain category of sins, we will allow ourselves to remain selfish and self-centered. True, a man may learn how to stop picking up prostitutes, watching porn and staring at women, but what about his pattern of putting himself before others? The habit of deceiving? The lifestyle of self-protection?
These are areas which must be dealt with, but behavior modification is not effective at any level deeper than our sexual behaviors.
2. Behavior Modification Prioritizes Modifying the Behavior
OK, duh. That's obvious. But there is a problem with it. It approaches the problem from the wrong direction.
When the Pharisees accused Jesus of allowing his disciples to defile themselves by eating without the ritual washing of hands, Jesus countered with a profound argument about the nature of sin.
“For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within and defile the man.” (Mark 7:21-23 NASB)
Notice where Jesus puts the blame. Not the fruit…but the root. Not on the outward behaviors, but right at the core of who the man is. Jesus' teaching shows us that the source of addiction is not the pattern of behavior itself. Rather, the source is the man's sinful nature that loves sin.
3. Behavior Modification Offers Shallow Change
The person who realizes that the sinful nature must be dealt with is seeing a measure of truth. However, if that person deals with it by focusing mainly on the actions, he is still dealing with the effects of his sinful nature, rather than the cause of the behaviors. If he does succeed in modifying his behaviors, it does not necessarily indicate that he is experiencing the depth of change that the gospel offers.
I remember when I was first coming to grips with the sinfulness of looking lustfully at women. I had spent the last 10 years of my life looking at every woman I could. The addiction had become so entrenched in my life that I wondered if I could ever be different.
But what did it mean to be different? As I reflected on what I believed God desired to do in my life, I knew that He wasn't offering simply to help me stop looking at women. I knew He wanted to something much deeper than that.
He wanted me to see them for who they were. He wanted me to see a soul that He loved and died for, not just a physical shell that I needed to avoid lusting over. He wanted me to care about who they were as persons, even if I didn't know them. If I saw a woman who was dressed immodestly, He didn't want me simply jerk my eyes away, but to grieve because of where that path would take her in life. In other words, He wanted me to overcome lust by loving and respecting women, not just by physically controlling my eyes.
A man may successfully apply behavioral modification techniques and change some unwanted behaviors, but until the nature of Christ dominates his life, there is still so much that will be left undone. That's why I believe that it cannot be the best strategy for a Christian man who is seeking to break the bondage of sexual addiction in his life.
Now, having said all that, I should offer some clarification. I am not saying that we don't have to cut things out of our lives that we know are causing us to stumble. We do. Television, internet, smartphones, social media, vacation spots, etc., MUST GO if we have a pattern of using these things in ways that dishonor God. We cannot expect God to purify our hearts if we do not take His words seriously, and cut off whatever is causing us to sin.
But let's not fall into any of the traps that behavior modification may lead us. Let's look to the Lord for godly sorrow leading to true repentance. This is what will bring the purity and power of Christ's life into our own.
Nate Danser is the Director of Ministry Outreach at Pure Life Ministries. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in History from Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, PA. He has served in our Media Department since he came on board in 2009. Nate is very passionate in his desire to see young people come into a real life with God.
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