We often do not pay much mind to our habits, especially innocuous ones like brushing teeth or checking the weather before deciding what to wear. Habits entail those behaviors that have become relatively automatized, so they can be executed with ease and efficiency. Cognitive resources in turn become freed up and can be devoted to more effortful, deliberate thinking. But here’s a disquieting thought: in reality, a wider swath of our behaviors, which should otherwise be subject to deliberation and possible revision, tends to land on the habitual side of this automatic/controlled spectrum—if we’re honest with ourselves.
Think about the last time you or someone you know started gossiping about others, almost effortlessly. Or, think of someone quickly launching into an unchecked, villifying tirade or tantrum. Indeed, we seem to be too good at falling into habitual patterns of thought and action. Sayings in English reflect some awareness of this fact. When attempting to account for erratic or harmful behavior, we’ll say things like, “S/he just couldn’t help it.”
This comes to a head in the case of more severe addictive and compulsive behaviors. Those who suffer from drug or alcohol dependence, as specified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), will openly acknowledge the destructive effects of their addiction, but also claim it’s incredibly difficult to inhibit their drug-seeking behaviors. In the past decade or so, research in psychology and neuroscience has begun to shed light on the neural bases for these powerful and seemingly inescapable compulsions. The brain’s reward system, which usually promotes healthy and adaptive reward-seeking behaviors (e.g., acquiring food and drink, selecting a mate), effectively gets hijacked when drugs take on affective and motivational value. Then, the perfect storm of sensitization (i.e., a lower threshold of activation when a drug cue is present) and tolerance (i.e., diminished responses to the drug after repeated exposure and intake) occurs, severely compromising one’s ability to resist the impulse to seek out the drug.
In discussing the topic of drug addiction here, I hope to illuminate a wider issue about the will and nature of the human heart. That is, the reality of sin has penetrated even into our neurochemistry, such that our God-given capacity to freely decide between different courses of action becomes constrained and sometimes threatened altogether. Now, a captive will does not mean it is no longer free. But, this dire example screams of the need for an all-encompassing change whereby the human heart is renewed and no longer prone to destructive, compulsive ruts of thought and behavior. Although a very learned man and righteous in the eyes of many, St. Paul saw this need in himself when he was writing to the Roman church: “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Later in the same letter, he admonishes his audience to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2).
How is this transformation possible, especially given the unshakeable nature of habits and addiction? In Jesus Christ, we are entirely new creatures, with re-fashioned hearts that enable us to freely love God and others. God, speaking through prophet Ezekiel, made the following radical promise that finds its consummation in Christ:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; and I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will be careful to observe My ordinances. You will live in the land that I gave to your forefathers; so you will be My people, and I will be your God (36:26-28).
The human will is indeed fragile and fickle, but the hope of the Gospel is that Jesus Christ freely and willfully chose the brutality of the Cross, so that our wills and capacities could be redeemed and re-purposed in such a way that we can freely respond to the amazing love of God in Christ.