Adulterous affairs on business trips. Relapses into addiction after years of sobriety. Violent explosions of temper. I have seen so many seemingly good people inexplicably find themselves in situations they swore they would never be in. In each circumstance the question was the same, “What happened?” The answer was, and is, never a single thing. Tragic outcomes are typically the result of a string of bad decisions.
I think of the married patient who came to be fearful he had contracted an STD from a sexual encounter with a stranger he met in a hotel bar while on a business trip. “I made a bad decision,” was his initial explanation.
“You made a lot of bad decisions,” was my reply, “You had to run through a lot of stop signs on the road before you crashed.” I reviewed with him the bad choices. He chose to go to the bar, to make eye contact with the woman and to buy her a drink and engage in conversation. No one forced him to complement her appearance or to go to her hotel room. He could have, and should have, said “No,” so many times. Just one “No,” may have been the difference between marriage and divorce.
As we talked I thought about how his fall did not begin with wrong action but with wrong thinking. Each bad decision was preceded by a bad thought. Thoughts such as “What is wrong with buying a drink?” or “It is just harmless conversation” were the first signs of danger. I wondered if the first wrong thoughts were negative ones about his wife. Were there unchecked feelings of resentment or dissatisfaction with her appearance that led to his wandering eye? Had he quit thinking of her as a gift from God? Had she become "just another woman" in his mind?
As I look back on my life I can see that every foolish or destructive act I have made was preceded by erroneous thinking. This seems to be the fate of all mankind. We are all plagued with self-deception. The process is described in the New Testament-
“Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.” James 1:14-15 NLT
James description of the process points us to the solution. When we allow our wrong desires to take hold, when we allow them to simmer unchecked, wrong action is the natural consequence. It is hard to stop the locomotive once it reaches full speed. We need to challenge our thinking and reject the thoughts that lead us astray the moment they enter our minds, to make sure the train never leaves the station!
I know from experience that challenging negative thoughts is worth the effort. Intentionally rejecting negative thoughts about my wife has allowed a deep love and appreciation to grow and flourish, a love and appreciation that causes all other women to pale in comparison. Progress has been slower when it comes to anger, but I have seen that the more I intentionally reject demeaning or degrading thoughts about others and the more I consider them to be children of God the kinder and more patient I become. It seems that when I fight the battle at the level of thought that bad behavior is far less likely.
Which leads to the question- What is going on in your head?
You can listen to more on this topic on the sermons page. I expound on the topic in Part 1 of the series, “A Disease Called Sin.” If you would like me to come and speak to your church event or function, I can be reached on the Contact page. I can also be followed on twitter @bartbarrettmd, or on Facebook at Bart Barrett, MD.