Return to Sermon Archive
March 14, 2004
1 Corinthians 10:1-13
1 I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea,
2 and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,
3 and all ate the same spiritual food,
4 and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.
5 Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of them, and they were struck down in the wilderness.
6 Now these things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did.
7 Do not become idolaters as some of them did; as it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink, and they rose up to play."
8 We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day.
9 We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did, and were destroyed by serpents.
10 And do not complain as some of them did, and were destroyed by the destroyer.
11 These things happened to them to serve as an example, and they were written down to instruct us, on whom the ends of the ages have come.
12 So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.
13 No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
The television commercial for SoundTrack electronic stores opens with a couple of guys sprawled on a couch, watching TV. A narrator says that on average, Americans watch six hours of television every day. Pause. Long Pause. Then, boom! The screen comes alive with shots of brand-new television sets, including flat-panel plasma screens, rear-projection and surround-sound systems. The narrator now says: “Let’s try to up that to seven hours a day!”
To me even six hours seems a bit much. It seems more like an addiction. Judith Wright has written a book with a very long title: There Must Be More to Life: Finding More Life, Love and Meaning by Overcoming Your Soft Addictions. Most people in referring to the book just use the last two words: Soft Addictions. Judith Wright compares two women in the book. The first uses television as a learning tool to explore the world and understand history and culture. She finds it rewarding to learn about the eating habits of the African Ashanti tribe of Ghana, or the mating habits of the Big-Headed Amazon River turtle in South America.
The second woman does not watch television that way. For her, after a stress-filled day, television is a means to get away from it all. Rather than wanting to be stimulated, she wants to be numbed. She wants to be a couch potato for a little bit and sort of let the TV distract her from a life that is all too real. Wright says that “the first woman uses television to enhance her life; the second woman uses it to escape from her life.”
Now there is nothing wrong with escaping for a little bit from the stress of everyday life, but the problem with “escapes” is that they can easily become addictive. We like the “escapes” so much that we do not want to go back. We are tempted to keep on escaping, and thus temptation leads to addiction, which becomes destructive.
The problem many Christians have with temptation is that we are overconfident. In our text today from I Cor. 10, the Apostle Paul discusses the overconfidence of the ancient Israelites. They were with Moses when God parted the Red Sea; they were with Moses when God gave the law on Mount Sinai, they were fed by the hand of God in the wilderness. You would think that with those kinds of tremendous experiences the Israelites would be almost immune to temptation. Unfortunately, the opposite seems to be true. Paul says that the Israelites “set their minds on evil things” — idolatry, sexual immorality, grumbling and complaining, and so they died in the desert without ever seeing the promised land.
Unfortunately, we are much like the ancient Israelites. We are overconfident with regard to temptation and addiction. We are god-fearing people, so we tell ourselves, and we know what is right and wrong. We know it is wrong to kill people, so we are not going to succumb to that temptation. As a married person, I know that adultery is wrong, so I am going to be faithful to my spouse. I know God’s commandments about stealing, so if I visit someone I am not going to put their silverware in my pocket. Again, as God’s people, we do not abuse alcohol. We are not into pornography; we do not stay up late surfing Internet porn sites. We have no interest in giving gambling casinos our money. So, you might say that we have this sin and temptation thing pretty well covered.
But we do not. In our overconfidence, soft addictions and temptations catch us unawares. Soft temptations are things like neglecting the family, spreading gossip, undermining a coworker, neglecting our daily prayer life. Chocolate can be a soft temptation, and there are many others: preferring to read anything but the word of God, a hankering for the latest and most fashionable clothes, spending too much time thinking about cars, and, Oh yes, I mentioned chocolate didn’t I?
Things, especially expensive things, can be a soft temptation. PBS personality and car expert Pat Goss talks about how it required a major crisis in his life to overcome an addiction to things. Writing in Washingtonian magazine (October 2003), Goss says, “I’ve long had expensive stuff around the house. Those nice things were important to me.” Then he developed malignant melanoma, which you probably know is a dangerous cancer. It required surgery and treatment. After those cancer treatments, he woke up one morning with the realization that not once during all the months of trauma and suffering had he thought or cared one bit about any of that expensive stuff. Never once.
He said, “Now, wait a minute — there’s a lesson here.” These things have absolutely no meaning when it gets down to brass tacks. No meaning at all.
It took melanoma to cure Pat Goss of an addiction to stuff. That is not really surprising. Stuff can be so attractive. For example, we read about the new Sprint camera cell phone made by Samsung with the new patented, rotating flip-screen design that allows you to browse the Internet at speeds faster than most dial-up connections; check personal and corporate e-mail; watch clips and stream audio for news and music; download polyphonic, animated and voice ringers, and that has full-color, graphically rich games and screen savers. And we think, “Got to have it.” And so things can easily become for us a Soft Addiction.
And there are other kinds of soft addictions. We may become addicted to a destructive self-image. For example, say you are working with a group of volunteers a charity event. It could be here at the church. It could be at some other charity or volunteer organization. Others in the group are not getting their part of the work done according to the time schedule you hold in your mind. So, you think, “they must do this,” and you try to make them do it, and you become a very unpleasant person in the process.
Or, when you see that they are not doing their part, at least according to your thinking, you may think, “they are not doing it so I have to.” This is the martyr complex. Poor little me, I have to take up the slack for everyone else. I have to do everyone else’s job and therefore everyone should pity me, poor little me. A martyr complex can be a real addiction.
Let us get our definitions straight here. A soft addiction is a behavior that in and of itself is neither moral nor immoral, good nor bad, right nor wrong. The goodness or badness, the rightness or wrongness of the behavior is determined by our motivation. It is our attachment to a kind or type of behavior that determines whether it is addictive. For example, if you are watching television like the second woman of Judith Wright’s study — wanting to escape, looking to get away from everything, and you find yourself doing that a lot, then you may have a problem.
And the big problem with soft addictions is what they do to our relationship with God. When we are tempted to give soft addictions priority in our lives, God does not have priority. We love our addictions more than we love God. Our primary relationship is not with God, not even with other people; our primary relationship is with our addictions.
Signs of Addiction
So the first question for us today is: Are we addicts? Do we have a Soft Addiction? Several signs indicate when an activity or behavior has gone wrong and become addictive.
The first sign of a soft addiction is that we do it mindlessly. We do not think about it, we do not reason about it, we just do it, and while we are doing it we sort of Zone Out. Our minds go numb. Take the woman who watches TV for escape. She does not really follow the program at all. She does not care what is on. She just wants to have something on and be numb.
The Second sign of soft addiction is compulsive behavior. An irresistible urge drives us to do it. We feel helpless and powerless when doing this activity, and we probably feel guilty about it when it’s over. Whether it’s eating too much, watching bad TV, surfing the underbelly of the Internet or even impulse shopping, the compulsive nature of temptation drives us into a very isolated corner of our souls. Often we swear we will never do it again, but though we try to stop, we cannot.
The third sign of soft addiction is Rationalization. The bizarre ways we rationalize our addictions are funny. The woman that bought the dress that she knows cost too much says, “This designer dress is really an investment.” Or, someone who just bought a dozen cream-filled doughnuts says, “They do not have as many calories if you eat them standing up.” Or, that person who faithfully promised to start an exercise program today says, “I can’t exercise this afternoon because I already showered this morning.” Or, how about this one, a woman comes home with several boxes of new shoes and says, “President Bush said that shopping is good for the economy.” Now we may smile at these excuses, but our excuses for our addictions are just as flimsy.
A fourth sign of soft addiction is that we attempt to Hide the Behavior. A habit becomes a soft addiction when it must be done in secret in order to be enjoyed. Addicted people spend a lot of time lying and covering up the evidence.
A fifth sign of soft addiction is that we Avoid the Issues. Many people spend their whole lives avoiding deeper issues and feelings. Like all the characteristics of soft temptations, this is not wrong if we do it occasionally. No one can confront serious issues that touch the core of our lives all the time, but sometimes we do have to confront those issues and our feelings about them, and a sign of addiction is that we never do that. This is not to say that addicted people are not emotional. They are emotional about the wrong things. A TV program might move them to tears, but they barely notice real people in their lives who are going through real suffering.
What to Do?
The bottom line is that soft addictions/temptations are symptoms of deeper needs in our lives — needs for relationships, intimacy, and meaning — and these temptations keep us from living an abundant life, the life that God wants to give us. So what are we going to do about these destructive behaviors?
The simple answer to changing behavior is to stop it. I often hear this solution when addictions are discussed. People will ask, “why don’t you stop?”. This reminds us of the government program in the schools: “just say no.” Unfortunately, that almost never works. Overcoming addictions requires more than sheer personal willpower. Perhaps we can stop for a few days, on willpower alone, but then in a moment of weakness we fall right back into the same old habits. And, we are more than ever in the grip of the addiction because now we know that will power has failed.
Judith Wright offers some wisdom that the Apostle Paul himself might have embraced when dealing with temptation. She calls it “the math of more.” By adding real, life-enhancing, nourishing activities to our lives, we naturally reduce the need for a soft addiction. As we bring good things into our lives, that pushes addictions out of our lives.
A quick glance at verse 13 shows us how much God has added to our lives so that we can live addiction-free. The verse says, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to everyone. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
Let us analyze this verse a bit:
First of all, Paul tells us that temptations are a common experience. We are not the only ones who have ever been tempted, and the temptations we face are not all that unusual. Some people want to say, I am especially tempted above others. Paul says, that is not so. Get real. You are just like everyone else.
But then he says something that is very important, that we need to remember when we are tempted. “God is faithful.” Any kind of addictive behavior is a temptation to act in a way that is unfaithful to God. Every kind of temptation always comes down to some kind of unfaithfulness. So, when we are tempted to act unfaithfully, we need to remember that God is faithful.
And then Paul adds, that we are not tempted or tested beyond our ability. Some folks justify addiction saying, “It is just more than I can stand up against.” But it is not. It may be more than you can stand up against on your own will power, but God is faithful to you and God empowers you to live a triumphant life. Or as Paul says, God “will provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” God will bring you through it.
The early Methodist movement was characterized by the “class meeting” — an accountability group in which every member had to participate. They no longer do this, but this is the way Methodism used to be. The class meetings began by asking everyone around the circle, “How is it with your soul?” The participants would respond with both the success and the struggle of their spiritual lives and would be prayed for and supported by the group.
“How is it with your soul?” that is an appropriate question to ask in this season of Lent when we think of how much Jesus suffered to pay the price for our sins. Some of our sins are still with us, and they might easily become addictions that threaten our spiritual lives. In Christ, we have the answer. He empowers us to overcome sin, all sin, even soft sin.
So often when we speak of sins, we think of things that are morally reprehensible or socially unacceptable. We need to move to a new definition. sin is anything keeping us from living openly with God and others, anything preventing us from being the creature God intended. Sin may be legal. Sin may be acceptable. That does not matter. It keeps us from God. It is destructive.
God has created us for love—to love God and others. Yet we numb our feelings and feed our spiritual hunger with junk. We turn on our televisions to tune out the world around us. We shop for what we think will satisfy our longing for beauty or goodness. We eat without considering the worth or value of our food. We do any number of mindless tasks without noticing or searching for God’s presence in our lives.
What are we to do? Turn Back to God. God is faithful. Let God lead you into the kind of abundant life that you were always meant to have. Amen.
“Addicted? Who, Me?” Beliefnet.com.
“Are You a Slave to Soft Addictions?” July 22, 2003 ABCNews.com.
Wright, Judith. “What are soft addictions?” Readers Read Web Site. Readersread.com.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2003 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 03/23/04