Escaping Compulsions

“No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.”
–C.S. Lewis

Is it just me or do you have reoccurring nightmares where you’re wrestling a wild predator? I do and it’s terrifying. Try to imagine yourself falling into a cage and having to wrestle a gorilla? Chances of survival are bleak.

Gorilla fights turn out to be a handy metaphor for wrestling compulsions, those strong, irrational impulses of body and mind. These stubborn sensations find their roots in the cardinal sins, and manifest as ingrained habits of human brokenness. 

You know my story. I determine never to do it again. I fight against it. I lose to it. This cyclical struggle to pin my personal gorilla is so common and so tragic. It’s just as Lewis quipped, trying to be good, I discover my badness — my brokenness.

Does that mean I’m stuck in the cage, screaming, bleeding, and dying? Not at all. There’s hope. I have to rethink my approach in the cage. What’s one advantage I have over a gorilla? My mind. My brain. My intelligence. 

Instead of lunging at the gorilla, I can lunge for the tree, instead of going for the kill, I can climb out of the cage! The hard truth is this, I can’t kill the gorilla, just like I can’t kill the compulsion. I’ve got to stop attacking it, and escape it instead.

It’s a paradox of intention. A forced intention makes impossible what one forcibly wishes said Viktor Frankyl. When my attention gets refocused toward the proper object then the compulsion will unravel spontaneously. 

One of my gorillas is gluttony. Over the years, I’ve become a gourmand, a person who enjoys eating and often eats too much. I can’t stop at meals, it’s a constant wrestling match against indulgence, no matter how many times I try to white-knuckle-it at the table and say, I’m only going to eat 10 chips with salsa this time, or I’m only ordering off the kids menu, or I’m not eating off the kids plates anymore, it won’t work. All of these frontal assaults don’t help, they won’t kill the gorilla. I’m living proof of that.

So how do I escape gluttony? By practicing spiritual disciplines, simple exercises that build strength by eliciting God’s grace. One that has been especially helpful is fasting. Fasting is a way of training with the Spirit, it’s a way of transcending the compulsion, and it’s the way all spiritual disciplines work. Richard Foster, author of Celebration of Discipline says it beautifully:

We cannot by direct effort make ourselves into the kind of people who can live fully alive to God. Only God can accomplish this in us … We do not, for example, become humble merely by trying to become humble. Action on our own would make us all the more proud of our humility. No, we instead train with Spiritual Disciplines appropriate to our need … By an act of the will we choose to take up disciplines of the spiritual life that we can do. These disciplines are all actions of body, mind, and spirit that are within our power to do … Then the grace of God steps in, takes this simple offering of ourselves, and creates out of it the kind of person who embodies the goodness of God.”

I’ve been training with the spiritual discipline of fasting for the last twelve months and it’s been delightful to see the slow, liberating work of grace that’s enabling me to overcome my compulsions. I’ve completely abandoned my head strong assaults on gluttony and replaced them with a simple daily fast once a week. 

I don’t have to wrestle, I can escape. I’ve been at this for a while. I’m not out of the cage yet, but I’m getting higher. I’m moving upwards from limb to limb. Sometimes I fall, that’s okay, It’s all a part of escaping. It’s all a part of the journey. The important thing is to keep climbing.