“Just Stop”: The Unwillingness of the Will

Stop No StoppingI followed a link from another blog to an article in Christianity Today by John Ortberg. He ends the second paragraph by saying, “I don’t need to say any more about that, except to stop.”

Just stop.  I hate that.

I haven’t read the rest of Ortberg’s article yet.  He’s essentially talking about rest and time “wasted” well.  It’s probably not bad advice to the pastors he’s primarily writing to, though I’m sure I’d have lots to add or critique on his talk on solitude, musing, and production-enhancement.  I just didn’t get there because I got stuck on “Stop it.”

I bit my fingernails as a kid.  My father’s solution was straight and to the point: “Stop that.”  And it worked!  Okay, so it worked for about 10 minutes.  24 hours, tops.  I kept on ripping my fingernails open with my teeth the entire time I lived with my folks.  Somewhere in college I stopped, but that was long after my father had lost the ability to tell me to.  No matter what I did, no matter how many times I was told to, I couldn’t seem to stop.  I wanted to.  I just couldn’t.  My willpower was not enough to change this part of myself.  Willpower is still not enough to change us – to engender any kind of spiritual formation… except maybe to get us addicted to using our flailing willpower.

I remember with great fondness a tape I heard of John Townsend (or possibly Henry Cloud; I can’t be certain) when he said that if “Stop it” were all that were necessary, the Bible would have stopped at Exodus 20.  “‘Verse 14, “You shall not commit adultery.”‘  ‘Oh, I should stop! I never realized!  Stop! Oh!  Of course!  I am now a changed person.'”  The Bible doesn’t end at Exodus 20, as well all know.  Our souls don’t work this way.  But at the very least, we have reasons that we do things, and if we do things habitually (I mean things more significant than putting your pants on right leg first), we probably have pretty meaningful or strong reasons for doing them.  If we suddenly stop  doing something, those reasons are going to be left hanging, and those reasons, reasons that we may have no clue as to their identity, are going to want to assert themselves.  If you stop feeding yourself, you will, at some point, be possessed of a terrible urge to eat.  This is because there are underlying reasons that you eat, real or perceived needs that must be satisfied.  Ceasing from an activity means that your soul now feels that you need some other (or perhaps that same) activity to meet that need.

Why is alcoholism so difficult to combat?  Yes, there is a physical addiction going on, but there’s more to it.  Most alcoholics drink because it soothes something.  Stop drinking, and the soothing goes away.  Why does one gossip?  Gossiping apparently brings about some perceived good in the soul, perhaps a sense of control or connection.  Simply stopping the behavior now means that that perceived good is gone, and the absence wants to be filled; you feel you need that control or connection again.  This could be said for almost any habit, unhealthy or sinful or not.

To go into all the details of what to do beyond “just stop it” would take up a book, potentially an entire library.  Actually, that’s sort of a good chunk of, if not the entirety of, spiritual formation.  For now, I’ll just leave it at deciding to stop out of sheer willpower not working.  At the very least, know that there is more going on underneath a behavior than just the behavior.  To stop, you and that savior of yours will have to at least deal with that underneath stuff and the void that stopping can leave.

So if you’re tempted to try to solve some issue by willing yourself to quit, just stop it, huh?

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