When a person chooses to make oneself the main character of his or her story, we call that story an “autobiography.” Autobiographies are distinguished from their counterparts, biographies, by the simple fact that an author is relating his side of things, her perspective. See if you can recognize the author of this short autobiography:
In chapter one, I walk down the street. There is a large hole in the sidewalk. I fall in. I am lost. I am helpless. It isn’t my fault. It takes forever to find a way out.
In Chapter 2: I walk down the same street. There is a large hole in the sidewalk. I pretend I don’t see it. I fall in again. I can’t believe that I’m in the same place, but it isn’t my fault. It still takes a long time to get out.
In Chapter 3, I walk down the same street. There is a large hole in the sidewalk. I see it there. I still fall in. It’s a habit. My eyes are open. I know where I am. It is my fault. I get out immediately.
In Chapter 4, I walk down the same street. There is a large hole in the sidewalk. I walk around it.
In Chapter 5, I choose to walk down a different street.
The author is Portia Nelson, yet most of us can identify with the various chapters of this story. On the pavement of our lives, most of us have fallen into large potholes, at one time or another, both unknowingly and knowingly. Sometimes we repetitively get stuck in the same pothole and no matter how hard we try, we simply can’t get out of it or avoid it. Each day, we have good intentions of trying a different street, but by mid-afternoon, we are gazing up at the clouds from our own private manhole, wondering why we didn’t think to bring along a ladder.
Today, Saint Paul is stuck in Chapter 3. He knows the road; he’s been there before. He sees the hole in the sidewalk. He wonders why he can’t walk around it…why he has chosen to walk this way again, when there are so many better streets to walk down. In short, he says, “I don’t understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Paul has good intentions, but bad habits. Can you hear his frustration? “For I do not do the good that I want, but the evil that I do not want is what I do.” He is like someone who after swearing to give up smoking, buys a carton of cigarettes at the local gas station and then smokes every last one. He’s like the person who decides to count calories and then splurges on a quart of Ben and Jerry’s. He is like the person who resolves to be more kind to his wife and children and then belittles her after she overcooks the steak. He’s like the stressed out mother who loses her temper at the church supper when her child drops and breaks a casserole dish.
Paul, who was a devout Jew and who had God’s Law written on his heart, doesn’t understand why his desire to do good won’t cooperate with his body and passions. To him, it seems as though there is a war inside himself—a constant struggle between Sin, with a capital “S,” and his better nature. For him, Sin is not a one-time occurrence – it’s not a place that you choose to visit, never to return again. Instead, it’s more like a favorite vacation spot. It’s familiar. You have visited there so often that you find yourself turning off the main road, even when you intend to go a different direction, even when you know that lunch hour has been over for over thirty minutes. You know the back roads and where the best deals can be had. The place that calls to you is seductive and comfortable, and the path to Sin’s doorstep is well-marked by fellow travelers. It offers no resistance, but promises instant gratification, instant relief. It is like the interest rate written in small print on your credit card statement. It is costly in more ways than one.
Sin can become habit in the same way that algae will overcome a pool that hasn’t been properly maintained. A younger nun once approached the Spanish Carmelite nun, Teresa of Avila, and confessed to the older sister a whole list of terrible things. Teresa supposedly advised, “We know, sister, that none of us is perfect. Just take care that your sins don’t turn into bad habits.” We complain about the chlorine and the time required skimming off bugs and debris. But without regular maintenance, the pool would not be conducive to swimming.
What baffles the apostle Paul, as some commentators have noted, is his propensity to Sin, despite his being a Christian. Being a Christian is supposed to make things easier, right? Like us, Paul wonders, “If I delight in the law of God, then why do I still remain captive to doing evil? If I always choose to walk down the road that I know is filled with potholes, then what hope do I have of rescue?
Changing habits is a difficult process. If it was easy, then we would not turn to support groups, diet aids, nicotine substitutes, self-help books, hypnosis, psychologists, and behavior therapists. We would not make resolutions on December 31st, only to break them in mid-February. We would not need to forgive each other and ourselves every time we fall short of perfection, good intention, and good will. We would not need each other. We would not need Jesus.
Behavior therapists suggest all kinds of techniques to change bad habits into good. Most behaviorists agree that the best way to change a negative habit is to substitute a positive one. If you’re trying to lose weight, substitute the carrot stick for the candy bar. If you are given to pessimism, try focusing on the best-case-scenario. If you tend to lose your temper, try chewing gum before you chew someone out.
One behaviorist advertises a device called a “MotivAider” which is worn like a beeper and vibrates several times a day to remind a person of her intention to change. Based on the fact that most folks are not even aware of when they are engaging in bad habits, the device works by getting a person’s attention—that is, issuing a signal that is associated each time with a positive message for change. For example, John has a tendency to be overbearing towards others. Each time the device vibrates, John checks- in with himself and privately reminds himself to step-back and give others some breathing room. If done often enough, John’s behavior will change—or so the manufacturer claims.
Even if we were to wear a beeper that calls us to attention on a regular basis, we still have a tendency to ignore the signal, to push the “snooze” button when the alarm goes off. We ignore signals from God all the time to our detriment. For Paul, the only thing that can rescue us from this state of affairs is something outside of ourselves, namely the Spirit of life in Jesus Christ. He is the supreme motivator that rescues us from our tendency to hit snooze and roll over -and -over again in sin. His is the life that calls us to attention throughout the daily lives. And how? By reminding us of a greater love, a greater joy, and a greater hope than any cheap substitute for which we might reach.
Now, it doesn’t happen all at once. Perhaps some of you are sitting there thinking, “But at my age, I am stuck in my ways. Maybe a few years ago, I could change, but not now.” There is a Spanish proverb that says, “Habits are at first cobwebs, then cables.” Some of us think that we are bound by cables. If that is you, hear this good news published in the AARP magazine. According to Dr. Jeffery Wilkins, director of addiction medicine at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in LA, “The consensus in the medical literature is that a 30-year habit is probably no more firmly ingrained in our brain circuitry than a one-year habit.” Paul doesn’t put age limits on our capacity to draw closer to Christ and be transformed by the gospel.
Still, we know that it takes time and perseverance. In traditional Christian thinking, the process by which we learn to love and to consistently choose the good is called “sanctification.” Through faith, the Spirit forms within us a new creation, so the compulsive power of our bad habits, sinful natures, and burdensome guilt gradually fall away like an old snake skin and we learn to love God and serve each other.
A man has spent most of his life keeping to himself. His motto has been “don’t mess with me, and I won’t mess with you.” During the winter, he carefully shovels the walkway in front of his home, but never a few feet to the right or to the left. He doesn’t know his neighbors and doesn’t care to know them. He doesn’t get involved. One day, an ambulance comes and takes him away. He is gone a long time, first the hospital then rehab. It takes his body a long time to heal. Never has he been so dependent on others, never has he been so helpless or so lonely. Eventually, he returns home.
The next winter, after the first big snow, the man clears the sidewalk in front of his house as is his habit. When he gets to his property line, he turns to go inside and then thinks better of it. Slowly, he begins to shovel the sidewalk next door. His muscles ache and he is weary; the work is more strenuous, but he continues. Meanwhile, his neighbor, an elderly woman, opens the door to thank him. “Call me, Bill,” he says and turns. They are first words she has ever heard from his mouth.
Wouldn’t it be something if we were to get to the end of our autobiography and realize that we weren’t the main character after all? Might that be a kind of blessed release? Independence doesn’t mean freedom from something, but freedom for something. For what are you using your freedom?
“Come to me,” Jesus says, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you…and you will find rest for your souls.” If the weight of the world falls on your shoulders today, perhaps it’s because you are relying only on your strength. Amen.
 Portia Nelson, reprinted at Beliefnet.com, November 2001.
 Meredith Wadman, “Breaking Free: Dropping Bad Habits After 50” The AARP Magazine,
www. Aarpmagazine.org/health/Articles/a2004-11-17-mag-breakingfree, accessed July 2, 2005.