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Compulsive Buying: the All-important Distinction between the Thought and the Act

August 5, 2013

In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I note, “After the distinction between temptation and sin in thought, the ancient ascetics instruct the faithful in the obvious, but crucial difference between sin in thought and sin in deed as well as in the need to prevent the former from slipping into the latter. Origen views sin in thought as tolerable and treatable, but sin in word and deed as dangerous and difficult to cure, if not incurable. For this reason, when a wise man is disturbed by a storm of thoughts, he keeps that tempest of the mind hemmed in, neither uttering a word, nor moving a muscle.” Learning to not act upon a thought, even when it rages like a storm, is a classical patristic approach to sinful thoughts that today is being suggested in what is known as exposure and response prevention treatment for compulsive buying. For the Fathers, the emphasis is on the power of choice to face the waves of temptation and to let them break on the Rock of faith. Eventually the sea will become calm and the believer can then sail to another destination, one that is pleasing to God.

In its modern expression, exposure and response prevention entails individuals learning to recognize situations in which they will be triggered to go out and compulsively shop and making a hierarchy from the least to the most triggering situations. They then expose themselves to the least triggering situation, feel the pull to go out and shop, experience the uncomfortable emotions, but do not act upon them. They remain in this situation for half an hour or so, writing down the strength of that emotion on a scale of 0 to 10 at five minute intervals. What they will discover, hopefully, is that the emotions decrease and most importantly that having the impulse to act and having to act on it are two different things. In other words, they learn something that the fathers never tire of telling us: we all have a choice.

Learning not to act on impulses, but acting according to what one understands to be one’s best interests is the beginning of real freedom. Saint John of Damascus underlines this point. He writes, “the person who acts and does things is himself the author of his own works, and is a creature endowed with free-will. Further, if a human being is the author of no action, the faculty of deliberation is quite superfluous, for to what purpose could deliberation be put if a person is the master of none of his actions? For all deliberation is for the sake of action” (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 2, chapter 25). Those who are given over to compulsive buying have lost that freedom and need to recover it.

This is where the ascetic life is so very helpful. The ascetic life means that you can feel like eating, yet still fast. You can feel tired, yet still pray. You can feel like responding in kind to an insult, yet remain silent. This is the example Christ gave to His disciples in the Gospels. This is the example the Apostles bequeathed to the Saints. This is the example that should be the model for every Christian soul. You have a choice, if you make that all-important choice about what matters most in life. Recovery from compulsive buying or any other addictive behavior is about regaining that choice that seems to have been lost. And following the path of Christian asceticism in other areas can give the believer the strength to follow that same path in the area where freedom seems to be lacking.

The fathers offer an important insight in dealing with the addiction of compulsive buying-namely, the addict still has the capacity to choose and change albeit in a limited, weakened fashion.  This insight is also found in the writings of the Apostle Paul, “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”  Christ’s triumph over sin and death relates most intimately with those in the throes and shackles of addiction.  It is in the midst of seeming powerlessness and despair that the saving grace of Christ is able to free the one who chooses the action of crying out to Him in faith.

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2 Comments
  1. Bruce permalink

    Father Bless !

    You sketch out a powerful image our faith in Christ to overcome our temptations in:
    _____________
    For the Fathers, the emphasis is on the power of choice to face the waves of temptation and to let them break on the Rock of faith. Eventually the sea will become calm and the believer can then sail to another destination, one that is pleasing to God.
    ______________________

    In the midst of temptations, I need to be reminded that I always have a Rock who can offer me safe haven in the midst of whatever violent emotional storms and upheavals are underway. Rather than trying to survive these waves in my own craft, I need to retreat and seek Him knowing that He is ‘everywhere present and fillest all things’. My ability to experience Him is often then a function of my willingness to call on Him in courageous assurance and faith.

    In early sobriety, the Serenity Prayer was a path I was able to use in the midst of temptations to help me find this Rock of faith you describe. I wore out the shortened version but now find great wisdom and hope in its entirety:
    __________________________
    God, grant me the Serenity
    To accept the things I cannot change…
    Courage to change the things I can,
    And Wisdom to know the difference.
    Living one day at a time,
    Enjoying one moment at a time,
    Accepting hardship as the pathway to peace.
    Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is,
    Not as I would have it.
    Trusting that He will make all things right
    if I surrender to His will.
    That I may be reasonably happy in this life,
    And supremely happy with Him forever in the next.
    Amen.

    Attributed to Reinhold Neibuhr
    ______________________________

    I also loved the paragraph below which captures that what lies on the ‘other side’ of the journey of ascetic struggle is a new freedom. In this paradox of self denial and sacrifice of our desires to follow the actions He prescribes, regardless of how we feel, we experience a new and indescribable Freedom of His Kingdom; not of this world. One where His words to us in John 14:27 ‘My peace I give to you’ become an experience of the heart not words in the head. This journey of ascetic struggle is one where we also develop true intimacy with Christ as we call upon Christ as our Guide, Sustainer, and Comforter knowing that’without Him I can do nothing’ (John 15:5).
    ________________________
    This is where the ascetic life is so very helpful. The ascetic life means that you can feel like eating, yet still fast. You can feel tired, yet still pray. You can feel like responding in kind to an insult, yet remain silent. This is the example Christ gave to His disciples in the Gospels. This is the example the Apostles bequeathed to the Saints. This is the example that should be the model for every Christian soul. You have a choice, if you make that all-important choice about what matters most in life. Recovery from compulsive buying or any other addictive behavior is about regaining that choice that seems to have been lost. And following the path of Christian asceticism in other areas can give the believer the strength to follow that same path in the area where freedom seems to be lacking.
    _________________________

    In one of the stories in the AA Big Book on page 552, there is a quote from Abraham Lincoln I find quite relevant to the ‘freedom’ transformation which is at the heart of your post:

    “The only real freedom a human being can ever know is doing what you ought to do because you want to do it.'”

    Thank you again for all your are doing to bring me and all of us closer to Christ

  2. The Lord God bless you, Bruce!

    Thank you, once again for your comments. Turning to Christ our Rock on the shifting sands of life, turning to Christ our Peace in the turmoil and storm of life is a prescription for serenity , courage, and wisdom. There is so much we cannot change, but we can change our focus, and there is no better focus than Christ who clarifies our vision, expands our freedom, and gives us life. Thank you again for your kind words and valuable comments.

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