When we sold our house before leaving for Indonesia, my husband had to patch up holes in the walls. Holes that I had made with my fist, a Sippy cup and an unfortunate toy dust devil. I’m sure this would be a surprise to most people who meet me and know me. I’m not loud or prone to outbursts of anger. I’m quiet. I’m controlled. I’m good, until I’m not.
I love self-discipline, Christians love self-discipline, and it is easy to lean towards behavior modification. We feel very mature when we deny ourselves and avoid unhealthy and sinful behaviors. We like to behave rightly and within ourselves find the means to muscle through and deny our urges enough to look good and feel good about ourselves.
But living overseas has an incredible way of bringing out our self-indulgence in real and damaging ways. Often, we won’t even see what is happening until we are so deeply enmeshed in it that the damage is devastating to a family, team or ministry. Intense and toxic stress pulls out our childhood habits for coping and while they helped us as children they harm us in the present. Yet, somehow, they feel comfortable to us and we easily fall back into those patterns, even clinging to them more tightly as the pressure presses in on us.
Sudden outbursts of destructive anger, pornography use and extra marital affairs are an obvious example of self-indulgent ways of coping with stress, disillusionment or pain, but there are many that are not obvious. Overeating or under-eating can be used to cope just as self-righteousness and grandiosity can be used as a shield to protect our image and seemingly buffer us from our anxieties.
All of these are symptoms of a deeper problem and simply denying the indulgence is not going to solve anything. It definitely won’t bring about healing, in fact, it can become another way that we rely on self-discipline to maintain morality and build a façade of perfection that will inevitably crumble.
In this light I think we can look at the stressors of cross-cultural life as a grace; a grace in which God is calling out the pain within us and exposing it to the light. We can fight against it, continuing to build our façade or we can lean into the areas of healing.
I am learning that self-control has more to do with self-knowledge and understanding then it does with which behaviors I do or do not do. When I was in the stage of punching walls to alleviate emotional distress I was also engaging in various forms of self-harm. As those destructive behaviors stopped satisfying I came to realize that the harm I did to myself would have to intensify in order to receive the same high. Inevitably that would mean I could no longer hide cuts on my arm, so I stopped.
Fear of exposure stopped me but it did not mend me.
What has helped is learning about my own personal childhood traumas and acknowledging the impact it has had on my mind and body. Now, instead of judgment on myself, I have mercy and I am better equipped to control my body responses. I know the reason why I feel the way I do. I know why I want to lash out. I also know how to lower the effect of those physiological responses, allowing me to minimize the harm I do to others and myself.
To me, this is self-control, when honest self-knowledge opens the door to God’s healing power so that we are no longer bound to repeat the patterns of the past. When we are no longer bound by the power of what we could not control but are free to choose how we respond based on truth and an understanding of what experiences have hardwired our bodies. Not a denial of weakness but an understanding of it.
God isn’t in this to fix our behaviors; he is in this relationship to heal our core. Self-control comes out of a deep place of peace and healing that only God can bring and that only comes through a deep and intentional work in our hearts. Fortunately for us, God is seeking us out in order to show us where he wants to heal us next and that often requires the pain of exposure when we behave outside of the moral code.
So, don’t judge yourself so harshly for misbehavior and don’t try so hard to be good. Instead, ask yourself what you are feeling and seek out where that feeling comes from and how is the behavior meeting that need. Ask God where he wants to heal you and watch him show you. He may show you in a still small voice or in the torrent of a storm, gently or violently. I guarantee it won’t be pleasant but it will be good.
Where are you trying to struggle through on your own?
If you need someone to walk with you as you process your past and the ways that is impacting your life overseas, please check out our Resource Page. There are several counseling centers, like GRC, that provide online counseling right where you are.
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