Holding Back the Tide: Part Two

Shifting Impulses)

Yesterday I spoke about how trying to overcome one addiction might simply cause it to shift to another area. Recognizing this tendency is important if we want to live an actually healthy life, not just a life that is unhealthy in a different way.

As I suggested yesterday, slipping into our vices one way or another will always be easier than being healthy. Just as gravity is a constant downward force in the physical world, there is also a constant downward force in the spiritual world, making it easier and simpler for us to fall than to rise. And like gravity, this evil force can pull at us from all directions.

Fortunately, from the times when I have been the most sincere in my recovery, I have discovered some things that can help a great deal. Today I’ll be taking a look at them.

Emptying the Cup)

If I were to ask you to empty all of the air out of a cup, how would you do it? Obviously tipping the cup upside down wouldn’t suffice. You could suck the air out with a straw, but of course other air would flow right back in to take its place. You could make a seal on the top of the cup and then suck out all of the air, creating a vacuum, but this would likely cause the cup to collapse inward and destroy itself.

However, there is one, simple and non-destructive way that the task can be done. Instead of only trying to get the air out, you can simultaneously put something different in. If you pour water into the cup, for example, then the air will naturally be replaced, thus fulfilling the task.

So, too, with getting out a vice. That vice took up a certain amount of your time and energy, and if you just try to scoop it out of your day you have now created an emptiness that will be filled with something else. If you don’t give any thought to what will make use of that time and energy, then it’s probably going to be some other vice because, as I stated above, vice is easier than virtue. If you try to take the vice out and then seal off that freed-up time, not allowing anything to make use of it, you will eventually collapse under the pressures of boredom and frustration.

So, for every evil thing you want to take out of your life, you’re going to need to replace it with an equal measure of good. You need to deliberately start doing something new, something that carries the same expense of time and energy that you were using for the vice.

For me, that led to starting this blog and writing stories. These were very large undertakings, but that was appropriate, because they were replacing a large addiction. It definitely took some work to get my writing going, but once it became a regular practice then going back to the addiction wasn’t even an option, because now it would have to displace the writing that had taken its place and I just couldn’t accept that.

Preserve What You Have)

But if you are going to start a new practice, then consistency is absolutely key. Have you ever found yourself rotating between life-changes that you want to make, shoring up one, just to see the others slip back out of control? I might go on a rotation between things like exercising, getting to bed on time, and saying meaningful prayers. I’ll make a real effort to start exercising, and I’ll make progress there, only to realize that my bedtimes have been slipping later and later into the night. So I’ll focus on when I get to bed, while trying to maintain my exercising, but then I realize I’ve totally forgotten about having a meaningful prayer in the morning. So I focus on that, only to lose my grip on exercise.

In some cases, this is a result of trying to do too much. Yes, a healthy, well-rounded life requires balance, but you only have so many hours in a day and so much of a reserve of willpower. By pouring it all into one area at the start of the day, you may not have enough resolve remaining for all the later tasks. And this cyclical pattern of restarting and abandoning practices only serves to ensure that none of them become a part of regular habit.

So as I’ve already said, one needs to fill their day with deliberate, good things, but they also need to not overfill it. One must put together their core practices with judgment and care, and perhaps their first plan doesn’t work perfectly, and needs to be revised over time.

A Work in Progress)

This is still an area that I am working on myself. I think I have learned and understand some important principles, but the knowledge alone is not enough to make me a perfect practitioner. I am, at least, aware of my shortcomings, and committed to fixing them. I’ll continue to check in from time-to-time, keeping you apprised of my progress. In future series I will also detail more of how I am creating a schedule of healthy tasks to replace the vices in my life, and some of the challenges I have faced while implementing it. For now, though, I’ll move on to another topic for tomorrow. I’ll see you there.

Dealing With Failure- Summary

This has been a very helpful study for me. Actively striving to be more Christ-like has been a wonderful experience where I have seen found real growth and increased happiness. Many behaviors have organically improved all on their own, far more easily than I ever would have thought possible.
But while there have been areas of quick growth, there have also been other areas that are far more difficult to grow in, and behaviors that have proved far more resistant to change than I had expected. And in response to those complications I have seen the rise of my old, familiar inner critic.
Through this study I have found some important lessons for how to deal with these growing pains, and having this understanding has already brought me a greater sense of peace. I guess this was just another area I needed growth in! Here are the main points that stood out to me from my study.

Keep Pressing Forward)

I have never had a time where I didn’t want to improve myself, but there was a period where it was more of an idle wish than an actual intention. And even that idle wishing was incomplete, because only some flaws did I care to improve on, while others I just didn’t care about.
Eventually I was woken up to my desperate need for God and a path to follow. I realized that my existence was lifeless, and would remain so unless I was actively chasing for a better me. And at that same time I realized that if I was going to give myself over to this journey, it needed to be all the way. Now I knew that I must improve myself in every area.
It simply wasn’t going to cut it to overcome lust and deceit, but leave myself a guarded recluse. Nor would it do to only build meaningful relationships, but not improve the way I cared for my body.
And the outcome of this is that I can take glory in the failures I experience, because it means I’m actually trying. It means I’m no longer accepting a half-lived life. Friction, after all, is not felt until one starts moving.
Luke 9:62- And Jesus said unto him, No man, having put his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.
Ephesians 5:14- Wherefore he saith, Awake thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.

Be Direct, But Kind)

One of the most surprising epiphanies that came to me through this research was that the healthy way to treat someone else when they let me down is the same way I should treat myself when I let me down. It seems such a simple concept that I’m honestly embarrassed to say that this was a revelation, but really it answered so many of my questions and frustrations.
Or to put it another way, the golden rule flows both directions. Yes, I should do unto others as I would have others do unto me…but also I should do unto myself as I would have others do unto me!
If I do something to let someone else down, I would not want them to scream at or hurt me. Nor would I want them to deny that it was wrong of me, either. I would hope that they could be honest about their frustration, express it without hate, give clear direction as to which of my behaviors is causing the pain, and still reassure me of their unconditional love.
It takes effort to do that. It can by very hard to get into a mental state that can be so vulnerable and kind. And I am sure that there will be many who never treat me that way. But at the very least, I should.
Doctrine and Covenants 121:43- Reproving betimes with sharpness, when moved upon by the Holy Ghost; and then showing forth afterwards an increase of love toward him whom thou hast reproved, lest he esteem thee to be his enemy;
Galatians 6:1- Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.

Ask For Help)

The final takeaway from my study was the need for surrendering. My default behavior is to believe that I have to do things myself. I am reluctant to ask for help, or to accept kindness when it is offered. Even when I was at school and didn’t understand a difficult concept, I was more likely to beat my head against the wall trying to figure out on my own instead of raising my hand and asking a question.
It seems a simple logic that if I got myself into this mess, I should be able to get myself out of it. If I was able to do the behaviors that led me here, I must also be able to do the opposite behaviors to get myself back.
But that just. Isn’t. True.
Yes, some steps can be undone, but some make you fall down a hole that you don’t have the gear to climb out of. And it isn’t a question of if this will happen, Adam and Eve set the pattern for this Fall and each of us will follow it. We will all be down in that pit in life, in fact we’ll be there several times.
So I will do my best, my absolute, genuine best. But then, as always, I will rely on grace. For there are many parts of my heart that are too deep for me to reach, and only God can change them.
Psalm 55:22- Cast thy burden upon the Lord, and he shall sustain thee: he shall never suffer the righteous to be moved.
1 Corinthians 2:5- That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
2 Nephi 25:23- For we know that it is by grace that we are saved, after all we can do.

Dealing With Failure- Proverbs 3:5, 1 Corinthians 1:24, 1 Corinthians 2:5

Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

Because the foolishness of God is wiser than men; and the weakness of God is stronger than men.

That your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.


Lean not unto thine own understanding
The weakness of God is stronger than men
Your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God
I have previously spoken of how I have sometimes been too hard on myself when I slip, and as I’ve considered that negative self-talk I have realized that it is a misguided attempt to control my behavior through fear. I am trying to force myself to be better via the tools of shame and embarrassment.
And this is me relying on my own strength, trying to control things according to my own power. In this effort I am utilizing the same forms of coercion that mankind has relied on through all of history to get what they want. Fear and shame are techniques that we continue to fall back on even though they are hugely ineffective. They are techniques that we use as a substitute for genuine power and confidence.
But as these verses suggest, there is a better way. There is another source of strength that each of us has access to, one that is greater than any mortal strength. So now the question is, how do we stop relying on our own power to improve ourselves, and utilize God’s instead?

Dealing With Failure- Matthew 26:41

Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.


The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.
If you’re like me, then this verse alone can describe the majority of your self-disappointments. It isn’t a question of not knowing what is right , or not wanting to do what is right, or not striving to do what is right. It’s simply that while part of me yearns for what is right, another part would rather be lazy, or sensually satisfied, or just revert back to what it already knows.
And I feel it is important to understand and acknowledge both sides of this. When I went to addiction recovery, I already hated my sinful cravings and I didn’t need to be taught to just hate them more. What I did need was to appreciate that I was already fundamentally good in my core desires, and now needed to learn to master the flesh.
And this was why my recovery program stressed the importance of making–and keeping–daily commitments. Even little things that were entirely unrelated to the addiction, such as brushing my teeth for a full two minutes or being to work on time. Because little by little I had to teach myself how to follow through and just do the things I already wanted to do. At last my flesh wasn’t overrunning my naturally good soul.

Dealing With Failure- Question

Each of us has had times where there was something we wanted to improve in ourselves, we made a conviction to change, and then we failed to keep that commitment.

And it is hard to know how to react to failure like this. I’ve had times where I was too hard on myself, berating myself in ways that were abusive and unhelpful. I also have had times where I’ve been too nonchalant about it, just shrugging it off with lip service and never making actual progress.

My belief is that failure should be devastating…but not soul-crushing. It should make us sad, but not hopeless. And my question is, how do we walk that line? How do we deal with failure in a way that is kind and compassionate, but also firmly committed to improvement? How does God react to us when we let ourselves down, and what can we glean from that example?

I’d be curious to hear if you’ve ever dealt with these issues as well. Do you ever find yourself giving yourself a pass when you shouldn’t? Do you find yourself holding onto guilt to an unhealthy degree? How do you make your recommitment sincere after you’ve let yourself down so many times before?

A Surety of Truth- Colossians 3:23, Ecclesiastes 9:10

And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men;

Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest.


And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men
Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might

We have discussed the inherent difficulty in being completely sure of our convictions. We all have our opinions of what we think is right, but we’re probably not 100% correct on the matter. But it would be wrong, because of that uncertainty, to paralyze ourselves into inaction. We do not have to understand all things perfectly before we begin to move forward. We can simply try our best, even if our best has some flaws right now.
Indeed, this is the pattern advocated for several times in the scriptures, including the two verses shared above. We are meant to act boldly and confidently, we are meant to live our convictions with a passion. Do the best that you know to do now. Do it wholeheartedly.
And then, during that, be open to learning an even better way later on. And when you receive that improvement, then do that wholeheartedly. Thus we are always moving forward, and doing so straighter and straighter the farther we go.

The Doing Muscle- Summary

We all have wished that we more consistent at doing the things that we know we should. If each of us was able to be our best self each day, the world would already be a divine place to live. Indeed, one might argue that the best thing any of us can do to right the greater wrongs of the world, is to simply improve our own selves instead. How can we help the world live by the principles that we think are important, if we’re not even fully living them ourselves?

Doing this study was a great help to me. It helped me to understand why it is so hard for me to consistently be my best self and what I can do to be more successful. It also has helped me to be more patient with my own imperfections.

Not only have I better understood these principles by conducting this study, I would say that I have seen my behavior improve as a result. By implementing these principles and practices in my life I have found I am more successful at doing the things I already know I should be doing. Let’s take a look at what some of the principles and practices are.

The Self-Improvement Hierarchy

One truth that stood out to me was the need to put first things first. Forming ourselves into our best self is a very monumental undertaking, not unlike trying to erect a great building. And as when trying to erect a great building, it is absolutely necessary to begin with a solid foundation. One might stack toothpicks up very high for a brief moment, and for that brief moment it might appear quite impressive, but sooner or later a tower of toothpicks is destined to fall. So too with heroic efforts to be morally perfect one day, only to then binge on all of one’s indulgences the next.
Jesus, himself, taught the importance of establishing a solid foundation before building upwards. He spoke of storms of life that will try to blow down our progress, and how they will succeed unless we are rooted on something sure.
So before we try to tick off our personal-perfection-checklist we need to get down into the basement and see what the conditions are like. Are we prone to addictions? Do we have unconfessed sins adding unnecessary strain? Are we desecrating our homes and bodies (our temples) with things that degrade the soul? Are we trying to found our success on our own strength only? If the answer to any of these is yes, then we’re never going to make any long-term progress. We need to establish a far better foundation first, and only then we can start building in earnest.
Matthew 5:23-24- Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;
Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.
Matthew 7:26-27- And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand:
And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it.

Failure is Part of the Process

Of course, even after we’ve got our foundation taken care of, that doesn’t mean the act of building ourselves higher is an easy process. Even those that have bridled their appetites and established a core of strength still make mistakes, still doing things that they know they shouldn’t, still leave undone that which their conscience tells them they should do.
And as we look at the scriptural narrative it has always been this way. At the height of their work the prophets and apostles were still making mistakes. Moses struck the rock, Peter was reluctant to bring the gospel to the Gentiles, Paul got into heated disagreements with his fellow missionaries. Yet none of them are defined by their failures, because they continued trying to do right in spite of them.
If we try and fail and then give up, then yes, that will be the final, defining note in our journey. But if we try and fail and retry, then it is the “retry” which defines our legacy instead. It isn’t about reaching the full destination in this life, it’s about staying on the road.
Galatians 6:9- And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.
Philippians 3:12, 14- Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after.
I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.

Divine Help is Necessary

The final principle I realized was that, ironically, that which we call “self-improvement” is most likely to fail when it is performed only by the self. I believe many of us have a personal pride, and want to make ourselves into the ideal man or woman without any help from anyone else. Or perhaps we might feel that humbly relying on God is only meant for that first step, the one where we were trying to sort out our foundation, overcome our addictions, and confess our major sins. We might feel that God needs to save us, but once He has, now it is all on us to make something beautiful out of the new life we have been given.
But that simply isn’t the case. The steps that take us from sinners to the repentant turn out to be the exact same steps to take us from the repentant into saints. Just as much as we needed to plead with God to sponge away our guilt and shame, we again need to plead with Him to give us the strength to become more like Him. It is a dangerous journey before us, and we were never meant to take it alone. This has to be a partnership, for that it is the will only it will ever succeed.
Isaiah 40:31- But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.
Isaiah 41:10- Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.

The Doing Muscle- 1 Corinthians 6:19, Matthew 21:13

What? know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?

And said unto them, It is written, My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.


Know ye not that your body is the temple, which ye have of God?
My house shall be called the house of prayer; but ye have made it a den of thieves.
When I have sought to improve my well-being the thought has often occurred to me that I ought to consider the temples in my life, and whether they are places of sanctity. Is my house a shrine to God, or a place where His spirit would be offended to dwell? Is my room a place of focus, or a place of distraction? Is my body well cared for and nourished, or is it deprived of its basic needs?
Sometimes having the strength for self-improvement requires looking inward and outward. Maybe we’re making things harder on ourselves by not cultivating an environment where the spirit can thrive. The Holy Ghost is meant to bring to us the mind and will of God, meaning that when it is present our thoughts and desires are more easily aligned to the virtues we are trying to emulate. In other words, having a sacred space invites the companionship of the Holy Ghost, and having the companionship of the Holy Ghost just makes doing the good things easier.

The Doing Muscle- 1 Corinthians 10:13, Matthew 6:33

There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.

But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.


There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man
If there is anything that keeps us from doing the things we want to do, it probably exists under the umbrella of temptation. Temptation to go back to our old ways, temptation to procrastinate, temptation to just plain be lazy. If it weren’t for friction we would all do exactly what we intended to do, and temptation is the greatest source of friction out there.

But God is faithful, who will with the temptation also make a way to escape
But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness
But fortunately for us, temptation has its cure. It’s easy to think that self-improvement can only be done by–well–the self. We assume that it is our personal cross to bear, unable to receive any outside help. However this isn’t the case. A change of heart does require effort from us, but it also requires a miracle from God.
And so the guidance in these verses is to seek the kingdom of God first. We should build up our connection to him, learn how hear His voice, learn how to invoke His blessings in our lives. If we build on that foundation first then we can work with Him on every other element of self-improvement together.

The Doing Muscle- Matthew 9:16-17

No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for that which is put in to fill it up taketh from the garment, and the rent is made worse.
Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break, and the wine runneth out, and the bottles perish: but they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved.


No man putteth a piece of new cloth unto an old garment, for the rent is made worse
Neither do men put new wine into old bottles: else the bottles break

Have you ever tried to make an improvement in your life and found that you not only fail to meet it, but also move backwards on other practices? Like a juggler who can keep three balls aloft, but when a fourth is added they drop the whole set.
I have certainly had the experience of feeling like I tried for too much too soon, and as a result lost what progress I already had. I have learned the wisdom of adding one small improvement at a time instead, keeping things manageable from one step to the next.

But they put new wine into new bottles, and both are preserved
But sometimes incremental improvements are not the solution. Sometimes the solution is realizing that the structure of your life will never be able to hold the changes that you need to make.
And so I have also learned the wisdom of occasionally throwing out the old bottle and starting again with a new vessel. I just let go of all the things that I “think I have to do,” resulting in a daily schedule that is devoid of anything at all. And then I start putting things in, the most important ones first, and being sure to include the new improvements that I know I need. At the end there are many old things left behind, but that is better than trying to cram it all in until the bottle bursts.