Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Destroying the "let it out" myth

I would bet that sometime within the last month, you have heard someone use the pop psychology philosophy that one must avoid “pent up” emotions. If you hold onto your anger inside, the theory goes, it will eventually burst out more powerful than before. It is better to relieve that anger in frequent, small bursts—through workouts or punching bags or whatever. We say the same thing about lust—better to look at porn and masturbate, the businessman thinks, than to cheat with the stewardess.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus says the opposite of course: He says that you should not even allow lust, for this is just as bad as adultery; you should not even allow small bursts of anger, as this is just as bad as murder.

Everyone who hears that says, “Sure…but…c’mon. You can’t let your emotions get all pent-up. That’s just common sense.”

It is just common sense. The problem with common sense, though, is that just because something is common does not make it sensible.

The logic here is simple: you are having a negative emotion, so you should allow that emotion to occur in small doses so that it does not burst forward in major, uncontrollable ways later.

But what if we applied that logic to other areas in life?

Would you tell the alcoholic that the best approach is to just take one shot every day, so that his desire for alcohol will be sated and therefore he will never be tempted?

Would you tell the junkie that as long as he only takes small hits each day, he’ll be able to avoid going on a bender?

Would you tell the pedophile just to look at a little bit of child pornography so that his lust is satisfied in ‘healthy’ ways?

Of course not! We reject this lunatic approach to healing addictions, just as we rejected the medieval foolishness of leeching fluids from the body. (Note that the logic behind leeching was the exact same: you lose control of your health because of too much of substance X in your body; if you can let that substance out then everything will be fine.)

Two thousand years ago, our Scriptures told us that trying to defeat addictions to sin was impossible by willpower (Romans 7) or by ‘letting it out’ in small doses (Matt 5-7). Neither approach worked. Rather, it seems that the Biblical authors encourage us to find support in other believers, to pray, and to have faith that the God who saved us will continue the good works that He has begun in us.

How interesting, then, that neuroscience is beginning to tell us the same things.

Your brain is a massive computer network, made up of 100,000,000,000 (one hundred billion) small processing computers called neurons. These amazing devices can process electrical and chemical signals naturally. Each of these tiny computers is wired to about 7,000 others; these wires are called synapses. So within an average human brain, there is something like 700,000,000,000,000 electrical connections allowing lightning-fast decision-making.

What has become interesting is that neuroscience has discovered that the human brain wires itself and literally changes based upon what it learns and experiences. The saying goes, “What fires together, wires together.” So for example, suppose that every time you go to work out, you begin replaying arguments with your wife in your head. Your goal is to “let out” the aggression during the workout, right? But the problem is that the neurons which fire during your violent workout are also firing simultaneously with thoughts of your wife--and now they will begin to wire themselves together. Over time, instead of one or two synaptic paths connecting your emotions about your wife to violent thoughts and anger, now there is a superhighway of synapses connecting the two. So your thoughts about your wife much more quickly move to anger.

So it seems that Jesus was right all along--“letting out” anger in small ways does not lead to a calmer person, but rather to a much more hot-headed person.

Now that you know this, there are of course countless examples you will be able to imagine in the world around you. Think about politics: there are many people who love the country and vote but don’t get emotionally tied up in it; yet others get passionate and angry. Why? Because “what fires together, wires together”--their passion and emotions are (literally) all tied up together with politics in their brain.

This same problem has led to a major new side effect of lust in our society. Now that internet pornography is available readily, more and more men (and women!) have begun using pornography and masturbation as a major part of their sexual lifestyle; indeed, some sex therapists recommend it in small doses! (Following the same medieval logic mentioned before.) Meanwhile, what has the result been? An epidemic is spreading among 20 and 30-somethings of erectile dysfunction and increasingly bizarre and hardcore fetishes. Say that a 20-something male is married and has sex once per week on average, and masturbates to pornography four times per week. (Neither of these numbers is far outside of typical, by the way.) So how is his brain being re-wired by his activities? All of a sudden, the neurons are wiring in such a way that his sexual arousal becomes tied to sitting at his computer, by himself, with new virtual partners and strange sexual situations. The arousal neurons are firing along with these stimuli MUCH more frequently than the amount of times they fire with his wife. Before long, his wife approaches him and he finds that the neurons controlling his arousal don’t fire around her anymore! His brain has rewired itself and now he needs pornography to become aroused. A great (secular) website, www.yourbrainonporn.com, is a must-have reference for any pastor wishing to counsel men in his congregation. It explains the neurology behind this phenomenon with regard to lust…and provides a way to “reboot” your brain back to its original settings.

As a Christian, these new findings help buttress the testimony of Scripture when it comes to dealing with the addiction to sin--and we all are addicted to some sin(s). Whatever it is that you are struggling with, understand that you cannot simply “will” your way out of it, nor should you engage in the activity in small doses to try and “let out” the desire. That is not how temptation works.

The best way is to follow a similar process to the (Christianity-based) approach used in AA:

• To admit that you cannot control the compulsion;
• To rely on God to give you the strength to resist the temptations;
• To work with a mentor/sponsor who has overcome the same issue in order to learn techniques for avoiding the temptation;
• To make amends for people who you have hurt by the sin; and
• To actively help others who suffer from the same sin.

These approaches are proven, Biblical, and effective. They are not based upon the flawed arrogance that you can just “stop whenever you want”--because that is false. You cannot. If you believe you can, then go read Romans 7 and come back to me, and explain how you are stronger than Paul. You are a soul dragging around a decaying body, and until God replaces that body with a new one, you will always struggle with sin.

Nor should you follow the foolish medieval approach of “letting it out” in small doses. Just because it is common sense does not make it correct.

Instead, understand that all good things come from God, not from you. Understand that if you let Him, He will help you avoid the temptation. And surround yourself with wise advisers who also have had the same struggles, so that they can assist you in helping to overcome them.


  1. This is a timely post - I recently found that Your Brain On Porn site. I think it's very interesting that non-Christian people are starting to discover how destructive this sort of thing is, too.

    It's not enough to avoid the bad connections your brain wants to make, but to forge good connections, too. While I definitely struggle with this, I realize that I have to get my brain to find its ultimate, sustaining pleasure in Jesus rather than food, hobbies, girls, and so on.

  2. I suppose you've been asked before about Jesus' "small burst of anger" toward the money changers in the temple...?

  3. Actually regarding the money changers, that particular story really isn't in the scope of what I'm talking about here. Here I am talking specifically about the concept of "letting out" anger in order to avoid worse anger. Jesus' attack on the moneychangers wasn't an attempt to control his anger by 'letting a little out', so that really isn't what I'm discussing.

    That being said, it is a fair question as to whether Jesus' anger at the money changers was a sin under His prohibition on anger. One day I may write more thoroughly on that topic. But in brief, the moneychangers were turning a Jewish-required sacrifice for sins into an opportunity to turn a profit--not unlike the medieval practice of selling indulgences by the Papacy. This reduces God's forgiveness of sin to a monetary transaction, completely undermining God. Jesus' attack was not one of momentary, rage but instead He took the time to actually find random cords and wind a whip strong enough to drive cattle...no small feat. As I have said before, what the Sermon on the Mount shows is that it is not the actions which make the heart righteous, but the state of the heart which makes the actions righteous. Jesus here is righteously angry on God's behalf and protects God's holiness: so not at all the same as what I am talking about above, where a person indulges knowingly in a 'lesser' sin as an attempt to avoid a greater sin.

    Hopefully that helps!