Here is a recent comment from a reader named Rob:
I’m utterly discouraged. I try to turn around and be better so I’ll be on the way to heaven, but I still love things I should not, like bullying people online. I get off on being right and defeating someone in a debate, and I can be very rude and self-righteous. Even if I stay away from political forums, I still want badly to go into the fray, and sometimes I give in. My attitude towards people is very hostile still, and it doesn’t change. How can one not be discouraged? Obviously I care enough to post this and read the articles here and elsewhere, but I wonder if I’m just soothing my conscience. I still want to stand on people’s necks, so to speak. It’s the worst thing about me, but I only fear hell, not the thing itself. And often I just don’t care, especially right after I wake up. I just go right to it.
It seems hopeless, from my point of view.
Yes, it’s very discouraging. But it’s not hopeless.
This does not mean we are doomed to be jerks forever. It does not mean there is no way off the slippery slope to hell. We can change. But a will to change is not enough. To bring about real and lasting change in our character, we must adopt effective strategies and methods.
It helps to have an understanding of the difference between our inner self and our outer self, and where to begin our attack. Contrary to popular belief, changing ourselves from the inside out is not the most effective strategy.
(Note: This post is a greatly expanded version of my original response to Rob’s comment. You can see his comment and my original reply here.)
You have already taken the first two steps, which are recognizing that what you’re doing is wrong, and caring enough to want to do something about it. This puts you ahead of most Internet trolls and “debaters” (really, fighters).
I have two practical suggestions. The first one is straight out of the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772). The second is a method to make the first one stick:
- When you feel the desire to attack and defeat people in online debate, and to stand on their necks, say to yourself, “I am thinking about this and I am intending to do it, but because it is a sin, I am not going to do it” (True Christianity #535).
- Once you notice the pattern of times and circumstances in which you do it, intentionally establish a different habit and routine to do instead whenever those times and circumstances come around.
The inner message: It is wrong, so I am not going to do it
All intentional change to our character does come from within. We must first recognize that something about us is wrong and needs changing, and we must have some desire to change it.
Recognizing that there is something wrong with ourselves has two basic requirements:
- Learning and adopting a moral and spiritual code by which to measure ourselves.
- Engaging in self-examination to see where we don’t measure up.
Most of us do grow up with some reasonable moral code that gives us an idea of what is right and wrong. And there is always more to learn about living a moral and spiritual life.
It’s easy to see what’s wrong with other people, and criticize them for it. It is much harder to turn the searchlight of truth in the opposite direction, and recognize where we ourselves don’t measure up.
Effective self-examination involves identifying specific wrong attitudes and actions in ourselves.
“I’m a bad person” isn’t helpful. What can we do with that?
“I enjoy bullying people online” is helpful. It gives us something specific to work on.
As it turns out, Rob has already checked both of these boxes. He has a moral code by which to measure his actions, and he has identified a specific wrong behavior in himself. Even if it doesn’t feel like it, that’s real progress!
What is sin, and why shouldn’t we do it?
What about that “sin” thing in the Swedenborg quote?
“Sin” sounds like a big, bad, old-fashioned word. But on the practical level, sin is quite simple: It is doing something that we know is wrong.
From a spiritual perspective, sin has two basic elements:
- It is harmful, destructive, and wrong.
- It is against God’s commandments.
As covered on its Wikipedia page, cyberbullying is indeed harmful, destructive, and wrong. Even if all we see is some text and pictures on a screen, there is a real person on the other end. It is especially damaging to the emotional and psychological lives of pre-teens and teenagers, many of whom have not developed the strength and assurance of character required to resist it. But it can cause great emotional distress to adults as well. In some cases it even leads to the victim committing suicide.
Recognizing that we are hurting real people is one way to realize that what we are doing is wrong, and that we must stop doing it.
Cyberbullying is also against God’s commandments.
Okay, there is no commandment in the Bible that says, “Thou shalt not cyberbully.” But there is this commandment:
Thou shalt not kill. (Exodus 20:13, Deuteronomy 5:17)
If the victim commits suicide, then cyberbullying is killing in a very literal sense. But the deeper, spiritual meaning of this commandment is much broader. It includes killing a person’s reputation and livelihood, killing a person’s psychological and emotional life, killing a person’s faith and spiritual life, and so on. All of these and more are very real deaths, even if they are not physical deaths.
In short, cyberbullying, like in-person bullying, is harmful, destructive, and wrong and it is against God’s commandment not to kill. It is an evil thing to do. And if we know it is evil and against God’s commandments, and we keep on doing it, then it is a sin against God.
All of this is why, once we recognize it in ourselves, we must put an end to it.
That’s the hard part.
The outer action: Putting something better in its place
When it comes time to make real changes, even well-intentioned, self-reflective people often go off the rails in their plans for self-improvement.
One reason for this is the common idea that we have to change ourselves from the inside out. People make enormous efforts to change their motives, their attitudes, their patterns of thinking, and so on.
And then they do the same thing all over again.
And beat themselves up for it.
It is important understand that doing evil is pleasurable. We enjoy it. If we didn’t, why would we do it?
When we decide to take on our wrong behavior, we are fighting our own faulty heart.
Ever since the Fall of Humankind, the standard-issue human heart enjoys lifting itself up by putting other people down. And when it has successfully put other people down, it takes pleasure in their humiliation and pain. As long as we still have that faulty heart beating inside us, hurting other people feels good to us!
It is also important to understand that we are not good at fighting our own feelings. If we pit our will power against our feelings, our feelings and the desires of our heart will almost always win the war.
That’s why we need a different strategy to bring about real and lasting change in ourselves.
A strategy for change
Here is a proven strategy:
Instead of reforming yourself from the inside out, reform yourself from the outside in. Instead of focusing on your motives, attitudes, and patterns of thinking, focus on directly changing the behavior that flows from them.
It’s counter-intuitive. But it works. It makes it possible for our God-given intellect and rationality to do an end-run around our faulty heart. It gets us out of the quagmire of taking on our inner psyche, and onto the solid ground of dealing with our outward actions.
Replace evil behavior with good behavior
Once we have adopted the outside-in strategy, we need specific methods to implement it.
There are many possible methods to combat our wrong behavior. If you find a different one that works better for you, go for it! Meanwhile, here is one that has a solid basis in the Bible, and has proven effective for many people.
First, the general principle:
To change our behavior, we must not only not do the evil thing, but must also replace it with something good. If we manage to will ourselves to stop doing something bad, but don’t replace it with something good, we will end out like the person in Jesus’ Parable of the Empty House:
When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting place, but it finds none. Then it says, “I will return to my house from which I came.” When it comes, it finds it empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings along seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first. (Matthew 12:43–45)
The key word is that when the evil spirit returned, it found the house empty.
If we stop doing something bad, but don’t fill that empty space in our life with something better, we will go right back to our old behavior. Only it will be even worse. Why? Because having tried and failed, we will lose hope that it is even possible for us to change. Then we will throw ourselves even harder into our favorite destructive activities.
A method for changing bad behavior in ourselves
Here is a two-step method to avoid falling into that trap. It requires using your thinking and observing mind to purposefully replace bad behavior with good behavior.
- Begin by paying attention to the pattern of times and circumstances when you engage in the bad behavior.
- Intentionally establish a different habit and routine to do instead whenever those times and circumstances come around.
Spy on yourself
In the first step, you don’t even make any changes. You simply pay attention to the times and circumstances in which you engage in the wrong and destructive behavior. During this time period, you are still allowing your faulty heart to have its way when it prompts you to say and do things that hurt other people, and takes pleasure in it when you do.
Your better self is in a battle with your worse self. This is the intelligence-gathering phase. It happens by stealth. You are spying on the enemy in your own character. You are discovering its patterns, its triggers, its modus operandi.
Change your behavior
Only after you have engaged in this self-observation are you ready to begin your attack. That attack will not be against your inner motives and attitudes. It will be a frontal assault on your outward behavior.
Let’s use Rob’s example. He says:
Often I just don’t care, especially right after I wake up. I just go right to it.
Forget about the “I don’t care” part. That’s the faulty heart that we are not well-equipped to fight.
The strategic part is, “especially right after I wake up.” Now we know something specific about how our faulty heart operates. It gets us right after we wake up. That’s its modus operandi. And that’s where we will plan our attack.
This requires planning and strategy. Then it is time to put our plan into action.
When Rob wakes up in the morning, his faulty heart is roaring for the attack, desiring the pleasure of putting other people down. Rob will therefore create a post-wake-up routine for himself to replace what he would otherwise do at that time: go online and find some hapless human neck to put his foot on.
If your faulty heart hits you when you first wake up, here are some possible morning routines to derail it:
- Do half an hour of exercise that you enjoy.
- Read a chapter of a good book.
- Engage in a hobby that you like.
- Cook yourself a delicious breakfast.
There are many other possibilities. Make sure it is something that is both constructive and enjoyable. It could be a combination of two or three different activities. As long as it is simple enough to work for you. It doesn’t have to be a long routine. Just long enough to let the bad impulse pass.
If cyberbullying is your problem, the replacement routine should not be an activity on the computer. That would put you too close to the temptation. Leave the computer (or whatever device you use) off until you finish your new routine. This will give your mind time to get itself onto a different track. It will also give you the satisfaction of starting your day with a good, healthful, and enjoyable activity.
We may not get as much enjoyment out of our new routine at first. But as we persist in it, our pleasure in the bad behavior will gradually fade, and we will come to enjoy the good activities more than the bad ones. This is part of our process of “regeneration” or being “born again,” in which we turn our mind and heart away from evil and toward good.
If you fall off the wagon one morning, all is not lost, so don’t beat yourself up. Start again the next morning. If you wake up and find yourself in the middle of a mental debate about whether to cyberbully on the computer or do your new routine, remind yourself how good you feel when you finish the new activity. Take it one day at a time. Don’t give the enemy any rest. Even after you lose a battle, continue the war until you achieve victory.
Good motives will come later
Notice that this strategy of personal change does a complete end-run around our motives, attitudes, patterns of thinking, and our entire inner self.
This doesn’t mean our inner motives and attitudes don’t have to change. Only that it is much more effective to start our attack where we can see the most clearly, and act the most decisively.
Most of us have a hard time getting a handle on our inner psyche. But we can see very clearly the wrong words and actions that flow from it. It is better to start our attack where we can see clearly and stand on firm ground. The rest will come later.
Reforming ourselves from the outside in denies our faulty heart its expression. It starves out our wrong motives and bad attitudes until God can replace them with better ones from within.
Now let’s talk about motives.
While implementing the outside-in strategy, it is also a good idea to pay attention to your motives. If you are engaging in online debate because you want to prove that you’re right and other people are wrong, and because you want to defeat other people and “stand on their necks” (meaning subjugate them), then you are acting from what Swedenborg calls “love of domination from love of self.” This is what motivates people who build themselves up by putting other people down.
Your motives will ultimately determine who you are, and where you will live to eternity. That’s why it is worth thinking about your motives even while you are keeping your focus on reforming your outer self. (Our outer self is our words and actions, together with the lower part of our thinking mind that deals with our outward behavior.)
Bad and good motives for debating ideas
The proper purpose of conflict and debate is not to prove that you are right, or to elevate yourself above others and subjugate them to your will and your “superior intellect.” The proper purpose of conflict and debate is to stand up for, defend, and help people who are being hurt by evil and falsity of various kinds.
Consider this passage from Isaiah, in which the Lord is having an argument with the people of Israel about their wrong behavior:
Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool. Isaiah 1:16–18
In this argument, the Lord is not concerned about being right. Rather, the Lord is concerned to establish that people should “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” If your purpose in arguing and debating is to prove people wrong, then you are engaging in it for the wrong reason. But if you see injustice being intellectually justified and excused, and you want to stand up for those who are being oppressed by injustice, or are not receiving justice, then you will approach argument and debate in a completely different way.
Having said that, I would suggest that initially you cease the online debating altogether. It will be too hard not to fall back into your old patterns of seeking to annihilate other people. When you feel yourself ready to argue, tell yourself that it is wrong because your motive is to subjugate and destroy another person. Then engage in whatever good and positive replacement routine you have created for yourself.
Tackling evil from the inside, in our motives, is far more difficult than tackling it from the outside, in our behavior. That is why I recommend that you not try to change your motives as your primary strategy for changing wrong behavior. Instead, attack and change the behavior itself using practical approaches such as the one outlined above. This will establish a foundation of good behavior. Over time, with God’s help, you can build a psychological superstructure of better motives on top of that foundation of good actions.
It takes time
This is not a theoretical issue for me. When I was in my teens and early twenties, I delighted in argument and debate. But it was not for the right reasons. I wanted to prove that I was right and they were wrong, that I was smarter than everyone else, and that everyone should listen to my brilliant wisdom. When I realized this about myself, I resolved not to engage in any argument and debate at all, or to keep it as short as possible if I couldn’t avoid it altogether. It took years, but simply by not acting upon my desire to prove that I was right, that desire gradually faded into the background.
Several decades later, I again engage in debate from time to time, mostly about religious beliefs and church doctrine. But it is no longer about proving that I’m right and they’re wrong. Rather, I see the damage that false religious teachings do to ordinary people as they struggle through life, and the pain it causes them. My goal is to refute and banish those false teachings because they are hurting people. My goal is to provide better beliefs that are true and biblically sound because they help people.
I say all of this to assure you that you won’t necessarily have to avoid discussion and debate forever. But for you to do it in a healthy and constructive way, your motives will have to change. That could take years of refocusing your mind and heart by creating good habits and behavior patterns to replace your old bad habits and behavior patterns. Meanwhile, it is probably better to avoid the online debate forums. It will only suck you back into your old wrong motives and actions. Keep with your new routine and habit until your desire to put your foot on people’s necks fades into the background.
Let’s give God the last word. It is a word of reassurance and hope:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Isaiah 36:26)
For further reading:
- What does Jesus Mean when He Says we Must be Born Again?
- Spiritual Growth 101 with Mike Tyson: “The Virtue of Selfishness”
- If You Think You’re Going to Hell, Please Read This First
- Ezekiel 18: God’s Message of Hope . . . If You Think there’s No Hope for You
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth