Are Old Habits Holding You Captive?
I sat at the kitchen table, staring at a pack of cigarettes. I took one out of the pack and lit it. After tomorrow, I thought, I will never light a cigarette again. Tomorrow I’m going to quit smoking.
I had good reason to hope for this. When I had given control of my life to God two years before, He had straightened it out as if it were a broken bone that needed to be reset. He had changed everything; it seemed, except for smoking. I had assumed that cigarettes would be the first thing to go, but it seemed that God and I didn’t always have the same set of priorities. Only in the past few weeks had God begun altering my attitudes towards cigarettes. He did this by making it harder to shut out the truth.
I woke up every morning now with the same thought. I had to quit smoking. I’d lie in bed, listening to the sound of air wheezing in and out of my chest. Was I getting emphysema? Cancer? It was getting hard to breathe. I’d sit up in bed, push the thoughts aside, and reach for a cigarette. But the ideas glimmered right under consciousness, and they were growing stronger.
The reality of actually quitting, though, was frightening. I had smoked since I was 17. At 33, I averaged two or three packs of cigarettes a day. I couldn’t smoke at work, so I chain-smoked the rest of the time. I’d get up an hour early in the morning to get in a half a pack of cigarettes before I had to go to work. When my mother had chemotherapy, I’d leave her and go smoke cigarettes by the back door of the cancer center. I avoided the eyes of the patients as they came in the door. I was good at that. I had avoided the thought of what I was doing to myself for years.
I now sat at the kitchen table and smoked, trying to imagine a life without cigarettes. I had never quit for more than a few hours. How could I drive to work without smoking a cigarette? What would I do with my hands at a party? Maybe God would feel sorry for me and give me an instant cure. I ground out the cigarette and prayed under my breath. God, please help.
But quitting smoking was much worse than I’d thought. The days were endless. The thought of cigarettes screamed over and over in my mind, like an alarm that couldn’t be turned off. It was maddening. Smoking was all I could think about. It was all I could talk about, too. Mostly I’d drape myself on the bed and cry and end up going to sleep by 7:30 p.m. It was humiliating to be so pathetic. It certainly wasn’t the endless victory over sin for which I’d hoped. By the seventh day I caved in and bought a pack of smokes. I never wanted to quit again. It was too hard.
Quitting smoking might be hard, but I found that I wasn’t happy smoking anymore either. Over the next two years, I stopped and started five more times. I was like a little kid with a loose tooth. It hurt to wiggle it, but I couldn’t leave it alone, either.
Finally, I sat in church one morning, completely defeated. I should be far enough along as a Christian to be able to give up something as stupid as cigarettes, but I couldn’t. I was afraid to ask God how He felt. He might make me instantly hurl my cigarettes onto the altar and undergo another painful and spectacularly unsuccessful attempt to quit.
God, I finally said, will you still love me if I’m never able to quit smoking?
I stood up to sing the invitational hymn, Just As I Am. We sang it every Sunday, but this morning, for the first time, I really heard the words.
Just as I am and waiting not
To rid my soul of one dark blot
To Thee, whose blood can cleanse each spot
O Lamb of God, I come, I come.
I felt like God was talking right to me. I wasn’t supposed to clean myself up for God; that was His job—that was why Jesus died. I just needed to relax and let Him be in charge.
Quitting smoking, God seemed to say, is just like losing baby teeth. As we grow as Christians, our old habits start to come loose. They are forced out by the new life within us, just like a new tooth will make a baby tooth loose. Each time I tried to quit, it was like wiggling a loose tooth, making it a little less attached at the root. I could trust that God was supplying me everything I needed for growth—new life, new desires, and the increased ability to endure discomfort. My only job was to keep wiggling.
The next year, having given up on my own ability to quit smoking, I quit for the last time. When I abandoned reliance on my own strength, God supplied all the willpower I needed.
But it was still a miserable experience. Instead of an easy miracle, God gave me enough strength to get through each day until finally I didn’t think about cigarettes anymore. Looking back, I think that the very wretchedness of those six months had a purpose, creating a moat between cigarettes and me. I have never wanted to smoke again because I never wanted to go through those months of withdrawal twice in one lifetime.
And so, after twenty years of heavy smoking, I was finally free. We grow just because we’re God’s kids, just by being around Him. Knowing Him is the truth, and the truth, after all, is what sets us free.