Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death.
In the mid 20th century, American Psychologist and Harvard Professor B.F. Skinner made an accidental but important discovery in the field of addiction. Skinner was testing the addictive tendencies of the brain by rewarding rats with a treat each time they pressed a lever. On this day, however, he had run out of treats. Since they were time-consuming to make and not wanting to stop the experiment, he decided to reward the rats only once per minute instead of every push. Skinner assumed that limiting the reward would cause the creatures to push the lever less frequently, but to his surprise, the occasional reward made the rats push more, not less. This was the first in a long line of studies that discovered the anticipation of an outcome, specifically a reward, is more stimulating than the outcome itself. In other words, human beings enjoy wanting something more than we enjoy having something. We are addicted to anticipation.
Researchers have found that 100 percent of the nucleus accumbens (think of these as light switches for your brain) activate during wanting. Meanwhile, only 10 percent of the structure activates during liking.1 For years, the common belief among scientists was that dopamine was a reward experienced by addicts fulfilling their addiction. That’s true for the first experience or two, but the part of your brain responsible for seeking pleasure quickly makes a switch. Dopamine releases not when you experience the activity you want, but when you anticipate it. Brain scans show that dopamine peaks when people with gambling addiction are about to bet, and people with cocaine addiction anticipate snorting the white powder.2 In non-addiction terms, it’s why planning a vacation is more enjoyable than the vacation itself.
Science confirms what anyone knows who has ever taken drugs, watched porn, stuffed themselves with junk food, endlessly scrolled social media, or performed any other detrimental behavior: the build-up is always better than the payoff. Not the first time or even the fourth time, but eventually, the things you crave disappoint you, leaving you more and more disappointed in yourself. C.S. Lewis calls it, “an ever-increasing craving for an ever diminishing pleasure.”3
If you find yourself endlessly repeating sins that are dragging you away from the person you want to be–the person God’s called you to be, it’s clear the answer isn’t found in simply trying to do better; that isn’t working, is it? Long term freedom can only be found by replacing desires.
King David said, “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you your heart’s desires.” (Psalm 37:4) This doesn’t mean God will give you what you want, it means God will give you what to want. I’m not suggesting some magical quick fix that will reverse life-long urges, but I am suggesting that finding delight in Jesus changes your desires. Religion will try to change what you do, but a relationship with Jesus will change what you want to do. Not entirely, of course, “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41), but a believer should not be wanting the same things, the same amounts, with the same regularity as before they met Jesus because they have “tasted and seen” (Psalm 34:8) that He is good, and while every other pleasure will eventually diminish, Jesus never will.
- Atomic Habits: James Clear: pg. 108
- Screwtape: pg 44