Compulsive Buying: the All-important Distinction between the Thought and the Act

In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I note, “After the distinction between temptation and sin in thought, the ancient ascetics instruct the faithful in the obvious, but crucial difference between sin in thought and sin in deed as well as in the need to prevent the former from slipping into the latter. Origen views sin in thought as tolerable and treatable, but sin in word and deed as dangerous and difficult to cure, if not incurable. For this reason, when a wise man is disturbed by a storm of thoughts, he keeps that tempest of the mind hemmed in, neither uttering a word, nor moving a muscle.” Learning to not act upon a thought, even when it rages like a storm, is a classical patristic approach to sinful thoughts that today is being suggested in what is known as exposure and response prevention treatment for compulsive buying. For the Fathers, the emphasis is on the power of choice to face the waves of temptation and to let them break on the Rock of faith. Eventually the sea will become calm and the believer can then sail to another destination, one that is pleasing to God.

In its modern expression, exposure and response prevention entails individuals learning to recognize situations in which they will be triggered to go out and compulsively shop and making a hierarchy from the least to the most triggering situations. They then expose themselves to the least triggering situation, feel the pull to go out and shop, experience the uncomfortable emotions, but do not act upon them. They remain in this situation for half an hour or so, writing down the strength of that emotion on a scale of 0 to 10 at five minute intervals. What they will discover, hopefully, is that the emotions decrease and most importantly that having the impulse to act and having to act on it are two different things. In other words, they learn something that the fathers never tire of telling us: we all have a choice.

Learning not to act on impulses, but acting according to what one understands to be one’s best interests is the beginning of real freedom. Saint John of Damascus underlines this point. He writes, “the person who acts and does things is himself the author of his own works, and is a creature endowed with free-will. Further, if a human being is the author of no action, the faculty of deliberation is quite superfluous, for to what purpose could deliberation be put if a person is the master of none of his actions? For all deliberation is for the sake of action” (Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Book 2, chapter 25). Those who are given over to compulsive buying have lost that freedom and need to recover it.

This is where the ascetic life is so very helpful. The ascetic life means that you can feel like eating, yet still fast. You can feel tired, yet still pray. You can feel like responding in kind to an insult, yet remain silent. This is the example Christ gave to His disciples in the Gospels. This is the example the Apostles bequeathed to the Saints. This is the example that should be the model for every Christian soul. You have a choice, if you make that all-important choice about what matters most in life. Recovery from compulsive buying or any other addictive behavior is about regaining that choice that seems to have been lost. And following the path of Christian asceticism in other areas can give the believer the strength to follow that same path in the area where freedom seems to be lacking.

The fathers offer an important insight in dealing with the addiction of compulsive buying-namely, the addict still has the capacity to choose and change albeit in a limited, weakened fashion.  This insight is also found in the writings of the Apostle Paul, “And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me.”  Christ’s triumph over sin and death relates most intimately with those in the throes and shackles of addiction.  It is in the midst of seeming powerlessness and despair that the saving grace of Christ is able to free the one who chooses the action of crying out to Him in faith.

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