We learn from an early age that when painful things happen to us, we can soothe the hurt with pleasure. When we fall over and graze our knee, our parents compensate by giving us ice-cream. When we bang our head, it's kissed and cuddled better. This becomes an instinctive reaction as we grow up - when there's pain, reach for pleasure. Just been dumped by a boyfriend? Reach for the ice-cream again. Tough day at work? Grab a bottle of wine.
Now the problem with life is that it's full of pain. An overwhelming variety of problems come at us from every angle. We experience loneliness, frustration, disappointment, betrayal, theft, lies, boredom, depression and stress in every walk of life. At home, at work, at school, and at play. Our souls are being bruised, our spirits crushed daily. In fact, this all becomes so routine and so inured as part of everyday life, that the 'If-Pain-Then-Find-Pleasure' mechanism begins happening on a deeply subconscious level. The pain we carry inside, we don't always consciously recognise is there anymore. When it's been within us for a long time and we can't remember ever not feeling that way, it becomes normalised to us. And also the pleasures we're reaching for to cope, we don't always consciously recognise why we're reaching for them. The end result is that a huge percentage of our daily actions can actually be explained as subconscious attempts to stave off inner pain.
Why does that man drink so much? He probably doesn't even think about it. It's just an instinctive thing to reach for alcohol at the end of the day. But if he were to analyse his behaviour he'd discover he's instinctively reaching for pleasure to soothe the stress of his job. Similarly, why does that other guy sleep around so much? Because he's trying to stave off loneliness. Why does that woman overspend on clothes? Because she's trying to get a spending buzz to lift her mood and stave off low-spirits or depression. Why does she overeat? To soothe her boredom. Do these people consciously recognise their actions are rooted in a compulsion to soothe pain? Most likely 'no'. These patterns of behaviour just tend to creep up on us as slowly as the worries of life. We drift into them. We slowly drift towards an unhealthy relationship with food, sex, alcohol, pornography, work, materialism, drugs, social media, television, or other forms of entertainment. We slowly become obsessed with distraction and busyness. In other words, we very rarely become trapped in addictive, or sinful patterns of behaviour all at once; most often it happens at an imperceptible rate. We begin living diminished lives but we can't remember how it happened, don't really understand why we're behaving this way, and don't know how to fix it.
If you feel you have an unhealthy dependency on something - anything really - and you feel unable to pinpoint why you can never seem to break a sinful pattern, the key for healing is normally to look for a root of pain. It's likely that you never set out to have stunted relationships due to pornography addiction, or to neglect your kids so much by sitting on social media all evening, or to have 3 children by 3 different guys, or to rack up credit card debt, or to become overweight, or to become addicted to alcohol, but what is very likely is that you did set out believing that there was something in food, sex, money, distraction, alcohol etc. that could give you a type of relief. So again the root question is, what did you feel you needed relief from? What is missing in your life? Where are your empty spaces? What past event may have left a wound on your soul? Answer those questions and you've made a start towards freedom.
But only a start. What we really need are principles that minimise our exposure to pain in the first place, and which give us somewhere to turn for healthy relief for the pains we can't avoid. And this is where only God can help. Jesus said, "Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest." (Matthew 11:28) "I am the Lord that heals you." (Exodus 15:26) "I will never fail you. I will never abandon you." (Hebrews 13:5) Where Satan is like a backstreet pill-pusher, promising us sins as quick-fix solutions that really just make things worse, God is a good doctor who gives us principles for minimising exposure to pain in the first place, while offering healing for the pains we can't avoid.
The only difficulty with God's principles is that they're...well...more difficult! At least, they tend to be. Take loneliness for example. Satan's quick-fix pill for loneliness may be to jump into bed with the first semi-attractive person you find. Or to go looking for pornography. Or to drink yourself into a stupor. God's real and lasting solution for loneliness is marriage, family and community. Right at the beginning God looked at Adam and said, "It is not good for man to be alone. I will make a helper who is just right for him." (Genesis 2:18) He then tells the man and woman to be joined together for life and to be fruitful and multiply. Now obviously marriage, with all the life-long commitment and self-sacrifice that entails is much more difficult than a string of easy one-night-stands or downing a bottle of wine every night, but in the end God's way is the only one that really fills the empty space. Satan's quick fixes - fornication, porn or alcohol abuse - actually lead to diminishment and destruction.
Scientific studies are being carried out on emotional well-being all the time and they always return principles that are first found in scripture. For example, scientists have now discovered that if we want to feel content in life then we must learn to practice gratitude. Well, the Bible has been telling us to give thanks to God through prayer and worship for thousands of years. "Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus." (1 Thessalonians 5:18) In other words, worshipping God heals our pains! Worshipping God brings us contentment! Similarly, scientists now say that if we want to experience true fulfilment then we must be more selfless. Well in the Bible we read, "Be devoted to one another in love. Honour one another above yourselves." (Romans 12:10) Again, scientists now say to be happy it's imperative you let go of grudges and forgive. Well Jesus said, "Love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!" (Matthew 5:44) Scientists now say that the happiness buzz we get when we buy a gift for someone else lasts longer than if we buy for ourselves. Well the Bible has been telling us for a long time that "It is more blessed to give than receive." (Acts 20:35) The examples go on. The Bible is full of principles that are perhaps more difficult to implement - marriage is harder than one-night-stands, practising charity is harder than binge-eating, loving enemies is harder than alcohol abuse, buying gifts for others is more difficult than buying gifts for ourselves - but which, when enacted prevent us from some pain, while healing us from the rest. God fills our empty spaces which, in turn, protects us from falling into sinful patterns of behaviour. If we learn to instinctively turn to God's solutions rather than Satan's then, we'll live much fuller lives.
In the end, it's as simple as this: Much of what our lives become will be determined by how we react to pain. We will experience some and we will always instinctively and subconsciously go looking for something to soothe it. The only question is, 'Where?' Where will we go looking for relief? Will we go looking for relief in quick, sinful fixes that actually just cause more pain? Will we let Satan thereby diminish or destroy our lives by becoming ensnared in unhealthy dependencies and patterns of behaviour? Or will pain drive us towards a God who heals, restores and gives us principles for abundant life? The majority, in honesty, will probably choose the former. But if you're tired of addiction, being stuck in ruts, guilty because you know your patterns of behaviour are having a negative impact on people around you, or just feeling that you're somehow leading a diminished life, God really does have the answers that can set you free. "God is our merciful Father and the source of all comfort. He comforts us in all our troubles...." (2 Corinthians 1:3-4) Scientists are only just catching up on this. God is the only one who can fill our empty spaces. Only he can heal the pains within us...even the ones we've forgotten are there.
"The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full." (John 10:10) Jesus said this. And he meant it. Just don't expect it to be easy.