Perception, Desires, Behavior In That Order

A short while back I wrote a post entitled “Oh, Those Things I Do.” I’ve been thinking a lot about that topic these past few days—so much so I wanted to write some more about the topic. Distilled into a single paragraph, this is what I wrote in that previous post:

Question: Why do I do the things I do? Answer: Because I want what I want. That is, my desires shape my behavior. My behavior stems from what my heart craves (James 4:1). Going one more level down, I ask this question: Why does my heart long for what it longs for? Answer: Because I perceive what I desire as valuable. That is, I have judged that thing to be good or satisfying to me in some way. Therefore, if I ultimately want to change my behavior, I must change the way I perceive what is valuable because what I deem as precious dictates my longings, and what I long for dictates to a large degree my behavior.

A few clarifying remarks about how I’m using my terms.  When I use the word perception, I am not intending to say that a person’s perceptions correlate to the rational thoughts of his mind while his desires correlate to the emotional feelings of his heart.  When I talk about a person’s perceptions, I’m referring to what he perceives intellectually as well as emotionally.  I’m simply referring to man’s sensory mechanism by which he judges what is good and satisfying and pleasurable to him.  I’m not trying to locate that sensory mechanism within any certain facet of man’s makeup.  In addition, when I use the word heart or desires, I’m not only referring to what we commonly refer to as “the heart,” as in, the seat of our emotions. I’m referring to what a man, as a composite whole of intellect, feeling, and being wants–what his mind wants, what his heart wants, and what his body wants.

Here’s how I would put it (slightly) graphically:

Perception → Desires → Behavior

(And just in case those symbols aren’t displayed on your computer, between each word is an arrow sign pointing toward the right.)

The Bible says that the devil has us at this third, deepest level. He’s blinded the eyes of our hearts from seeing the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4). Satan blinds our perceptions from judging Jesus as valuable. That blindness, in turn, affects what we crave. Just because we can’t see Jesus doesn’t mean we stop desiring things. Satan may have blinded us from seeing the Son of God, but he hasn’t blinded us to a host of other options that he would love to take his place. Fueled by passion, we move toward obtaining whatever we do perceive as satisfying. In short, what we perceive as valuable determines what we want, and what we want is manifested externally in the way we act.

So if you’re looking to change what you do (your behavior), you’ve got to go deeper than mere behavior modification. You’ve got to change your desires. But let’s face it, who can will themselves to want something or not? You can’t merely change out your desires like last season’s wardrobe. Therefore, in order to change what you want (your passions and desires), you’ve got to change how you view what is satisfying to you. You need new eyes to see reality as it actually exists.

Want to stop looking at pornography? Come to view Jesus as more desirable to your soul than sex. Want to stop lying? Come to see Jesus as the Truth and be captivated by the beauty of truth found only in him. If you can win the battle at this deepest level—the level at which you perceive what is good and satisfying to you—then change will work ultimately work its way upward. What you view as satisfying will determine what you desire, and what you hunger for will dictate your external behavior.

At the same time, I want to be careful here. While I am convinced that our deepest problem with sin resides at the level of how we perceive what is desirable (the level of perception in my “graphic” above), sin does not merely reside at this deepest level. Our perception is what ultimately needs changed, yes. Ultimately, this is where Satan has us blinded, and therefore ultimately gaining new sight to see Jesus is the key to defeating sin. However, Satan can gain strongholds over us at all levels. He works to enslave our behavior, our desires, and the way we perceive what is good, and the result is an interplay between the three.

For example, behavior that’s often enough repeated becomes habit. And habits tend to influence our desires. An example of this? I taught myself to like coffee. The habit of drinking coffee (the level of behavior) produced within me the wanting of it (the level of desire). Now I actually like coffee. In fact, I have stopped viewing $4.00 mochas as a complete waste of money (the level of perception). So, at least in this occasion, my desires were shaped by my behavior, and my desires, in turn, color the way in which I perceive reality. (God made us very complicated beings.)

Therefore, a change in perception (a bottom-up change) does not always mean there will be an immediate change in one’s desires and therefore an immediate change in his behavior. I do believe there is a place for behavior modification even though that alone is not enough. I’m usually pretty inclined to extremes, and once I come to see that in the end what I really need in order to change my behavior is to change the way I perceive reality and what is satisfying, I’m quickly tempted to think that working at any other level (the level of desire or the level of behavior) is a complete waste of time. The more I think about it, however, I’m coming to see that it’s not. Why is this so? As explained with my example of learning to like coffee, one’s behavior reinforces his desires, and his desires reinforce his perception of what is good. The more a person masturbates (behavior), the more the hunger for that specific pleasure is enflamed (desire). The greater the desire becomes, the foggier that person’s perception becomes of the reality that God’s design for sex between one man and one woman within the bounds of covenanted marriage is a thousand times more satisfying physically, emotionally, and spiritually than anything he’s able to do by himself. So a person struggling with masturbation does need to quit the behavior. He must stop intensifying the desire and affirming his incorrect perception (and at the same time deadening his incorrect perception of what is good). This is a marvelous and necessary first step. Yes, he will ultimately need to correct a much more fundamental issue, namely that of his incorrect perception that God’s design for his body is much better than anything he could come up with. However, on his way toward correcting that deeper issue, he’s got to stop adding fuel at the level of behavior to his raging desires.

In short, gaining ground over the devil at any level is not wasted energy as long as ultimately the goal is a clearer vision that Jesus is what ultimately satisfies, not sin. I’ve got a lot more to say about this topic, but I think I’ll pause there and write another post for another day.

Grace and peace to you as you fight against sinful behavior and sinful desires ultimately in order that you might clear the dirty windshield of your and see Jesus better.

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