Unlearning coping mechanisms to become overcomers
We all learn to cope with emotional stress in different ways; doing something to take our minds off it, numbing our feelings, endlessly analysing where we went wrong, talking to people, bursting out in anger, and so forth. Coping mechanisms can help provide some immediate relief but none ever bring the deep peace that only comes from God. Our coping mechanisms are essentially led by our flesh, not by the Holy Spirit. The Bible warns us that this will lead us to spiritual death.
Romans 8:5-8 ESV For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
Romans 8:13-16 ESV For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,
Galatians 5:19-21 provides some examples of fleshly coping mechanisms:
- Sexual immorality: Turning to sexual titillation or pornographic materials for momentary excitement or emotional distraction.
- Impurity: Indulging in hatred, lies, self-glorification, self-pity, fantasy, vengeful, or suicidal thoughts.
- Sensuality: Turning to compulsive behaviours, food, drugs, alcohol, gaming, social media, movies, thrills etc. to soothe oneself.
- Idolatry: Dedicating time and money on things we believe will bring us peace and joy.
- Sorcery: Turning to fortune-tellers and fengshui with the hope to improve our situations.
- Enmity: Reacting with hostility and ill-will.
- Strife: Striving hard to oppose or prove others wrong.
Galatians 5:16-25 ESV But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.
Coping mechanisms are driven by the desire, whether conscious or subconscious, to regain some control over or find some comfort for our emotional distress. We may not notice that we pick up our coping mechanisms before we began following Jesus Christ and that they will hinder our relationship with God through the Holy Spirit.
Even coping mechanisms that the world defines as “healthy”, such as exercise, humour, problem-solving, meditation, relaxation, or breathing deeply, do not lead us to God, but to our own flesh.
Learning to overcome, not just cope
The issue with coping mechanisms is that they only help to mask some deeper pain. This pain is mostly hidden from our conscious awareness. Here are some examples to illustrate.
- Sexual immorality: Do we turn to pornography whenever we wish to get a sense of connection? Perhaps it is because we have always felt disconnected from our own family and learnt to wear a “mask”. Now, we are afraid or don’t know how to show our true selves to other people. As a result, we don’t quite know how to connect in our other significant relationships either, so we turn to counterfeit ones that give us some sense of “authenticity”.
- Impurity: Do we find ourselves overwhelmingly angry at the injustices of this world and constantly complaining to our peers? Perhaps it is because we experienced favouritism or bullying in school growing up, and now project those wounded feelings outward. External injustices have become an outlet for our internal bitterness.
- Sensuality: Do we spent every free moment on social media to feel connected and keep up with the rest of the world? Perhaps it is because we wish to numb the feeling of loneliness and disconnectedness we feel deep inside us, as a result of holding too many grudges against the people in our lives.
- Idolatry: Do we secretly worry that God may not love us as much as He loves everyone else and spend all our free time on church related activities? Perhaps it is because we have judged our own parents for their failings in raising us, and we now project those broken perceptions onto God Himself. Because we don’t actually feel connected to God, we turn our faith into one about works to “self-justify” our salvation.
- Sorcery: Do we find ourselves tempted to check our horoscope? Perhaps it is because we decided to avoid failure at all costs as a result of some bad experiences in the past, even if it means turning to superstition to at least gain a (false) sense of control.
- Enmity: Do we find that we resist or resent people in authority, and can’t trust them? Perhaps it is because our parents or guardians had been neglectful, controlling, or mean-spirited towards us when we were small and vulnerable, leaving us bitter experiences with people in authority in general.
- Strife: Are we highly competitive people who must succeed at any cost? Perhaps it is because our parents had under- or over-managed our personal development. Now, in silent frustration, we fight to re-gain control over our lives on our own terms, regardless of how it affects other people.
The examples listed here are not unusual and we can see some common threads that run through all of them; fear, broken relationships, and unforgiveness – all of which lead to unresolved anxieties. When we fail to turn these anxieties to God, the only other choice we have is to cope however we can.
1 Peter 5:6-7 ESV Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
The longer we hold on to anxieties in our hearts, the more obscured their real origins become – until we ask the Holy Spirit to guide us to the truth that will set us free. God’s Spirit has been with us all our lives, witnessing and recording every moment. He knows every minor detail, even if we may have forgotten some of them.
Psalm 16:7-9 NLT I will bless the Lord who guides me; even at night my heart instructs me. I know the Lord is always with me. I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me. No wonder my heart is glad, and I rejoice. My body rests in safety.
John 8:31-32 NLT Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
He will guide us and shine light into the root of our inner realities, as long as we are willing to:
- humble ourselves before Him
- let go of our own way of dealing with things
- let Him lead us
- take a good hard, honest look at ourselves
- admit and confess the ways we have not obeyed God’s Word
As we repent and ask for His forgiveness for the ways we have sought to resolve things on our own, He will heal our deepest anxieties and hurts, therefore removing any need for any coping mechanism. This is how we overcome through the power of the Holy Spirit in us.
1 John 4:4 ESV Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
Hindrances to overcoming
There is nothing we cannot overcome with God’s help. It is when we confess our weaknesses and invite Him to take over that we experience His awesome power in our lives. The problem for many Christians is that we tend to sabotage our own victories. Here are six ways we hinder ourselves from becoming overcomers through Christ.
Galatians 5:7 ESV You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?
1. Fear of releasing control to God
When we turn our lives to God, He grants us a spirit of love, power, and self-control. This self-control is the discipline to forsake our own fleshly coping mechanisms and to follow God’s Way instead. We develop this form of discipline through constant and conscious practice.
2 Timothy 1:7 ESV for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.
The opposite of this is the fleshly desire to control all outcomes of our lives on our own terms, not realising that as human beings, we never have the full picture of what is going on around us. We make decisions on incomplete information. And ultimately, whatever we try to control ends up enslaving us. We are only truly free when we let go of control.
A key reason we fear letting go of control to God is that we don’t trust that He is truly good. Somewhere along the way, we have fallen for some blasphemous lies about our Heavenly Father, such as:
- Lie: God does not understand me or know how I feel (because other people don’t seem to understand me). | Truth: Hebrews 4:15 ESV For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
- Lie: God may not always be faithful to help me (because even I would have forsaken myself by now). | Truth: 2 Timothy 2:13 ESV if we are faithless, he remains faithful— for he cannot deny himself.
- Lie: God will not give me what I desire (because others don’t). | Truth: Psalm 37:4 ESV Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart.
- Lie: God loves other people more than He loves me (because I don’t think I have truly felt loved by anyone). | Truth: Romans 2:11 ESV For God shows no partiality.
- Lie: God does not hear my prayers (because I think He doesn’t know me). | Truth: Psalm 139:4 ESV Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.
- Lie: God is always angry (because other people or idols I have looked up to are always angry). | Truth: Psalm 103:8-9 NLT The Lord is compassionate and merciful, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. He will not constantly accuse us, nor remain angry forever.
- Lie: God is harsh (because I expect this as a result of growing up in a harsh environment). | Truth: Psalm 103:13-14 NLT The Lord is like a father to his children, tender and compassionate to those who fear him. For he knows how weak we are; he remembers we are only dust.
Even though we know what God’s Word says about His character, we still have a hard time believing it because we have hardened our hearts somewhere along the way. This blocks our faith. See How our hearts subconsciously block God out
Without faith in a good Father who will guide, provide for, and protect us, we will eventually turn to our own fleshly coping mechanisms to deal with our distress.
2. Lust for personal justice
When Jesus was on earth, he suffered many personal injustices. He grew up with the reputation of being an “illegitimate” child, was forced to flee to Egypt with his parents as a toddler (Matthew 2:13–21), was falsely accused of being the prince of demons (Matthew 12:22–24), was constantly plotted against by the religious leaders (Matthew 12:13–15, 26:3–5), and finally, was brutally beaten, falsely accused, and crucified like a criminal. Jesus spoke up against systematic social injustice but He did not seek personal justice for Himself. He left that to His Father in heaven.
John 6:38 ESV For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me.
Matthew 25:41-46 ESV “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Our flesh, on the other hand, protests and seeks personal revenge “in the name of justice” whenever things are “unfair” for us. We compare, envy, and complain, and become competitive, self-entitled, and bitter. We keep a record of wrongs, voice our displeasure, and plot to get even. We are afraid to show any mercy in case we are perceived as weak or easy to take advantage of. We may even pity ourselves. All these are not the ways of an overcomer. On the contrary, the Bible even calls it unspiritual, demonic.
James 3:14-16 ESV But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice.
Jesus stood up against social injustice but He was not afraid to suffer personal injustices if it brought his Heavenly Father glory. He knew when to stand up for Himself, when to withdraw, and when to silently endure discrimination and personal attacks. Jesus followed God’s will and the Holy Spirit’s guidance every step of the way. As Jesus’ followers, we are called to do the same. We need to be willing to give up our “right” to personal justice in order to experience God’s true justice. He will not let those who persecute us to escape, but when we take justice into our own hands, we become just like an oppressor ourselves.
Romans 12:19 ESV Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”
The way of Christ is just the opposite. We are meant to forgive others, love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us and pray for those who abuse us. At the same time, we are to help those who are unjustly oppressed and abused. We are to be merciful just as God is merciful. Only when will we have the right to be called sons and daughters of God.
Matthew 6:14-15 ESV For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Luke 6:27-36 ESV “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them. “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
Micah 6:8 ESV He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
3. Bondage to inner vows
Another reason why we struggle to become overcomers through Christ is because of the personal rulebooks that we live by – and we all have one. Such rulebooks comprise “personal commandments” (or inner vows) that developed over our lives.
For instance, we may have vowed that “I must never fail,” “I must make sure other people are happy with me,“ or “I must never repeat my parents’ mistakes.“ God doesn’t put such conditions on us, yet we do. The inner vows that have been made in response to strong emotions, such as fear, guilt, and sadness, for instance, tend to be more entrenched. This is the real personal “bible” that we live by.
Matthew 5:34 NLT But I say, do not make any vows! …
Such inner vows may have been useful when we first made them but it is very unhealthy to hold on to them because they only prevent us from following God’s will. Whenever we come close to breaking our own rules, we will naturally become anxious and react because we can’t betray ourselves. Our inner vows keep us in bondage to our flesh – until we repent and renounce them in Jesus’ name and replace them with biblical truths.
Romans 8:13 ESV For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
Also, see Inner vows must be revoked
4. Failure to recognise Satan’s temptations
We have an enemy that does not want us to learn how to become overcomers through the Holy Spirit’s power in us.
Satan will tell us many lies, such as:
- “I cannot overcome this, even God cannot help me.” | God’s Word says; Philippians 4:13 ESV I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
- “I can’t wait for God’s help any longer.” | God’s Word says; Isaiah 40:31 ESV but they who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.
- “No one can help me, so I need to help myself.” | God’s Word says; Romans 8:26 NIV In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.
- “I don’t have the ability to change. I’m too weak.” | God’s Word says; 2 Corinthians 12:9 NLT Each time he said, “My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.” So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me.
- “I can’t see any help on the horizon, and I really need this right now.” | God’s Word says; Romans 8:24-25 ESV For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
- “I will do things my way this time, I will wait until next time to follow God’s commands.” | God’s Word says; John 14:21 NIV Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.”
- “What if God doesn’t come through for me? I better have this as my backup plan.” | God’s Word says; Deuteronomy 31:6 NIV Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.”
- “I can’t do things God’s way because other people will only take me for granted.” | God’s Word says; Romans 12:17-21 ESV Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Satan will give us many logical sounding arguments about why we cannot follow God. But as we can see, the Bible has given us a strong foundation of truth that we can rely on and use to defeat Satan’s lies.
When our flesh is weak and we do not study the Bible or submit to the Holy Spirit, however, we will gladly detour to follow Satan‘s lies because what his lies will appear to offer some instant gratification (although it will certainly be at the cost of our own souls). The more we follow Satan’s temptations, rather than make a conscious effort to turn away from him, the more we will be overcome by his lies. Rather, we are meant to turn every thought to obey God, rather than our fleshly impulses. Only then can we become overcomers.
2 Corinthians 10:3-5 ESV For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ,
5. Emotional suppression
Emotional suppression quenches the Holy Spirit.
God’s Spirit will often convict us by stirring up our emotions. He will give us a sense of alarm when there is danger ahead, a feeling of joy when we obey Him, a soothing peace when He comforts us, and an outpouring of His love when we seek Him with all our heart. God does not just communicate with us through our thoughts but also our feelings.
Romans 14:17 ESV For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Romans 5:5 ESV And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.
Our emotions, however, can feel overwhelming at times, and we may resort to pushing them down and covering them up in order to cope. By doing so, we harden our hearts and quench the Holy Spirit’s ability to communicate with us.
God’s Word does not tell us to deny strong emotions such as anger. It says to “be angry” but not to sin in the process. This does not mean that we should impulsively fly into a rage, but rather, we can remain calm and admit that we are very upset or angry. Emotional suppression will deny our anger, which in turn, becomes a form of lying. The more we lie, the more we follow Satan, the father of lies.
Ephesians 4:26 ESV Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger,
Psalm 37:8 ESV Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.
John 8:44 ESV You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.
God will help us overcome all our emotional distresses, but we handicap our ability to sense the Holy’s Spirit convictions when we suppress our feelings, harden our hearts, and deny our own emotions.
Start by taking the time to reflect
Every emotion we feel has been created by God for a purpose.
Instead of trying to cope with uncomfortable emotions by rushing to do something to cope with them, it would be much more helpful to first slow down and ask the Holy Spirit to search our hearts and reveal any area that has yet to be redeemed by God and filled with His love, joy, and peace. Perhaps there is someone we have been hurt by and not yet forgiven, some idol that we hold on so tightly to, some fear that makes us anxious, some lie that we have fallen for, and so forth.
Psalm 139:23-24 ESV Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!
Psalm 7:9 NLT … For you look deep within the mind and heart, O righteous God.
We can simply pause and pray like this;
“Holy Spirit, I seek you with all my heart and wish to put away anything that keeps me from being blameless and pure before God Almighty. Please forgive me for all the times I have quenched You by hardening my heart and turning to my flesh to resolve my issues and anxieties. I need your help and open my heart to You. Why do I feel (name the feeling) every time (name the type of event) happens? What are You stirring in my heart and bringing my attention to? Is there anything I need to repent of or someone I need to forgive? I will wait for Your answer. Thank you for Your faithfulness. In Jesus name, amen.”
Jeremiah 29:13 ESV You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.
Philippians 2:15-16 NIV so that you may become blameless and pure, “children of God without fault in a warped and crooked generation.” … as you hold firmly to the word of life…
1 John 3:3-6 ESV And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure. Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.
As we wait on God’s answer, we will typically find that we will:
- suddenly remember a long-lost childhood memory that we need to talk to God about and forgive someone for (usually an adult)
- recall an event that triggered similar emotions that we need healing for
- receive one or two words, or remember a Bible verse that strikes our heart and leads us to understand the root of our anxieties
God will reveal just enough for us to press on and ask Him what we need to do next. He will tenderly guide us step by step, healing our hearts as we obey Him and bring closure to unsettling emotions that still live inside us.
Following this, we will find that our old emotions don’t sting as much whenever we encounter the same types of people or events again. This doesn’t mean that we will never be upset again. It means that we are now better equipped to make a choice to follow God’s promptings and not to revert to our sinful coping mechanisms. This is how we experience the “washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit.” Praise God for His faithfulness to help us. This is the hope and salvation that Jesus made available to us through His death and resurrection. As we trust in Him with all our hearts and not lean on our coping mechanisms, He will help us.
Titus 3:3-7 ESV For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
Proverbs 3:5-6 ESV Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.
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