The missing ingredient

There is only one real answer to permanent behavior change.

Fred Hardinge, DrPH, RD,is associate director, Health Ministries Department, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

Armed with a strong conviction that medical ministry—combined with a freshly minted graduate degree in health promotion—was a wonderfully effective method of reaching the community for Christ, I believed if I shared a better way with people, based on the latest evidence, they would readily leave their harmful habits. In doing so, they would become “new creatures,” enjoying life to the fullest.

Over the years, I have been forced to recognize that facts alone, even incontrovertible ones, are not sufficient in bringing about long-term changes in the way individuals choose to live. I will never forget a man who had come to a smoking-cessation program. He seemed highly motivated, had a wonderful attitude, and responded well to all the information and motivation we provided. From all we knew, he had successfully kicked the habit.

Almost a year later, I received a phone call from a chaplain at a local hospital telling me they had a patient who had requested me to visit. The name was familiar, but I wondered why he was hospitalized. He was recovering from throat cancer surgery and now had to breathe through a hole in his throat. To my utter shock, after a few minutes of visiting together, using gestures and some guttural sounds, he indicated he wanted me to wheel him outside where smoking was allowed. He smoked a cigarette through that hole!

Over the years, I have observed many such “failures” of education. And even more difficult, I have had to recognize that knowledge alone has also failed to change some parts of my lifestyle. While accurate and timely information and facts are very important, they rarely succeed, by themselves, as agents of change.

Consider the following:

• Cigarette smoking is known to cause lung cancer and emphysema. Yet millions of people start smoking each year, or continue, with this extremely dangerous habit.

• Breast, colorectal, and prostate cancer survivors experience a significantly lowered risk of recurrence if they lose weight and exercise regularly. How many women and men actually put that knowledge into practice?

• Physicians know the evidence behind the statistics. Even they, too, often have difficulty in altering their lifestyles.

• Solid research has shown that there is no safe level of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Sadly, thousands of infants are born each year who struggle with fetal alcohol disorders.

Knowledge alone does not motivate most of us to change our behaviors. As a health educator, I have often been tempted to give up in despair when I see so many who enthusiastically attend program after program, then continue to struggle with the same old healthdestroying habits.

Paul described this condition well when he wrote, “Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature” (Eph. 2:1–3, NLT). We can educate the smoker about the very real dangers of tobacco.

We can instruct the overweight person on portion control and healthier food choices. We can coach the unfit couch potato in the huge value of physical activity in combating mild depression, lowering the risk of heart disease and cancer, and helping him or her to feel better and have more energy. Yet that is usually not enough to bring about permanent change.

Paul describes the missing ingredient, “But God is so rich in mercy, and he loved us so much, that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead” (Eph. 2:4, 5, NLT).

The real answer to permanent behavior change—the only answer— is Jesus. To create new tastes, new motives, and new behaviors requires the same amount of power as to raise a person from the dead. Only Jesus can do this. Jesus is the center and core of the gospel, and He must, likewise, be the center and core of all our health ministry activities.

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Fred Hardinge, DrPH, RD,is associate director, Health Ministries Department, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, United States.

January 2013

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