I have a friend who likes to do Sudoku puzzles. She started years ago when it was still a fairly new fad. Each day, along with her morning coffee, she would tackle the puzzle provided in the daily newspaper. She was good at it and moved quickly beyond the easy and medium levels to the difficult and then expert ones. Usually each only took about 20 or so minutes to finish, so it was a fun and challenging way to start her day.
Eventually she began purchasing Sudoku puzzle books to do primarily on holidays and occasionally during the evenings. When she discovered there was a Sudoku app to download onto her iPad, she was delighted and soon had an unlimited supply of “challenging and expert” puzzles at her fingertips.
But therein lay the problem. Too soon, she discovered the addictive nature of the pastime. She’d finish one game and immediately begin another. She would spend an entire evening playing without realizing the passage of time and she’d stay awake late into the night doing “just one more.” She was surprised to discover her fingers and hands beginning to ache from holding the iPad and her neck and back getting stiff. She realized there was a deeper problem when, trying to sleep at night after marathon sessions of puzzling, she saw the grid lines of the puzzles super-imposed on her eye lids and she dreamed of Sudoku numbers. What had been an entertaining diversion had become something more.
She decided to cut back to her original one puzzle a day. She was unsuccessful. Within two days, she was back doing multiple Sudokus at all hours. She tried fruitlessly over the next week to limit herself, but found she was still caught up with the puzzles. With aching hands and a sore neck, she realized she was powerless to control herself and, one morning, she deleted the Sudoku app.
It might seem like a trivial matter, an obsession with a computer game, but to those familiar with addictive behaviour, the experience is not uncommon and the solution to it a wise one. Jesus references it when he says, “If your eye offends you, pluck it out. If your hand or foot offends, cut them off” (Mt 18:8), and our 12-Step brothers and sisters understand exactly what he means. Anyone who has ever tried to quit drinking or smoking gets it. The alcoholic can’t have just one glass; the smoker can’t seem to cut back to half a pack. Our own experience teaches us: some behaviours become so compulsive that quitting them seems to be an all-or-nothing scenario. Gradual, part-way changes don’t work. The lure is too strong and we fall right back into our unhealthy habit.
“If your eye offends, pluck it out. If your hand or foot does, cut them off.” Jesus once again indulges in “shock talk,” where hyperbole and metaphor are used to awaken us to the utterly serious consequences of our actions. The eye stands for the way we see, the hand symbolizes what we do, and the foot represents the path we walk. We can, in our seeing, acting, and choosing our path, take up behaviours, get caught in habits, that are so contrary to the fullness of life that God desires for us that the only way to deal with them is to pluck them out of our lives completely, cut them out entirely.
What might those things be? What can become so all-consuming or damaging in us that it constitutes a threat to our physical, emotional or spiritual life? When we ask that question sincerely, we see there are any number of behaviours that impede the life God intends for us. There are obvious ones like compulsive gambling, alcohol/drug abuse, sexual misconduct, or the consumption of pornography, but there are less obvious ones as well. As my friend recognized, obsessive computer gaming can be problematic and others identify excessive use of social media as harmful. Shopping, working, exercising, almost anything can become an unhealthy habit that steals our time, affects our relationships, and harms our bodies. Naming our own particular demons, the seemingly inconsequential and the clearly critical, requires taking a searingly honest look at our lives and is the first step to change.
Success in changing, though, if we listen to Jesus and the wisdom of the 12-Step programs, lies in spiritual amputation, cutting the behaviour or habit out completely. They keep us from God and life, Jesus says, and they do not belong in us. Eradication is the only avenue to victory.
At first glance, an addiction to Sudoku puzzles doesn’t seem like a big thing. But when it begins to interfere with one’s normal life, gets in the way of relationships, meaningful tasks, prayer time, and healthy movement and sleep, it becomes something else. It becomes a threat and a barrier to fullness of life. For my friend, deleting the app, regaining control, was more than a trivial gesture, it was a step toward spiritual freedom. What’s yours going to be?
Prather, BEd, MTh, is a teacher and facilitator in the areas of faith and spirituality. She was executive director at Star of the North Retreat Centre in St. Albert, Alta., for 21 years and resides in Sherwood Park with her husband, Bob. They are blessed with four children and 10 grandchildren.