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Making a To-Don’t List

Thomas J Parlette

“Making a To-Don’t List”

Romans 7: 15-25a


Most of you have probably never heard of the Great Tuna Run of 1998 – and No, it is not a charity 10K sponsored by StarKist. The Great Tuna Run of 1998 occurred in the late summer and early fall of that year off the coast of Cape Cod. Fish were plentiful, and they were biting. What was even more exciting was that there had not been a run like that in 47 years. It was fisherman’s dream. All you needed was a sharp hook and some bait and you were in business.

You could even make some pretty good money. Rumors around town had it that Japanese buyers would pay up to 50,000 dollars for a nice blue fin tuna. But here’s the catch: Atlantic blue fin tuna can weigh in upwards of 900 pounds – you had to be a very skilled fisherman to handle one of these fish. But of course, that didn’t stop the weekend warriors from loading up their rowboats and heading out with their heavy duty fishing rods and 50 pound test line.

So it was a problem on September 23rd, 1998, when so many inexperienced fishermen ignored Coast Guard warnings and headed out to sea in small boats and inadequate equipment. One such boat, the Christi Anne, a 19 footer, capsized while doing battle with a tuna. Another boat, the Basic Instinct, suffered the same fate. And still another boat, a 28 footer named Official Business, was totally swamped after it hooked onto a 600 pound tuna, which didn’t want to be caught. So the tuna actually pulled that boat under the water. Never underestimate the power of a tuna.(1)

The Great Tuna Run of 1998 is an interesting story to consider in light of this passage from Romans. Paul writes about the power of sin – how he does the things he doesn’t want to do, and doesn’t do the things he knows he should. Battling sin and temptation is a lot like battling a giant tuna – we underestimate it’s power. We think we can handle it, we think we are prepared – but then we discover just how powerful it is, and it’s too late, we’re hooked in. We get pulled under. We are swamped by the power of sin.

Sin is not something we like to talk about very much. We would prefer to gloss over the negative and get right to love, grace and forgiveness. It’s like what happened at a certain church on Sunday morning. The lay reader was leading the congregation in the Prayer of Confession. She asked everyone to stand, and she read the Call to Confession, reminding them of the sin within their hearts, and then the congregation joined together in the Prayer of Confession. Afterwards the lay reader paused for a time of silent confession, just like we do. And she kept pausing – for a good long while. So long, in fact that the people began to rustle as they waited for the next part of the service. It was getting a little awkward. More than a few worshipers thought maybe she had lost her place, or misplaced her notes, or maybe some sort of medical issue – why such a long pause. Finally someone was overheard to whisper, just loud enough to be heard, “Just hurry up and forgive us, so we can shake hands and sit down.”(2)

That’s the way it is when sin comes up in worship. We might think – “Just hurry up and forgive us – let’s get past this confession thing and get to the good stuff.”

But today, we can’t ignore Paul’s words. He is brutally honest about the dangerous power of sin. Whether Paul spoke these words about himself or whether he meant them to be more universal in nature, he hits the nail right on the head when he identifies the human struggle with sin and temptation. We can all agree with Paul when he says, “I do not understand my own actions. I know what’s good, I know what’s bad – but I can’t seem to do the good that I want to do.”

Years ago, there was a Peanuts cartoon where Lucy was explaining to her brother Linus about the division in the human heart. She drew a picture of a heart, put a line down the middle, and said, “One side is filled with hate and the other side is filled with love. These are the two forces which are constantly at war with each other.

Linus says, “I think I know just what you mean. I can feel them fighting.”

So Lucy has him tip to one side, so the good part can drain into the evil part. I wish it were that easy.(3)

The power of sin is very real, it is very powerful, and it’s something that affects us all. So what can we do about it?

How can we accomplish what Plato once spoke about when he said, “For a man – or a woman – to conquer themself is the first and noblest of all virtues.”(4)

Or as John Milton wrote – “The one who reigns within themselves and rules their passions, desires and fears, is more than a King.”(5)

How do we rule over our passions and desires? How do we conquer our sin and temptations? How do we develop good self-discipline? It’s a battle we all face everyday. As Paul writes, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me?”

Experts tell us that establishing good habits is the key to strengthening our self-discipline. If you establish the right kind of habits, you won’t have to wonder what the right thing to do in a given situation is. Doing the right thing will come naturally.

Legendary management guru Tom Peters points out that most of us have “to-do” lists to try to help us with our self-discipline. But Peters also has what he calls a “to-don’t list” as well – an incentory of behaviors and practices that sap his energy, divert his focus, and ought to be avoided. As Peters puts it, “What you decide NOT to do is probably more important than what you decide TO do.”(6)

That’s interesting – make a to-do list, but also make a to-don’t list of all the behaviors, actions and bad habits that lead to temptation and sin. That’s the way to develop will power – or in this case, maybe it’s won’t power.

Studies by psychologists tell us that developing good habits can become our “default” behaviors so that, regardless of the situation, we will act in an appropriate way. A default behavior is your natural way of acting – particularly when you are under stress. For example, some people get angry and defensive, they go on the attack. Others withdraw, they get depressed. Others fall back on humor when things get tough. Those are default behaviors.

According to the studies, we have only limited reservoirs of self-control. So when we get stressed, tired or otherwise emotionally or mentally pre-occupied, our ability to will ourselves to eat properly, be polite, or any other positive behavior, wanes, and we resort to ingrained or habitual behaviors. Some of these behaviors are not in our best interest. We might over-eat, go on shopping sprees, or drink too much.

But by establishing good habits, we can change our default behaviors to something more positive. For instance, researchers surveyed college students and found that when students were tired or stressed, such as during final exams, they would default to good or bad behaviors, depending on their habits. For example, students who habitually ate a healthy breakfast every morning, continued to do so through exam week – while students who routinely ate junk food, ate even more junk food when they were under the stress of final exams.(7)

The key to avoiding the things on our “to-don’t” list is to set up healthier habits. Tony Dungy, a successful former NFL coach, was well known for his ability to help his players form the right habits. He once said, “Champions don’t do extraordinary things. They do ordinary things, but they do them without thinking, too fast for the other team to react. They follow the habits they have learned.”(8)

Create healthy habits and you will create a healthy life.

Paul actually ends this passage with a very similar idea. He writes, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me…” But then he writes, “Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Paul points to the best habit we can develop for a healthy spiritual life – the habit of giving thanks to God.

There is a story told of a pastor named Carter Jones. Jones had a small room in the attic that he used as a place of prayer. When he was especially burdened and stressed out, he would make his way up the winding staircase to that room to spend quiet moments with God. The members of his family knew that when he went up to the attic, they were not to bother him.

One day, Jones climbed the steps and knelt beside a chair to pray. He had hardly started when the door swung open. There stood his little girl. The moment their eyes met – she knew she had done something wrong. She said, “Daddy, you’ve been so busy lately I haven’t seen you much. I just wanted to tell you that I love you.” She gave her Dad a big hug, and then she quietly tiptoed out of the room.

When she had gone, Jones continued with his prayers. “Lord, I’ve been so busy lately that I haven’t had much time for you. I just wanted to tell you again that I love you. And thank you for all the wonderful things in my life.”(9)

Making time for prayer, to give thanks to God for all the good things in life – that is the best habit we can develop.

That is the best default behavior we can establish.

Giving thanks to God, who delivers us through Jesus Christ – that is the best way to avoid what’s on our “to-don’t” list.

May we all develop that habit.

May God be praised. Amen.


1.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, p10.

2.    William G Carter, The Gifted, CSS Publishing Inc. 2004, p277.

3.    Ibid… p278.

4.    Dynamic Preaching, Vol. XXXIII, No. 3, p12.

5.    Ibid… p12.

6.    Ibid… p11.

7.    Ibid… p12-13.

8.    Ibid… p.13.

9.    Ibid… p.13.