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Scott G Winterton, Deseret News
Incense burns during Joya-E, or last-night gathering service, Monday, Dec. 31, 2012 at the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple.
The more pervasive problem is media addiction and that a lot of our negative emotions like jealousy and anger are being expressed digitally. —David Kinnaman

Three weeks into 2013 and temptations to blow off those New Year's resolutions are bearing down.

What kind of people will give in and why? What are people's greatest temptations and favorite sins? Who cares to change and how can they do it?

Those are the questions researchers at the Barna Group tried to answer in a recent survey of more than 1,000 adults released at a time when people are in the beginning phases of carrying out resolutions meant to renew themselves for the new year.

While the new study examines the temptations Americans say they most commonly struggle with — and how they resolve to deal with these moral and ethical lures — it also makes a case that technology has provided a new means to commit the traditional seven deadly sins of wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy and gluttony. At the same time, nearly all religious traditions have stories and rituals of repentance or renewal, experts say, that are still applicable to modern challenges.

Nearly four in 10 Americans said spending too much time on the Internet or watching television is their greatest temptation, the survey found, while another 11 percent said "going off" on someone via text or email is another temptation they regret giving in to.

"It’s important to recognize that virtual temptation is more than just online pornography," said David Kinnaman, president of Barna, which does marketing research for Christian ministries and nonprofits. "The more pervasive problem is media addiction and that a lot of our negative emotions like jealousy and anger are being expressed digitally."

Spirituality and stewardship

Kinnaman said the message for faith leaders and their followers is that technology and media need to be part of a broader discussion of spirituality and stewardship.

He explained that in Christian evangelical circles, the notion of stewardship revolves around how believers use their time, treasure (money) and talents.

"We think there should be a fourth 't' included and that is 'technology' because technology is determining so much of how humans are using their time, money and gifts," he said.

Kinnaman said it's a good sign people are recognizing time spent with media as a temptation, possibly indicating that people are thinking about whether time spent on the computer or in front of the television is contributing to a better world, a better family and a better life.

The survey stated that the most technologically oriented generation — the millennials, or those born after 1981 — are more likely than the national average to admit to struggling with the temptations of modern technology.

More than half (53 percent) say they are tempted to over-use screens, and one-quarter (25 percent) feel the temptation to use technology to express their anger at others. When it comes to viewing pornography online, millennials are significantly more likely than other generations to admit to wrestling with this temptation, with more than one quarter (27 percent) saying they are tempted by online pornography.

Reordering desires

The Barna survey was conducted in conjunction with a book project by Anglican Bishop Todd Hunter, senior pastor at Holy Trinity Church in Costa Mesa, Calif. Hunter writes in "Our Favorite Sins" that overcoming temptations or carrying through on resolutions takes more than willpower.

People have to methodically reorder their desires, he explained, so that things they don't want to do are not temptations.

"Willpower is like Congress: it is constantly being lobbied by thoughts and emotions," Hunter said. "You have reorder those things so thoughts and desires become allies rather than enemies."

The Barna survey indicated most people either don't care to resist or don't know how to resist temptation. Nearly two-thirds said they do nothing to avoid temptation, and half said they don't know why they give in.

Kinnaman, who has been conducting market research for nearly two decades, said those findings surprised him the most.

"There is something changing in how Americans approach temptation," he said. "The majority of Americans at any age are saying that temptation isn’t something to be avoided or withstood, but just a benign feature of life."

Of those who do resist temptation, the survey found prayer to be the most commonly mentioned method of coping. Other methods included using reason and reminders, considering consequences, and reading or recalling scripture.

Hunter said those findings indicate to him that people have an intuition that their temptations are a spiritual, "deeper inward problem, deeper than willpower.

"For some people they start talking about ways of engaging with God, of which prayer would be right at the top of that," he said.

Need for renewal

For centuries, people have turned to religion to renew themselves, leave their past behind and begin again. Nearly all faith traditions have stories and rituals of renewal, from baptism to Ramadan to reincarnation.

"It's kind of a truism that the purpose of religion is to reintegrate members of the community back in when they have gone astray," said Gordon Melton, a professor of religious history at Baylor University. "It usually involves some form of forgiveness and reaffirming status back into the community."

The religious tenets of renewal tap into a human desire for new beginnings, explained Christopher Hays, a professor of ancient near eastern studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. "Anyone who lives in the world finds things get tiresome and old, and the idea of renewal is a very powerful one," he said.

Melton said starting over is something repeated throughout American history, beginning with the motivations of its earliest settlers to modern-day immigrants who have diversified the country's modern religious landscape.

Rebecca Jackson was among about 60 people who gathered at the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple on New Years Eve to participate in that faith's ancient tradition of Joya-E, where they reflect on the past year and recognize the human passions they desire to overcome by ringing a large bell 108 times.

Jackson, 23, found Buddhism in her search for something spiritual in her life.

For the new year she has resolved to meditate every morning before she heads to work. The exercise involves focusing on one's breathing and dismissing thoughts of the past or future. "I can start to see where it will make a difference. I am in a better mood. I feel more gratitude and patience," said the Orem mother of a 5-year-old.

Jackson's desire to be more spiritual and her plan to accomplish it align with Hunter's steps to reordering one's desires so that temptations don't overpower you.

The first two steps are to envision the person you prefer to be and decide if you really want to be that person in the future. Hunter said what should follow naturally is the third step of discovering the means that will help you accomplish your goal.

He said the most common mistake people make is going straight to the means without a commitment to the change it could bring.

"Instruments of change are only good if someone has a preferable future in mind and has decided to get there," he said. "Otherwise, the instruments only frustrate us."