Impossible Expectations

Christianity (in general) is suffering from theological nonsense. I have been attempting for several years to provide corrective insight to these theological problems when and where I had opportunity. However, I have found that the average Christian either doesn’t know what his theological assumptions are, or generally knows what his theology is but doesn’t grasp how that intersects with the day-to-day existence of his life. This has proven to be a mostly insurmountable problem.

However, I have realized recently that the problem is actually much more endemic than our theology. The reason our theology has become disconnected with the life of the Gospel is that we have completely erroneous psychological assumptions. To be specific, Christians in general assume that an abundant life is theirs by virtue of grace, and make no connection between their actions and the state of their life.

In other words, we believe the equivalent of the idea that by virtue of believing that because Derek Jeter did all the work necessary to become an all-star baseball player we can also become all-star baseball players by believing in Derek Jeter. We forget that Derek Jeter’s all-star status was the result of daily following the regimen required to form baseball skills.

What am I saying? Yes, we are saved by grace, but what that means is we are given access to the baseball diamond. It still remains up to us to pick up the bat and hit 100 pitches a day. It is still our responsibility to rise early each morning and run sprints.

This leads to the “elephant in the room” of Christianity; the big issue that no one wants to admit let alone talk about. We have the same existential problems as our non-believing neighbors, only our problems are further complicated by guilt and the nagging feeling that it shouldn’t be like this.

The present status is that Christians espouse the idea that the Gospel provides the life abundant, but live as if the promises Scripture makes aren’t really attainable today. This has progressed to the degree that there are theologies which specifically state that Scripture’s description of a believing life pertain to the world to come. Talk about capitulating!

Leo Tolstoy described our situation well,

all men of the modern world exist in a continual and flagrant antagonism between their consciences and their way of life.[1]

Messiah’s death on the cross provides us the opportunity to be formed in His likeness as a result of the Holy Spirit’s transforming work in us, which is itself a response to our physical efforts at the renewing of our mind.

Each of us grows up in surroundings that train us to speak, think, feel, and act like others around us. “Monkey see, monkey do,” goes the proverb. This is the mechanism by which human personality is formed, and it is largely for the good. But it also embeds in us habits of evil that permeate all human life. Humanly standard patterns of responding…seize upon little children through their participation in the lives of those around them. Sinful practices become their habits, then their choice, and finally their character.

The very language they learn to speak incorporates desecration of God and neighbor. They come to identify themselves and be identified by others through these practices. What is wrong and destructive is done without thinking about it. The wrong thing to do seems quite “natural,” while the right thing to do becomes forced and unnatural at best—especially if done because it is right.[2]

The Holy Spirit does a work of renewal, brings about rebirth, but a new character must be formed just as the old character was formed. Spiritual practices will become habits, and then our choice, and finally our character.

Prayer, solitude, fasting, meditation on Scripture–these are tools that we are meant to use. Tools are designed to produce results. As Eugene Peterson says, what distinguishes us from the animals and from the angels is that we use tools.

We are not animals, living by sheer instinct, in immediate touch with our environment. We are not angels, living by sheer intelligence, with unmediated access to God. We are creatures, heavily involved with tools. Unlike animals, we use knife and fork to get food to our mouths, and hammer and saw to build a home for ourselves. Unlike angels, we use the scriptures to hear what God says to us, and the sacraments to receive his life among us.[3]

The spiritual disciplines are not tools for doing or getting, however, but for being and becoming. Our society is riddled with technology, but it is exclusively dedicated to doing or obtaining, while we neglect the spiritual technology that Jesus modeled for us. We neglect it because we have assumed that a new character is bequeathed to us by grace. And indeed we are given grace for each moment, but it is grace in response.

Let’s adjust our expectations in line with reality. Character is not born but formed. Likewise character is not born again, but reformed (renewed, transformed) after being born again. The transforming work of the Holy Spirit (progressive sanctification) is done in response to our effort. Can we earn salvation by effort? NO! However, we must work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). We must train ourselves for godliness (1 Timothy 4:7-8), we must discipline our bodies if we hope to attain the reality of the gospel promise (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

G.K. Chesterton said:

Christianity has not so much been tried and found wanting, as it has been found difficult and left untried.[4]

[1] Tolstoy, Leo. The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Trans. Aylmer Maude (London: Oxford University Press 1936). 136[2] Gangel, Kenneth O. and Jim Wilhoit. The Christian Educator’s Handbook on Spiritual Formation. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1994. (chapter 18 by Dallas Willard, “The Spirit is Willing: The Body As a Tool for Spiritual Formation”)

[3] Peterson, Eugene. Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991. 1

[4] As quoted in Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. San Francsico: Harper Collins, 1991. 1

Changing Character

When one is contemplating the changing of behavior from fleshly (or sinful) to godly there are a couple questions that naturally arise. Since we want to avoid legalism how does one change outward behavior while the inner man still wants to speak crossly, or let a discipline slide, or entertain a lustful thought?

We have on our hands a “which comes first the chicken or the egg” conundrum. Since we all ready discussed “Believe => Think => Feel => Do” it would seem natural that this process should have something to do with our solution.

A second question seems to beg an answer: what role does the Spirit of Messiah play?

I’ve been thinking about this for several weeks now, and it has been an interesting time to ponder because I’ve simultaneously been on the Maker’s Diet for a little over 40 days (and have lost 35 lbs to date). In the process I have noted that once one sets your will to do a thing, it becomes easy with practice. This seems so simplistic, yet it is the key.

Will => Do => Realize is the pattern of transformation. This is connected to our earlier formula in that the setting of one’s will happens as a result of something believed. The pattern of thinking is determined by that belief and the subsequent willing. That setting of one’s will and the thinking process that accompanies it creates a feeling of “wanting” to do whatever it is that needs to be done. In the case of my example, changing the content of what I eat.

Because I believed the contents of what I read in Jordan Rubin’s book, The Maker’s Diet, I determined to act on that belief, and then felt like eliminating sugar, grains and starches from my menu. The first week it was very difficult to stick by my newly diminished menu. In the moments where my feeling flagged it was my will which asserted itself. In fact, in order to accomplish it successfully I took a week of vacation from work so that I could spend extra amounts of time planning and then preparing my meals.

By the third week, it had become second nature to reach for a handful of almonds when I felt the urge to snack that habitually accompanies TV watching, for example. The aptly identified force of habit is a power that we must harness for positive effect. When one is in the habit of submitting momentary emotions to the dictates of your will (and it must be your will, by the way) transformation becomes the natural realization of your habitual practice.

This, of course, is all assuming that what you believe is sound. Since belief is the foundation, what you determine to do will be either beneficial or harmful as a result of whether you believe truth or a lie.

This, I suspect, is what Solomon had in mind when he penned:

“Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live. Get wisdom; get insight; do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth. Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you. The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her. She will place on your head a graceful garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.” Proverbs 4:4-9 (ESV)

You might wonder where the Spirit of God is in all of this? Let’s discuss that in the next post.