Thursday, May 27, 2010

What does it take to really change?

The lovely Carol was reading from a magazine:
Ray was an elder.... Ray sat in the third row... right on the end, and he took copious notes in his well-worn Bible, which was heavily underlined and marked. You need to know, Ray knew the Bible better than God. But here's the deal about Ray, and I realized this even when I was twelve: Ray was a mean guy.

Ray was a really crabby guy, and everyone in the church knew. Sadly, among all the things people knew about Ray, the other thing they all knew was that Ray would never change.

from "Can Change Really Happen?" by Dave Johnson
Conversations 8:1 (spring/summer 2010), p. 34
I'm sorry to say that there are too many of us that fit this description. I'm not talking about mean and crabby people in particular, but I mean people who aren't going to change. At least not for a while.

She went on reading, ticking off a couple of purported answers to the question of "How do we become the kind of people who are working out (Ph’p 2:12-13) into our living the life of God we have?" (35):

  • small groups
  • spiritual disciplines
but of course it's true that one can do that stuff and still never change. What else is needed? she asked me.

Following the old joke about how many therapists it takes to change a light bulb -- just one, but the light bulb has to want to be changed -- that's basically what I said. In other words, those purported answers are bogus. No, not bogus; they're answers to a different question, viz.,

If we are working out into our living the life of God we have, what are some things that can help us do that?
Well, of course we want to change. Or do we? How high is that priority in my life? Am I more interested in image management -- making myself look good (or so I think) to myself or others? Or do I really want to become more like Jesus?

In John 5, Jesus asks a crippled man, "Do you want to get better?" The man never actually answers, but talks instead about being a victim. So yes, he does want to get better, but "getting better" isn't a laser-like focus in his life; it's one of many fireflies swarming about him.

I think that what we need -- what I need -- is an earnest desire to be transformed (as Paul tells us in Romans 12:2), a willingness to see my own faults and to repent of them, a faith that God will fulfill his promise (that is, he rewards those who seek him -- Hebrews 11:6). If I have those things, then putting myself in the way of God's grace will help me grow and change as he wants me to. If a seed is alive, then moisture and temperature, etc., will help it grow.

But if a seed is dead, moisture and warmth will just bring rot. So if "Ray" or I don't want to change, if we aren't willing to repent of our sins, then small groups and "spiritual disciplines" will be just so much Pharisaism for us -- they'll do us as much good as the moisture and warmth do for a dead seed.

Merton talks about this in his chapter on Sincerity in "No Man Is an Island"; more on that another time.

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