Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Bodily formation? Spiritual formation?

An article in The Atlantic a few months ago described an astonishing experience of bodily formation.
Two years ago, at the age of 50, “Dan” weighed 230 pounds after a decade of putting on weight; he was 45 pounds above the National Institutes of Health's threshold of obesity. After ten minutes of walking in an art gallery, he needed a wheelchair.

Today he weighs 165 -- the clock's rolled back 29 years. He's off all his medicines, and a three-mile walk is a breeze.

What happened? There was no surgery and there were no mysterious fat-burning chemicals. His brother “decided to say the obvious”: that Dan needed to get into some sort of weight-loss program. Dan engaged in bodily disciplines, assisted by a behavior modification program that kept him accountable (David H Freedman, "The Perfected Self", theatlantic.com, June 2012, http://bit.ly/NVo5mt).

Bodily disciplines resulted in dramatic bodily change; could spiritual disciplines result in dramatic spiritual change?
Two years ago, 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. http://bit.ly/MwcYB8

But today, Ray is a new man -- it's like the clock's rolled back 40 or 50 years, to a time before he was mean and bitter. A recent sermon talked about love, joy, peace, patience, and everybody thought of Ray.

What happened? There was no surgery and there were no mysterious rites of exorcism. One of his brothers decided to say the obvious: he needed to get into some sort of spiritual formation program. Ray engaged in spiritual disciplines, assisted by a behavior-modification program that kept him accountable.

OK, “Ray”'s spiritual transformation hasn't really happened. But couldn't it? What if... what if when Ray was about to say something unkind, this passage rose to his awareness: “Let no unwholesome word proceed from your mouth, but only such (a word) as is good for edification, according to the need of the moment, that it may give grace to those who hear”?

What if, when he thought to cut someone off on the freeway, these words appeared before his eyes: “Let us do good unto all men...” or “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven”, because he'd just reviewed those verses?

Of course, the issue isn't just knowing these verses, but meditating on them, ruminating on them, and otherwise getting them into our hearts. Ray "knew the Bible better than God" according to the account, and that didn't change him into a man of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and so on.

Here's the thing: if someone doesn't want to change, the practices won't necessarily change him. But for someone who does want to change, who believes his life is hidden with Christ in God, “the word of God ... performs its work in us who believe” as the Apostle Paul tells us.

The Scriptures are, of course, just one avenue God uses to change us; other spiritual practices can be very effective. Two other things would be helpful for “Ray”: first, a brother willing to speak truth to him in love; second, some sort of software—an app?—that could amplify Ray's self-discipline.

It's that second part that I find especially interesting: the idea that technology can help us become better people, rather than making us stupid or lonely or rude, is exciting. This hypothetical app could share some features with a gym or weight-loss app -- help with goal-setting, create charts/graphs, connect to a social network, etc.

So how can we encourage the practices—Bible study, Scripture memory, prayer, meditation, solitude, celebration, silence, etc.—without encouraging Pharisaism? I'll tell you: I don't know. It calls for mindfulness, a hard thing to maintain. But I have to believe it's possible to train oneself in mindfulness by constant use. If we can remember why we read the Bible, why we memorize it, why we pray or sing, that can help us. But as with any spiritual growth, we need help from the Lord. Fortunately, God is happy to help us become more like Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:23-24, Philippians 1:6, 2 Corinthians 3:18, Romans 12:2, etc.) and is near to us whenever we call upon him.