I’ve been pondering for a few days on the question of whether or not we can change ourselves.
The thoughts got started because of a series of conversations over at Limpet’s Folly. There, Tess shares her own experience of trying all kinds of self-help methodologies for years and being completely unable to make any changes as a result. She has found the answer in a Reformed theological understanding of the total depravity of human beings, in Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross, and in the power of God to bring the changes in us that we cannot bring about ourselves. As a result of this experience she is very doubtful about the value of self-help techniques or of anything in Christianity remotely resembling them.
Ironically, this testimony harmonises very well with the theology of one of the most successful self-help movements in history, Alcoholics Anonymous (if A.A. can claim to have a ‘theology’ at all!). The first of the famous ‘Twelve Steps’ of A.A. is to admit that ‘we are powerless over alcohol, that our lives have become unmanageable’. Alcoholics then go on to believe that a power greater than themselves could restore them to sanity, and to call on the help of God ‘as they understand him’ to do for them what they cannot do for themselves. Millions of alcoholics have found freedom through these steps – or rather, through the power of God coming into their lives as they opened themselves up to him through these steps.
However, this is not the whole story. While A.A. is the most successful approach for the treatment of alcoholism the world has ever known, it is not anywhere near 100% successful. A recent newspaper column claimed that the majority of people who go to A.A. meetings are not, in fact, delivered from their alcoholism. The minority that are delivered are a larger minority than in other programs, but they are still a minority.
I also think of the experience of a friend of mine who as a teenager and a young adult drank heavily, got into drugs and lived on the street for a while. He has often recounted the story of how he was close to committing suicide when he looked at himself in the mirror, didn’t like what he saw there, and decided to make a change. He gave up drinking and doing drugs, moved off the street, and took up gainful employment. Today, thirty years later, he is a very successful businessman who believes very strongly that if you don’t like what you see in the mirror, it’s up to you to make the necessary changes.
What about my own experience? My early Christian nurture took place in charismatic/evangelical Christianity, where there was both a strong sense of our inability to help ourselves and a strong expectation of the power of God to make the changes that we cannot make. But I have to say, over the years, that I have not generally experienced this miraculous help. I have prayed many times that God would deliver me from besetting sins, but, quite frankly, the deliverance has rarely come ‘on the hot line’. Generally speaking, I have been required to do something about it as well.
I have come to see that my major besetting sin is not what I thought it was. My major besetting sin is actually lethargy: good old-fashioned laziness. I’m the sort of guy whose natural approach to a day off is to lie around doing nothing and then end the day with a vague feeling of dissatisfaction. I’ve yet to meet a project that I couldn’t happily put off until tomorrow. And I’ve taken this approach to my own spiritual transformation as well; I’ve asked God to do it, but I haven’t actually taken much responsibility for my part in it.
I have no question that ultimately it is God who delivers us; the question is, how does he do it? Do we simply put our trust in him and then wait passively? Or do we ask his strength and then work hard ourselves, making full use of all the resources of psychology and counselling and support groups and good old sanctified common sense?
I believe the true biblical answer is the second. To begin with, in the Old Testament there is no sense at all that God’s people can’t change themselves; it is everywhere assumed that they can, and the prophets call them to repentance on the assumption that this is in fact possible for them. In the synoptic gospels, too, Jesus gives his disciples instructions about the sort of life they are to live, on the assumption that they will be able to live it. It is true that the Jesus of John’s gospel tells his followers ‘Apart from me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5), but surely, in the context of the whole chapter, the corollary is that ‘if you abide in me you can do what I want you to do’. And how do we abide in him? Jesus says later in the chapter, ‘If you keep my commandments you will abide in my love’ (v.10). So, in a peculiar sort of circular logic, keeping Jesus’ commandments is both the way we abide in him, and also the result of abiding in him!
Surely Paul gets the balance right in Philippians 2:12-13: ‘Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure’. And in Colossians he stresses both human effort and God’s power: ‘For this I toil and struggle with all the energy that he powerfully inspires within me’ (Colossians 1:29). All of this work, of curse, is based on faith in Christ, or what he calls in Galatians 5:6 ‘faith working through love’.
Another friend of mine once said to me “I don’t identify with all those testimonies about how people came to God as a result of all sorts of trouble in their lives. Actually, when God first came into my life things were going pretty good for me!” I’ve often pondered the significance of these words. We Christians are fond of making blanket statements. We talk about there being ‘a God-shaped hole in people’s lives, and only God can fill it’, but many unbelievers, when they read this, respond that, in fact, their lives are quite full, thank you very much, and they aren’t aware of any hole! Others, of course, are well aware of that empty space, and it’s a great motivator for them to seek a genuine relationship with God.
But people are different, they experience life differently, and they come to God for different reasons. Some may indeed have experienced the despair of trying to change themselves and failing over and over again. Others, however (including many who have been in desperate circumstances) have proved quite capable of making the necessary changes. Some will come to God with a strong sense of need for the help that only he can give; others will come to God out of a deep conviction that he is there, that he is the author of all the glory we see around us, and that the most fitting thing in the world is to worship him.
‘Know yourself’ is wise counsel. Some will follow it, discover that self-help is not for them, and take refuge in a strong theology of human inability and God’s power. Others will follow it, discover their own habitual laziness, repent of it and make use of all the resources human beings have designed for change, all the while calling on the help of God to work through the whole process. I have to say that, for me, the latter approach seems to work better.
Sent out by Jesus
It’s a happy co-incidence that the week after we launched our ‘Back to Church Sunday’ initiative, Luke 10:1-20 is our gospel reading for today. I swear that I had nothing to do with it; sometimes these things just seem to happen at the right time! Today’s passage, you see, is about Jesus sending out seventy of his followers on a missionary journey to share his message and heal the sick. These seventy were not the inner circle, ‘the Twelve’; they were a wider group, who may or may not have had the same sort of intimate contact with him that the Twelve enjoyed. But he had a message that he wanted to communicate to the world, and he had a sense that the time was short; conflict with the authorities had already begun, and he could already see the shadow of a cross looming over his future. So he sent out this group to prepare the way for him in all the towns and villages he was planning to visit.
Nowadays, as I’ve often said, we Anglicans tend not to be too comfortable with the thought of being sent out to share the Christian message with people who are not Christians. It smacks of the idea that there is only one true religion, and that doesn’t sit easily with our Canadian ethos of multiculturalism and respect. And so we tend to say things like, ‘Some people talk about their faith; I just live mine out, and let people draw their own conclusions’.
It sounds very spiritual and respectful, and it has a grain of truth about it: of course we’re called to live our faith out, and if we don’t put it into practice – if we don’t live lives that remind people of Jesus, in other words – the chances are that we won’t get very far in trying to talk to people about the gospel message. But we should not draw from this the conclusion that we don’t need to talk about our faith at all. After all, the early Christians didn’t just invite the world around them to watch while they silently lived out the teachings of Jesus! If they had done, we’d probably be painting ourselves blue with woad and worshipping oak trees today! No, at the beginning of the gospels Jesus went into Galilee with a message to proclaim; he proclaimed it and invited people to become his followers. At the end of the gospels, he sent those followers out into all the world to share the message with others, and in between those two bookends he was teaching them how to live it out and how to share it. Mission – sharing the love of Christ, not just in actions but also in words – was an integral part of Christian discipleship, right from the beginning.
Now as we read this gospel passage today, some of the things we find in it don’t apply so readily to our situation. Jesus was sending out seventy mission volunteers on a project that would require them to leave their homes and families for a while and give their whole time to the work of sharing the gospel. And the setting was urgent, because the cross was looming and Jesus wanted to reach as many people as possible before he went to his death. Our situation is also urgent, but for a different reason – none of us knows the day of our death, and, as Jesus says in the gospels, this night our life may be required of us. But most of us are not contemplating leaving our homes and families and going on a short term evangelism trip; our witness is taking place in the context of our normal everyday lives, at work, amongst our friends and families, in the coffee shops we frequent and so on.
So there are some differences between our situation and that of these early disciples. But this doesn’t mean the passage has nothing to say to us. I want to point out to you very briefly four connections we can make between the message of this gospel reading and our own call to be witnesses for Christ today.
Read the rest here.