Monday, June 06, 2011

Getting ourselves to change...

I posted this today on the seminary blog.

A few years back one of our MA students did a capstone project on a frustrating phenomenon he was observing.  The kids from his youth group were dropping like flies out of church after they graduated from high school.  This was true even of some who were going to Christian colleges.  What was even more puzzling was the fact that some of them re-emerged in the church after they got married.  His project documented the phenomenon and strategized ways to overcome it.

Now I am not a psychologist nor an expert on theories of change or changing like others in the seminary faculty, but I am a philosopher of sorts.  Cobbling together various elements from ethics, I would suggest that people are motivated for four basic reasons: 1) basic drives and desires, not least for pleasure, 2) a sense of obligation, 3) perceptions of potential consequences, and 4) the randomness of the human mind.

I suspect that the default approach of so many when it comes to getting people to change is to preach at them.  For example, the research the MA student did suggested to me that sex was by far the major reason these youth dropped out of church.  The church told them they couldn’t have it.  Their basic drives told them they wanted it.  Words of obligation don’t stand a chance in this duel.  ”You shouldn’t do that.”  ”You should do this.”

Of course one of the primary tasks of “raising our children in the way they should go” is instilling a sense of virtue and vice in them–which impacts their long term sense of obligation.  Rarely can a reasoned approach to right and wrong compete with the values instilled in a child growing up–values more “caught” than “taught.”  But even such values face hard competition against the primal drives toward pleasure of all kinds–the pleasure of power, the pleasure of sex, the pleasure of wealth.

Potential consequences can deter certain courses of action.  We have police and courts to keep us from killing each other when it would be in our own advantage.  Another way of saying that we have a sinful nature is to say that most humans are by nature more selfish than they are loving.  When my pursuit of pleasure beyond my needs creates displeasure beyond normal for you, most of us are prone to go for pleasure unless there are significantly negative potential consequences.

However, many if not most of us do not follow our heads in these sorts of decisions.  Another way of saying we have a sinful nature is to say that we are prone to choose “the pleasures of sin for a short time” over and against what we know is a better course of action.  Nevertheless, it would seem likely that most of what God asks of us he asks because he loves us and thus shapes our lives in relation to the potential consequences both for ourselves and others.  If a person has not inherited a sense of duty from their childhood, clarifying the consequences of our actions is a more powerful motivation than simply telling us something is wrong.

But in the end, it is “out of the heart” that decisions come, from our most basic drives and desires.  Different Christian traditions have conceptualized the situation of the heart differently.  Certainly we will always have drives for sex and to excel.  When the Wesleyan tradition used to speak of “eradicating” the sinful nature, some probably lost sight of what we are actually talking about here, namely, the fact that the desires of our bodies can be directed at both appropriate and inappropriate targets.  We will have these drives as long as we have bodies and so we will never move beyond temptation or the potential for our desires to target the wrong thing.

But at the same time, many other Christian traditions underestimate the power of the Holy Spirit to give us greater desires for the good than our basal desires when they target the wrong things.  Many Christians also underestimate the power of developing habits of virtue, grooves in our wills that make it more easy to do the good than to do the bad.  Changing our hearts is ultimately a matter for God, but there are time-proven ways to help change our desires in the spirit of “I want to change, Lord.  Help my inability to change.”

First, we must get a clear sense of what God desires.  If we are uncertain about what God wants us to do in a certain area, then our basal desires will win easily over the good.  Clarity of God’s will comes from the community of faith reflecting on Scripture in the light of the wisdom of the Christians of the centuries in dialog with our current context and the potential consequences of our actions.

But once we have a clear sense of God’s will, we can cooperate with the Holy Spirit in forming our desires.  We create habits of virtue in the context of Christian community.  Habits of virtue are when we practice making the right choices.  We start little and we build to the big.  Habits require repetition, so we practice making the right choices daily in our greatest areas of need.

And we form these habits in Christian community.  Most important is the accountability of the Holy Spirit.  We must build the habit of the Spirit’s presence in every moment of our lives.  We must not allow our minds to think that the Holy Spirit is not present with us at every moment of every day.  How much less are we to make the wrong decision if we have taken the Holy Spirit with us into the room where we are making the decision.  ”Practicing the presence of God” surely will make it harder for us to make the wrong choice than if our mother or father–or someone we strongly would not want to disappoint–were standing in the room with us.

Then there is the accountability of the Christian community.  If we are with others who are holding us accountable–as we are holding them accountable–then we are less likely to make the wrong choice.  They will sense that we are not as open next week as we were the week before.  They will know that we have not followed through on our professed love of God, and we will not want to confess a failure.

Ultimately, we cannot change others.  So many of us think we can, but if someone does not want to change, they will not change.  Unfortunately, most of us are lost even at the thought of changing ourselves.  As Christians, we believe this is a task only the Holy Spirit can pull off.  But God’s strength is made complete in our weakness, and we need not live a life of constant defeat.  We can do the good we want to do–which is the real point Romans 7 builds toward in Romans 8.


Scott F said...

The answer is, of course, to allow pre-marital sex within the church community - but only to certain age groups.

Problem solved! ;)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I have another way to interpret or analyze human behavior...on the Ludwig von Mises Instute's "news site", a marketing specialist talked about human behavior and what made for decision/choice in purchases.

What made for purchases was the percieved value of a particular item. An item could not be valued without comparisons. The research showed that a cell phone that had unlimited calls for a certain price did not sell, like one that had a specified time was considered a "good bargain" within a frame of reference. This is how our minds work.

The value of "God" or a Christian community has to be valued in a context that also "makes sense" or is considered valuable. That means that the Christian community is seen as a blessing and not a curse....Curses are percieved when others evaluate/judge your life without your knowledge or consent, or without knowing the details of your life to make a "wise judgment". The details of another's life and their choices, is like the cell phone being valued because of the time limitation. The frame of reference is important when understanding is valued, and not just a condemnation of a person.....

Even C.S. Lewis talked about how tyrannical "moral busybodies" are, as did Paul. Accountability is a choice that is made because, as you acknowledge, one wants to change a certain area in their life. And that is a personal choice of commitment to a personal goal, and should never be a demand of others.

As to young people dropping out of Church, I don't see that sexual promiscuity necessarily limits a teen's attendance at Church.

Desires are natural to the human, yes. But, the navigation of those deires is what virtue is about. These are boundary markers, and they vary from person to person and from time to time.

It is just as wrong to lie, steal, or cheat, as it is to have sexual indiscretion...because all of these behaviors decieve, defraud, or slight another person. The "wise" know where their own limitations are and commit to them, without imposing those limitations upon others!

Ken Schenck said...

The first part, Angie, amounts to "perception of consequences." I do not believe, however, that the virtues you mention are obvious to default humanity without a certain kind of childhood.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I mean that limitations over and above lying, cheating, stealing, etc.(the laws in a civilized country) are one's own personal choice and decision because of a weakness, etc. (Alcoholics cannot drink even one glass of wine..nor can co-dependents be allowed to enable another's abusive behavior, etc.)...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I did not mean that childhood upbringing does not impact one's values....not at all. But, not every decision a young person makes is the parent's fault either.

Your denomination values "holiness", which is a type of understanding that disntinguishes the "sacred". I don't see that the "real world" is played out except in real life situations that are not particularly "christian" or "non-christian"...It is the parent's responsibility to develop the child according to his potential and guide the child's choices and decisions, as he grows....

"God" is not over all the "evil" in the world, that is the consequences of choice. And children have to pay a price for parental neglect, abuse, or dis-engagement. "God" has nothing to do with that, as the "secular" world recognizes the value of good parenting.

So, "Christian" is irrelavant, as to behavior. What is right is set up in our courts of law.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I didn't understand what you meant by "a certain kind of childhood", which I suppose you mean American values of capitalism?

I recognize that many have sought the "height of value" by ambitious over-reaching of their capactities, and pocketbooks. This is why our country is in the state it is in...But, over-comsumption doesn't have to do with capitalism, but with individuals that make choices that over-extend their budgets...budgets are personal commitment to one's obligations. And these cannot be "regulated" or standardized, unless one wants to limit individual choice, about where and what they will pay for a specified item....

I don't know what the alternative would be unless you suggest a paternalistic government...which would affirm a communistic system...and we know what that leads to...poverty, de-motivation, depression/alcoholism, etc.. Our society might err on the side of gluttony/overconsumption, but the other side errs on standardizing and limiting human chioce and rewards...

JohnM said...

I wonder, did the church do it's part better in times past? I'm thinking first of all of that "clear sense of what God desires" to which your refer. Maybe the church has done better, most certainly the contemporary church could do better, at reflecting on scripture AND delivering a NO NONSENSE presentation of the consensus on what God desires. Taking your Weselyan-Holiness forebears for example, isn't that what they did? As you know by now by my background is not in the Weselyan tradtion, but I will say I do get the impression the old school Holiness folks took God seriously, understood God isn't playing games and we better hadn't either. They weren't the only ones, but didn't they look at life that way more than most, then or now? Is it possible some of their rules that seemed so made-up and repressive were designed to help the individual believer develop those "habits of virtue" that we're so disinclined to develop on our own?

Angie Van De Merwe said...

"What God desires"? It is dangerous to presume "what God desires", as then, one might just be prone to terrorist acts "in the name of God and for his honor"!! Do we really want to "go there"? This is why we live in a "free society", not a "theocracy"!

The "Bible" is a book of men's "theologizing".....about life, history, circumstances and man, himself. But, it is not some "supernatural revelation" that "came down from the sky".

Those that think they have "God's answer(s)" are deluded to believe that they must impose that understanding upon everyone, otherwise, "God will judge". Confirmation bias will affirm thier understanding and it will continue to harden within their "convictions". It is almost impossible to penetrate such a mind-set when it is further promoted within "community". Tribalisms don't die, they come back for or with a vengence....

As to habits, these are chosen, unless one believes in a militaristic conditioning that does not consider "the human", only the "end", or virtue to be "aquired". This is "moral terrorism" or "virtue imperialism" in the name and for the sake of another's "good".

It is one thing to "condition" children, or teens, but adults must be considered differently, because they are to be responsible for themselves. What is the difference in "cultish" brain washing?

JohnM said...

Angie, If, in spite of all, we live in a "free society", not a "theocracy" what are you so worried about? ;-)

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Suffering happens when others think their perception of the metaphysical reality should drive their behavior. Such a commitment will not be deterred from persecuting in arrogance (in the name of "God", altho it will be done our of "concern" or "love").

A fundamentalist mind-set is not open to information, because it's stance is defensive in lieu of "God's truth".

Don't you find it interesting that those that are "Catholic countries" tend to be poorer, while the Protestant ones seem to flourish more? Has it anything to do with a "work ethic"?

I recognize that our country has its problems, but now is not the time to be fighting "religious wars". We need practical solutions.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

But, to be fair (and not to "pick" on the Catholic Church), communism also does not lead to prosperity, does it (except for the "empowered class")?

"The poor" are useful, just as indulgences were in the past, to bring about compliance, so government can "embezzle" from "the people". Look at the discrepencies of Fannie Mae and Fredddie Mac....we the people have footed the bill!