History offers many examples of technological and intellectual change (we can do more and we know more than we used to). But as far as humankind’s moral dimension, there is scant and/or confusing evidence of any real movement forward. Our weapons of war are more sophisticated and deadly than ever and we use them to great effect. Our ability to ignore clear evidence in favor of ridiculous and dangerous conspiracy theories and/or non-evidential narratives seems as powerful as ever, amplified by mass media and the web. Our sexual appetites remain wildly varied and increasingly pornographic, thanks to modern capitalism, the western world’s lynchpin for making human beings into passive, non-relational consumers. We are who we used to be. The human creature, made in the image of God, seems incapable of attaining to that image.
Again and again we fall back into ourselves, into our self-destructive cycles of thought and behavior. These repetitive cycles seem true for individuals and for cultures.
The Christian faith states bluntly that change is possible for women and men who have entered into relationship with God. But where is the evidence — real evidence, now! — for that change? We’re not talking cosmetic change here, but change that goes down to the core of a person’s nature.
People who say they love God often behave as badly or worse than they did before their profession of faith. Not all, of course. But very many. Patterns of sin and addiction, whether drugs, alcohol, sexuality, materialism, or fill-in-the-blank, seem to again and again overtake the allegedly “changed” person and make a liar out of both them and (to the skeptical observer) God!
Do we understand what “change” is? Do we understand in a deeply spiritual and psychological sense what it means to change, not only in our outward acts but also in our inward thoughts and desires? How is such change accomplished? What does it look like? Have we met people who live in a state of change, permanent and solid and unyielding to the previous state they existed within?
My own thoughts on this are not those of someone who knows all the answers; I’m not even sure of my questions. The issue of change is personal to me; I know in my own experience just how hopeful I can be one day that I’m done with a certain temptation or will not again behave so irritably… only to fail. I don’t think some of the ways we Christians think about change are very truthful. I think sometimes we’re in denial about how often real change is in evidence. I think sometimes we show an ignorance of the Scripture’s depth and breadth on this thorny experience of change… and failure to change.
“Complying with the Formula”: Change and the Law
Sometimes I suspect we’ve become more and more Mormons theologically than we are Christians. Consider this quote (which I consider terribly in error) from Mormon leader Spencer W. Kimball:
Eternal life hangs in the balance awaiting the works of men. This process toward eternal life is a matter of achieving perfection. Living all the commandments guarantees total forgiveness of sins and assures one of exaltation through the perfection which comes by complying with the formula the Lord gave us… Being perfect means to triumph over sin. This is a mandate from the Lord. He is just and wise and kind. He would never require anything from his children which was not for their benefit and which was not attainable. Perfection therefore is an achievable goal. (Miracle, 208).
I’m ignoring for the moment all the other Mormon “distinctives” which pervert the Christian Story. The key in the above quote which I often sense Christians buying into is the idea that “Living all the commandments guarantees total forgiveness of sins.” No, that’s exactly wrong. Paul and the other New Testament writers forcefully argue the Law does not exist to save us but rather to convict us — that is, to expose us as guilty even in our own eyes! The book of Romans is largely focused on that very point. Ephesians 2 is another passage where Paul joyfully shouts the good news: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God– not the result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8,9 NRSV).
But we can give lip service to Grace while still holding on to the law. After all, Grace introduces a lot of ambiguity into things. The Law is straightforward, cut-and-dried, and helps easily discern who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s God’s and who’s the devil’s.
It feels very good to be right, and to be able to clearly point out who is wrong. It feels good to know where evil is — over there, with that guy. It feels good to know that I’m on God’s side. And of course all these good feelings are in facts lies, lies I believe are from the Father of Lies (one of Jesus’ favorite titles for the Devil).
Change we root in any static understanding of righteousness — especially righteousness that we ourselves possess! — is change which is illusory. In fact, between a self-righteous Pharisee and a prostitute, the prostitute has a definite edge in the eyes of God! At least she knows she is a sinner. The almost laughable truth about many of us Christians is that we have arrived at a point we imagine we don’t really truly need God the way we used to…. we’ve arrived! We’ve changed! We aren’t cigarette-suckin’ sinners any more!
But what are we really? First, we’re proud and arrogant in our own self-righteousness. Second, we’re liars, because we say we are righteous but have all sorts of secret sins (including many if not all of our original self-pleasures). It isn’t just well-known preachers that are publicly legalistic, then get caught with porn, drugs, embezzled cash, mistresses (or misters), and the rest. Some of us are in that boat. No matter how we deny it.
Proud Admission of Persistent Failure: Change or Capitulation?
So there’s another way we deal with this issue of change, and that is to embrace our failure as though it is a badge of honor. Now, there’s a truth in that, and we’ll get to the truth eventually. But there’s a huge falsehood there as well. Decades ago, I interviewed some men who led a Church based on the idea that Perfection was something handed to us on a metaphysical plate at the moment we were saved. We simply accepted it and then did whatever we wanted, since we were in effect “little Christs” and sinless. (This doctrinal error is called “antinomianism,” but we can also call it dangerously silly). Need I tell the sad end, that the church fell apart due to (among other things) moral failure among its leaders?
I’ll ask the question. Does the Righteous, Perfect God of Scripture require holiness of us? That is, though we are saved by Grace, does God require of us obedience? Tricky stuff, this. Because if we aren’t careful, we end up back in legalism, starting off with trust in Christ but ending (again) in a white-knuckle, teeth-gritting attempt to remain in Grace by upholding every last bit of the law.
No wonder some folks go for that antinomian “Cheap Grace.” That’s what WWII martyr and author of “The Cost of Discipleship” Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it. Grace without discipleship, without a sense of inner directedness toward the path of obedience in Christ. Without an honest transparency that simultaneously seeks to do better yet also confesses faults to others. Without, in short, any real life of the Spirit at all. Just words, and perhaps some emotional gas mistaken for worship.
Change, by definition, is not a place we arrive but a road we travel. The old Christian term “sanctification” carries that idea along with it. We are being (present tense) sanctified, but we’re not (present tense) without sin even though sinlessness is the direction in which we are headed. That’s the definition of change we want, to break free of sin, to become more and more like Christ.
This becoming more like Christ is not merely about what we don’t do any more. It is to take on his character, his Spirit, his way of seeing the world with the eyes of Love, his wisdom to carry out actions consistent with his heart. It is to have the passion for God’s Presence that He had, continually drawing aside to speak to his heavenly Father. It is the selfless love of the other that he exhibited in nearly every action the four Gospels offer us.
So how do we change? How do we become more like Christ? Or is just a prayer of salvation and a nagging sense of missing the mark all we get out of this Christian journey?
“Wherever You Go, There You Are”
It used to be that I thought my sinful desires would change. And in some ways that may have happened. But in other ways, I’ve had to learn that my desires such as they are accompany me even now, thirty-nine years since I was birthed into Christ’s family. I’ve found myself realizing that part of what I thought would happen to what the bible enigmatically calls “the old nature” simply isn’t happening. I thought it would fade away. But instead, it remains with me, unchanged! And how far from me is it? About one step away, one “Yes” away.
To be sure, I give into it less often. Is that progress? Is that change? Is that about all I can hope for? And do I have to put up with it until death ends my struggle here?
Yes, in part. But I think stopping there is unduly pessimistic and dour. The Bible, after all, commands us to “Rejoice always” (the commandment I break everyday, sorry to say). What can I tell you… tell myself… that will be more encouraging than what I’ve written so far?
John blisters the Mormon-ish perspective on “perfection” even as he establishes that God expects us to pursue obedience:
If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true; but if we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.” [1 John 1:6-10 NRSV]
This idea of “perfection” (and yes, even John later on uses the word, though not in the way our Mormon commentator does) is one that haunts us. Why? Because when — and I say “when,” not “if” — we sometimes fail, we so quickly forget that God loves us. Or (so we think), he’s a fierce father who watches from a distance; he may love us in his way but deeply and even angrily disapproves of us. We suspect, but are afraid to know for sure, that God is scowling at us, disgusted.
This quite simply misses the heart of God and the heart of what John and other NT writers are saying to us.
John’s Gospel looms large in my personal universe, for a number of reasons including the fact that I taught it this year to our Project 12 students. Chapter 15 in particular is the passage that caused me to clumsily attempt what you are reading right now. And it is that passage, or part of it, to which I turn now.
Change is Organic Relationship
Let’s get back to Grace… and to Jesus. The first time I read John, and in particular the long passage (four chapters) where Jesus shares his heart with the disciples in the Upper Room, I fell in love with Jesus Christ all over again. But this year, as the P12 Students and I went through John, I was stopped — and remain stopped, frankly — at the profound metaphor of the Vine in Chapter 15.
I’ll include only six verses or so of the total, but these six verses are — I propose — potentially revolutionary.
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. [John 15:1-5 NRSV]
Pause for a moment, and consider another metaphor Jesus uses that has parallels to this one. We call the Church “The Body of Christ” (a metaphor Paul in particular explores deeply throughout his letters). But here we see another organic metaphor used, that of a Vine (Christ) and its branches (ourselves as believers).
Remember, we’re talking about change. Let’s think about this word “organic.” In short, it means some of the following:
“Of, relating to, or derived from living matter”
“Of or relating to a bodily organ or organs”
“Denoting a relation between elements of something such that they fit together harmoniously as necessary parts of a whole”
And finally for our purposes,
“Characterized by continuous or natural development”
All of these characteristics help shape a possible understanding of change as something that happens organically. And when we consider them in light of Jesus’ use of the Vine / branches metaphor, we begin to see something in vivid and obvious detail.
Change is not our primary goal. Instead, an organic unity with God is our goal. Jesus more or less says as much. “Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.” And to punch it home, “apart from me you can do nothing.”
I propose that our focus is to be on loving God, finding intimacy with God, finding companionship with Jesus Christ who after all seems to yearn for us to do just that. Our own righteousness does not in actuality exist! God’s Righteousness, coursing through the Vine, becomes ours as we share in his life-giving Presence. When the Word talks of “the righteous” it is not talking of a group of individuals who have in themselves the essence of holiness. Rather, it is talking about a body of believers drawing quite literally their lives from the Life of Christ Himself.
Our good works are — and this too is directly biblical — literal fruits of the life we actively draw from and exist within as branches of the Vine. So obedience is a sign of the reality of our drawing our lives from relationship with God rather than from vain attempts to fulfill the law.
Are we failing? We have a compassionate God who yearns for us. Refusing to be cowed by failure (and its devilish companions, self-condemnation / self-justification) we should transparently dare to admit our failures to those who love us, take their encouragements and reproofs as sister and brother branches of the Vine, and together as well as individually seek deeper intimacy and union with God.
God is Love, and as a Person, God is also a Lover. We are his Beloved.
True Change’s Only Constant is Love
And so looking at change and human beings, my humble conclusion consists of just this:
I am broken. Not just damaged, but deeply, irrevocably, broken. I cannot fix me. Nor, I will add, has God promised that our project together is to see me “fixed.” In fact, God prefers me “broken” — or if you will, “weak” — because in my brokenness his Power is made evident. Think I’m making that up?
He told Paul (who also was broken, either physically or/and in some temptation) this:
[….]to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated. 8 Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, 9 but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. [2 Cor. 12:7-9 NRSV]
We are sometimes delivered from things that torment us. I’m not trying to suggest there’s an ironclad rule one way or the other in such matters. Heroin users, for instance, have sometimes been instantaneously delivered of their desire for that drug. But many more have not been. And on a deeper level, drug addiction is merely one part of a much larger mosaic of that human being’s personal brokenness. For instance, I recall reading about a man who attended AA meetings and successfully walked in sobriety for years… yet was a serial adulterer. (No slam on AA, an organization I think is great.)
We are, in short, still too hung up on our own status as “spiritual” (or unspiritual), as “victorious” (or as failure). If the Reality of God’s love — and oh, how these words burn me personally as someone who is not yet living what he knows! — is the heart of our own reality, then how can we fail? And if we fail, we do not despair, because God’s Love remains more real than whatever temptation or error drew us away. We know he will forgive and have mercy, and knowing that in an ever-deepening way helps us to loath sin not because it “makes us bad” but rather because it grieves the Beloved, the God who has made himself vulnerable to our lukewarm responses to his love.
All is Grace. And in that Grace, that organic reality that brings the Second Birth into being, we are indeed changed and still changing. But that is not our goal, to change. Our goal is — or should be — to love, and to remain in Love. He is the Vine… and we are the branches. From the love we share, let us bear good fruit.