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.