Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Watch Your Language!

I received these excellent thoughts from my friend Brooke, which include a needed reminder that we should be careful in selecting words (and he makes some great points about spiritual growth, too):

Your reader used a key phrase, “Since I am in Christ…” “In Christ” captures the meaning of the Christian life. John the Apostle uses the term “abiding” much. I think when it comes to the question of goals or submission, I would say that may be the wrong question. The question for me is, how do I stay “In Christ?”

By posing that question, I’m not trying to get into an Armenian/Calvinistic debate. I think we all agree that there is a measure of effort that must be put forward by us in order for God’s grace to continually flow into our lives. We just need to be cautious that we don’t fall into a works mentality. We can never earn God’s merit by meeting our spiritual goals or by simply submitting to God’s will. We are saved by grace AND we grow spiritually through God’s grace.

I like your relational analogy. I like to talk about spiritual disciplines or holy habits as opposed to goals. I tend to shy away from the concept of goals when it comes to my own spirituality. Reaching a goal is a pass/fail endeavor. You either meet your goal or not. When we reach a goal, it can be easy to kind of pat ourselves on the back and get a little puffed up with spiritual pride. When we fail, it is easy to become self-condemning. Neither of those extremes helps in spiritual progress.

For the same reason, I tend to shy away from “submission” talk. The idea that on my own, I can submit my will to God’s is preposterous. That is simply relying on my own will power. Real submission comes from trust in God’s love and goodness.

Going back to a relational analogy, I may set a goal to spend at least one quality evening a week with my wife. When that happens, I don’t pat myself on the back and say to myself, “Good job.” When circumstances come up that prevent me from reaching this goal (and when you have young children, believe me, there are a lot of circumstances that come up), I don’t beat myself up and say to myself, “You are the worst husband in the world.” When I am able to reach my “goal” the reward comes in terms of the benefits to the strength of our relationship. When I “fail” it has the opposite effect and so I try to get back on track as soon as possible. So instead of looking at it in terms of goals or submission, I try to foster habits that will produce desired results. The end is not to reach a goal but to have a more loving, trusting relationship with my wife in which we are naturally more inclined to submit to one another.

John Wesley referred to habits that lead to being “in Christ,” as “means of grace.” The term, “means” is important. The means of grace are simply means and not an end in of themselves. The end of course is growth in grace or being “In Christ.” I would say that the only goal is to abide. Holy habits are a great means to that end.

Holly sez:
Excellent point: "Habits" would have been a better word for me to use. Thanks for sending me your thoughts; this made me realize I need to be careful when I'm using a theme word. The way I define it isn't necessarily the way most people define it.

I've never made goals that have "termination" points, and now that you mention it, I imagine that's how most folk draw up lists of goals. For example, when my doctor told me I needed to lower my cholesterol by at least 30 points, I didn't think to myself, "I'm going to lower my cholesterol by 30 points." Instead, I thought, "OK, I need to stop using butter to fry stuff. I need to stop eating the pastries at church every Sunday. And I need to start eating a lot of fiber." It never occurred to me that I was supposed to be shooting for 30 points--I simply figured that my cholesterol levels would improve by the amount of effort I was putting into the task. And I suppose it would have been pointless to shoot for 30 points, then to get there without thinking about the effort that was required (and pretty soon, I'd be back where I started).

My cholesterol has been decreasing over the past few years. At my recent doctor's appointment, I was delighted to hear it has dropped 36 points since the doc issued the warning. Thing is, I don't have to worry about keeping my cholesterol down, since I now have the habits in place. But I do have to keep those original "goals" in place for the rest of my life, along with adding new ones to continue improving my cholesterol levels.

I'm not sure how the reader interpreted my language about goals. While I'm not sure I interpreted her words as she'd intended them, it reminded me of people who've said, "I'm going to let God do the work of changing me because he'll make me into the person he desires me to be." One of my professors gave this illustration: Would we sit down and expect God to levitate our Bible into our lap, cause the pages to open to a certain section, and tilt our head at just an angle to read the words he wanted us to see? Do we really expect that God is going to do all the work of spiritual growth for us?

Thanks again for your thoughts, Brooke, and for giving me some better language.

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