I’m still thinking about Bradley Monton’s questions, linked from here, about Christians not living up to our beliefs. His observations certainly call for a prophetic response: Christians, wake up! It makes a difference how we live! There is more to it than that, though.
Our inconstancy of practice raises two questions: what does it signify regarding the truth of Christianity (the apologetic question), and what can we do about it (the pastoral question)?
This being a blog and not a book, I can’t answer either of those fully, or even pretend to try. I’m going to suggest just three general areas for us to think about:
Not long ago I heard someone praying, “Lord, please help me just live according to what I believe.” I almost interrupted to disagree, but that is not something one often does in a prayer meeting, so I held my peace. (I’m still not sure I shouldn’t have spoken up.) What I was thinking of saying was, “That is the most unnecessary prayer you could pray. You do live according to what you believe!”
I know what she had in mind, and sure, it was commendable. She recognized she wasn’t being consistent in living in according to the truth of the Gospel, and she was asking God for help with that. Understood that way it was a perfectly appropriate prayer.
But on another level, to pray to live according to what one believes is to misunderstand our problem. Nobody’s beliefs line up as a perfectly coherent system. That explains a lot about why our practices aren’t perfectly consistent. I’ll take myself as an example. I’m firmly convinced that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, the true source of love, the ultimate guide to good, the foundation of wisdom; yet still at times I catch myself also believing I’ll be happier (at least for the moment) if I do something outside of his good wisdom. Does that make sense? Of course not! Not everything I do makes sense. And although I can see the problem there, I’m not at a point where I have overcome it.
Jennifer at Diary of a Former Atheist sees it too, I think:
Because I’m so entrenched in my role as organizer and leader, whenever I think of setting aside the checklists and the calendar and just prayerfully letting God guide me, I have this absurd gut-reaction thought that’s something along the lines of, “What if God screws it up?”
Absurd, maybe, but also quite understandable in light of being human.
This is a matter for personal and spiritual growth. So how do we go about this? Here’s one way: by examining our own beliefs and challenging them regularly. Some of that we must do on our own, but much of it we cannot do on our own. We need quiet times of prayer, study, reflection, especially with journaling, to understand ourselves. We also need others to help us understand ourselves, to see us and reflect back to us in ways we can’t do for ourselves. In humility, and as fellow learners, we can also do the same for others.
For example: “When you spoke sharply to that person just now, what were you believing about them, and about your relationship with them?” That’s a simple example. More to the core: “You seem anxious about your 401(k) today—what are you believing about God’s provision?”
Some things, though, we do with hardly any reference to beliefs about them. Beliefs in the cognitive sense are not the full story. We need to practice what we believe; and I mean “practice” in a certain specific sense here. I was a music major as an undergrad. My weaknesses as a trombonist were not cognitive. Non-musicians won’t necessarily understand this, but my weaknesses weren’t necessarily even a matter of skill. What my teachers drilled me on the most was learning to breathe and learning to relax. Look, I was born with those skills! But I had to practice—a lot—to apply them properly in the specific context of blowing a horn.
Writers like Dallas Willard advise us to practice spiritual disciplines like prayer, fasting, study, and so on. As a musician, practicing was its own reward: I really loved playing trombone (I won’t go into why I later set it aside), even doing drills like long tones, scales, and the like. But much of it was doing something I could do directly, for the sake of indirectly developing the ability to do something I could not do directly.
Did that make sense? I’ll illustrate. For trombones, music in the key of B major can be very difficult, especially if the tempo is fast and the rhythm complicated. To tackle that directly would be pretty overwhelming. Musicians often take a sort of indirect approach instead. In this case, it would be to practice the B major scale until I had it down cold. Then most of the notes would be drilled into me solidly enough that I wouldn’t need to think about what key I was playing in, and I could concentrate on the music’s other challenges. Playing the scales would be an indirect approach to learning music that would be very difficult to approach directly.
In the same way, I won’t love my enemy as Jesus said to do until I’ve practiced loving someone who is just different from me. We have to grow in these things, starting with what we can approach more directly, and we’ll gain skills that will help us with other spiritual practices.
Addictions may be considered under the category of habits, though, with internal reward and punishment structures dug very deep, requiring more than just disciplines to overcome them. I am not prepared to say more about that now, beyond that simply acknowledging the problem.
It’s one thing to be fully convinced there is a spiritual dimension to reality; it’s another thing to keep aware of all that means. Psychologists speak of salience, referring to what is most present to our conscious awareness, and most likely to influence our behavior. It takes time and focused attention (we’re talking spiritual disciplines again) to stay in touch with all that is real. Prayer, worshiping with other believers, studying God’s word, hearing and reading about God’s work in the world—all of these will help keep God’s reality more salient before us. Without that, we will indeed revert to living as if physical reality were all there is.
The Work of the Holy Spirit
Our beliefs, habits, and focus are all spiritual issues, for which God supplies us equipping and direction through the Holy Spirit. I would be remiss not to include that as a reminder here, even if space does not allow me to expand on it. We depend on God’s work for all of our growth.
The Apologetic Perspective
What do our inconsistent practices say about us and about the faith? They show that we’re human, we have habits, we are not perfectly consistent creatures, we’re influenced by what’s most present to our awareness. They show that we need God and his grace. All of this is entirely consistent with what Scripture says about us.
What do our practices say to others about the truth of the faith? I think John 13:35 is quite clear, as is John 17:20-21. Our message is a lot more convincing when delivered with true Christian character behind it. We have to give ourselves grace for our failures, but we can never stop striving for growth.
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