Saturday, April 23, 2011

How Do You Change? Part 2

Before we can move on with our discussion of change we need to address the goal of change. Why do we want to change? Why do we want to fix our problems? I think, if I read our culture right, most people would say, "to be happy." That seems reasonable at a first glance. Who doesn't want to be happy? Everyone does. But there are a couple of problems with having happiness as our goal for change.

First, there's a confusion of meaning. There's two common uses for the word happiness in the English language, one is an emotion, i.e. a positive feeling, and the other is an attitude, which is best described as contentedness. I think we often confuse these two senses of the word. Advertisers frequently and intentionally confuse the two. And the result is that people who desire happiness in the attitudinal sense end up pursuing happiness in the emotional sense. Such pursuits will always end in frustration because it's simply not possible to feel happy all of the time. Sure it happens sometimes, but it's usually short lived. All it takes is the roof springing a leak or somebody running over Mr. Fluffy and those happy emotions go right out the window.  Happy emotions are just brain chemistry, they're the drug addict's goal - constant euphoria. But of course, constant euphoria isn't possible for anyone. A bowl of Chocolate Chunk ice cream can make you feel good for five minutes, but it won't bring you genuine happiness.

The desire for happiness in the sense of contentedness makes much more sense. But it still is not a suitable goal for change for the simple fact that you can't find happiness by pursuing happiness. Happiness is not some substance that exists somewhere out on the horizon that you can go in search for. It doesn't work that way. In fact, the pursuit of happiness is probably one of the greatest causes of unhappiness in our modern consumer culture. Happiness is not a goal, but a result that occurs from pursuing a worthy goal. I've already covered this in my blog post Discontent, so if you haven't read that you can click on the title and it will take you to the post.

To learn the true goal of change I think we have to look to Christ. Jesus is, after all, the wisdom of God in human form. If we can't learn from him, we can't learn from anyone. In terms of the question of change, I think we can zone in on two points of Jesus' teachings that can give us a clear goal for change. First, Jesus said that all of the "rules" of scripture could be boiled down to two things: love God and love people. So the actions that God wants to see coming from us are acts of love. Second, Jesus said that you can identify a tree by the type of fruit it bears. In other words, our actions flow out of who we are. Thorn trees don't produce figs. So putting those two things together, we can see that Jesus' goal for his disciples is for them to have a transformed character that results in an overflow of love towards others. That's the goal of change. That's why I want my problems fixed - so that I can bless others.

Character matters. It matters in this life and the next. There is nothing more important in this life than seeking to be transformed into the image of Christ. Nothing. Our success in all other efforts will be determined by our success in this effort. Do you want to be a better spouse or parent? Seek to be like Jesus. Do you want to do more to combat social injustice? Seek to be like Jesus. Do you want to be a better leader in your business or community? Seek to be like Jesus. That's how you change. All these things flow out of who you are – your character. If your character is not transformed, your efforts in all other areas will always fall short of your goals.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

How Do You Change? Part 1

We all have problems, and we all probably have things we would like to change about ourselves. The question is how does such change occur?

In the publishing industry over the past few years there has been an explosion of New Age books. Walk into virtually any book store, and you'll most likely find an entire section devoted to this kind of material. "New Age" is an umbrella term that spans a wide variety of perspectives - everything from recovering ancient pagan rituals, to the more mainstream spiritualized self-help books promoted by celebrities like Oprah.

There are many good things that could be said about these books. One thing I've noticed is that most of them put a great deal of emphasis on positive thinking. This is probably a reaction to the guilt based "turn or burn" motivation found in many religious traditions. And for the most part I think it's a good move. Guilt is a terrible motivator. I've never seen a person improve their life by telling themselves over and over again that they're scum. It just doesn't work. The New Agers also reject the idea that an institution, i.e. religion, can force a person to change. And again I mostly agree with them.

But unfortunately, in their reaction to the guilt based motivation of authoritative institutions, the New Agers have let the pendulum swing to the opposite extreme by removing all external influences. The one common thread that seems to tie all the New Age books together is that they put the self squarely at the center of the universe - there is no authority outside of yourself, and there is nothing greater in the universe than yourself. Invariably they boil down to "the answer lies within you." You are the agent of change, you are the architect, you are the teacher. "Simply look deep into your own soul and you will find the answer." Some even explicitly say what all of them imply, "you are God."

The problem with all of this is that it sends people on a fool's errand. Reality Check: YOU ARE NOT GOD. If the answer was within you, you wouldn't be shopping for it at Barnes and Noble.

The missing element in the New Age view of the world is something that should be obvious to all of us - the fundamental brokenness of humanity. There are many names given to this brokenness: depravity, sin, iniquity, egoism, selfishness, etc., but they all mean the same thing - we're screwed up. So the message of the New Age, that you have the answers and that you can change yourself, ultimately becomes just another form of self-deception - a comforting lie. If we truly look deep within ourselves what we find isn't a divine perspective but human frailty. There's a deep irony in the New Age's rejection of human institutions and promotion of the human self as an alternative. The problem with human institutions isn't the "institution" part, it's the "human" part. And the problem remains in the New Age alternative.

The New Age perspective is right to emphasize that change begins in the self, but wrongly assumes that change comes from the self. They rightly determine that there must be an internal change before we can expect to see an external change, but they wrongly assume that change comes from our own flawed character. In the Christian tradition, positive change, both in individuals and in institutions, comes only with God's help. God alone, in all of his infinite wisdom and goodness, has the ability to truly change human hearts.

In the presence of Almighty God, we don't come away with a sense of our own divinity, but a sense of our utter helplessness. Either change comes from Him, or our situation is hopeless. Thankfully, God is pleased to come to those who will receive him. Our transformation is his delight.

To be continued...

Part 2, next week

Sunday, April 10, 2011


Beware of black and white, this-or-that arguments - e.g. “you’re either a conservative or a liberal,” etc. There is almost always a third way - and usually a fourth, fifth, or sixth way. The third way usually involves critical thinking, and a rejection of group think (i.e. the prevailing ideologies of the day). This is true of politics, religion, and everything else people like to draw lines in the sand over.

People who are given a narrow form of faith in childhood, are the most likely to loose their faith in adulthood. Once they have left the protective confines of home and are exposed to the broader world with all its ambiguities and unknowns, a faith based on having all the right answers becomes untenable for them. They’ve been set up to fail. Black and white faith is very fragile in a world full of shades of gray. That’s why people who hold such a faith have to work so hard at not listening to any other point of view. Their beliefs are so fragile that any wandering thought could potentially collapse the entire system.

Our faith cannot be in ourselves. It cannot be in our ability to be righteous. It cannot be in our ability to know all the answers. A human based faith is pathetically weak and will let you down sooner or later. The only faith that makes sense is that based on God. He is the only one that is truly righteous. He is the only one that truly has the answers. And we are not him. Faith based on anything but God is idolatrous...and idols are easily toppled.

Sunday, April 3, 2011


I was in a book store recently and noticed there was a whole section of books under the title of "Life Change." I thought that sounded interesting, and as I looked across the shelf I found books on moving, changing careers, changing lifestyles, and of course, the ubiquitous get-rich-quick books. "Wow," I thought, "people must really hate their lives. How else could there be such a huge market for this stuff? Why would people spend so much time and money trying to change their life situation unless they were discontent with their life as it currently is." But then I had a second thought, "Is any of this stuff going to help those people? Is attempting to change this stuff really going to cure their discontent?" After reflecting on the question a bit, I've come to the conclusion, maybe...but probably not.

Allow me to explain. First, I am no stranger to change. Due to commitments first to the military, then higher education, and now to church planting, I have moved a total of nine times in the past thirteen years. Once across town, once to a different city, five times to a different state, and twice to a different country. I've had huge swings in income level from one year to the next. I've worshiped with dozens of different churches. This is not theory - I know transition. Here's what I can tell you about transition: it sucks. It's really, really hard and not much fun. Changing situations almost always requires some level of starting over; finding your way around a new neighborhood, learning new job skills, making new friends, etc. And those things take lots and lots of mental and emotional energy.

But here's the flip side, transition can lead to good things. Some of our most rewarding experiences can come after very difficult transitions - like transitioning to parenthood. Emily and I were married for seven years (to the day!) when Enoch was born. We had a pretty solid life routine that we very much enjoyed. Enoch totally disrupted that, in fact he demolished it! A screaming, crying, pooping, eating, screaming, crying, pooping, eating being that demanded our constant attention and didn't give two beans about our life routines. He turned our lives upside down and we have no regrets having him - he's wonderful. It was a hard transition, but totally worth it. That's why I say "maybe" in answer to the question "could transition cure discontent?" Transition can bring good things. Likewise, if you have a boss that has a personality disorder and takes pleasure in torturing you, finding another job could genuinely increase your overall well being.

But here's why I think that those books probably won't help most people; because most of the transitions they are advocating leave out a very important component - us. What if the source of a person's discontent isn't their job, their location, or their situation, but rather, it's them? I once heard a radio interview with a guy who had spent decades traveling all over the world trying out different locations, different cultures, and different religions looking for peace and happiness. This interview really struck me, because his conclusion at the end of it all was that no matter where he went, he couldn't get away from himself. Think about that for a minute. No matter where you go, you can't get away from yourself. This implies that if you aren’t happy in your current situation then you’re not likely to be happy in another. Now this obviously does not apply to someone who is in genuinely terrible living conditions – war zones, concentration camps, etc. In those situations change means a great deal. But most of us aren’t in those situations. We’re just bored, restless, or generally pessimistic. You're unhappy making fifty thousand a year? Well, you'll probably be unhappy making one hundred thousand a year. You're unhappy in Philadelphia? Well, Seattle probably won't be much better. You can't stand being a nurse? Then good luck with your new teaching job, because you're going to need it.

But just remember *warning: impending cliche* the grass is always greener on the other side. It's true. Before you decide to move to another pasture (a new town, a new job, a new church), make sure you’ve truly made an effort to be content with what you have. Otherwise, you may just find yourself jumping from one unhappy situation to the next without understanding the true source of your discontent.

For me, I've found that there are four key areas of satisfaction in my life: friends, community, work, and spirituality. If I focus on getting these four things right, I usually find a great deal to be content with. Realistically, you will not always have all four together (fully), but you should try to put yourself in situations where they can all occur. And you have to work on them, they don’t just happen. You have to make friends, build community, find enjoyment in your work, and choose to live your life with a higher calling. That’s the banana-split of life. (Hobbies and pets are the whipped cream and cherries on top.)

Ok my reader sitting there at your computer, please don't be offended, but now I'm going to get personal. Do you relate to this discontent? Have you been thinking, "If I only had _______, then I'd be happy"? If so, let me share some advice - the most rock solid I can give. The most important thing – the most important! – is to live a life you can be proud of by loving God and loving people. That's it. Everything else is a distraction. Make sure you really examine your motives for change. What do you really want? More stuff? A nicer house? To be “better” than someone else? That's the true source of your discontent. I read an essay once that I think hit the nail on the head; I can't remember the author but the basic idea was this: Worship money and you’ll always feel poor. Worship career and you’ll always feel stuck. Worship the body and you’ll always feel ugly. Worship the intellect and you’ll always feel dumb. But worship God, and you will find peace. So the next time you feel discontent, before you try anything else, try worshiping God.