Psych 101

While the culture at large is awash with simple strategies for quick-and-easy personal growth produced by a swelling tide of conference-speaking, blog-writing, book-hawking “experts,” a meme populated in my Facebook newsfeed recently that is probably a better representation of what most of us are up against when we set our course to change:

My Goal was to lose 10 pounds this year. only 15 to go.

I can certainly identify. Because there have been times of tremendous growth over short periods of time in my life, it’s easy to expect everything to turn out like that, but it doesn’t. And not everything that happens makes immediate sense. Problems linger. I face issues today that I’ve faced years prior: anger, impatience, a critical attitude toward others. I set goals and fail to achieve them. Relationships are hard, things don’t seem to change, and I feel stuck, hopeless. I set out to make this a great year for elk hunting, only to break my foot while scaling a hill on a dirt bike. What was the purpose of that? I’m not sure I have an answer.

Even as Christians, we tend to envision change, rather wishfully, like a steadily climbing line on a graph. We begin at level one maturity and climb upward at a 45-degree angle with only a few minor dips or setbacks along the way. If you want to change, just do it. Buy this program, follow these steps, boom. Done.

The problem, as anyone who’s set out on a path of personal reformation has found, is that it’s just not that simple or easy. We meet unexpected obstacles, things don’t turn out as planned, we find disappointment rather than immediate success, and we are forced to wrestle with the conflicted desires of our own hearts. If we find ultimate success, it’s because we’ve endured, overcoming countless obstacles over a long period of time. And in the process God probably redefines what we thought success would look like. Our lives look at times a lot more like circular wandering in the barren wilderness than a steep and rapid ascent up a mountain.

One reason we take this hyper-simplistic view of human psychology and sanctification, as Peter Leithart has pointed out in reference to the shallowness of Christian films, is because:

Evangelicalism is also a conversionist faith. The key crisis is the moment of commitment to Christ … that means that the line of character development is flat. The really crucial character development has taken place in the moment of conversion … theologically speaking, character development is “sanctification.” A conversionist form of Christianity places less emphasis on sanctification than on conversion and justification. In films, that translates into drastic oversimplification of human psychology. For evangelicals, there are only two sets of motivations, as there are two kinds of people: saved and unsaved. While that is ultimately true, it is not the whole story.

Human psychology is a lot more complicated than “one day I was a bad person, now I’m good and everything I do turns to rainbows and unicorn cookies with sprinkles on top.” The Westminster Confession (chapter 5:5) attributes this reality, among other things, to the hand of God in providence:

The most wise, righteous, and gracious God doth oftentimes leave for a season His own children to manifold temptations, and the corruption of their own hearts, to chastise them for their former sins, or to discover unto them the hidden strength of corruption, and deceitfulness of their hearts, that they may be humbled; and, to raise them to a more close and constant dependence for their support upon Himself, and to make them more watchful against all future occasions of sin, and for sundry other just and holy ends.

A brief study of Job, Paul, or any of our fathers in the faith reveals the winding paths God takes his children down to bring them to maturity of faith. As a footnote for the above statement points out, Paul himself was afflicted with some kind of “thorn” that didn’t go away, even when he prayed for relief. Instead, God used a time of great weakness to manifest his grace to Paul (2 Cor. 12). Even the wise men who wrote that confession clearly struggled to explain all that God might be doing with the seasons of our lives, hence their answer—God does these things for “sundry other just and holy ends.” That’s one way of saying we can trust God’s goodness without knowing why.

As Wallace Stegner put it in his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Angle of Repose,” our lives are better described as cyclical rather than linear. There’s usually not a simple, childlike explanation for human motivation. You can’t reduce someone’s life to a few cliches and a pop princess song. It’s more complicated than that. That’s what Solomon was getting at with his poem at the beginning of Ecclesiastes 3: Life is seasonal and cyclical, not linear. And while everything has a time and purpose, we don’t often get to know what that is. How does death, killing, losing, or tearing away seem to fit neatly into our lives when those things happen?

What we’re talking about is how God matures us, gives us wisdom and shapes our character, which requires a lifelong dedication to learning at the feet of Christ, with the expectation that answers are mined like gold, not dispensed like a soda from the vending machine. As the Psalms demonstrate, the life of God’s people is one of wrestling, crying out, thirsting, hungering, and finally, being satisfied and filled by God. It’s one of great victory and devastating defeats, both in regard to outward calamity and inward struggles with sin. It’s not a program for growth but union with the One who is the Vinedresser, who prunes and waters and nurtures to produce lasting, God-glorifying fruit in our lives (John 15).

Our hope is not that we can make sense out of all our trials and therefore gain some kind of advantage over our lives. Instead, our hope is that God, who binds himself to us in covenant love, performs all things for our good (Psalm 57:2). These trials, whatever they are, are being used by God to perfect us in holiness.

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