I’m sure you might have caught this letter from a “bitterly disappointed” father already.
David Brooks comments on it in a way that is meaningful. He’s using psychological and therapeutic language for something Christianity has talked about for a long time. We can change, but slowly and only laboriously. And we doing it mostly not by dropping bad behaviors but by crowding them out with good ones.
People don’t behave badly because they lack information about their shortcomings. They behave badly because they’ve fallen into patterns of destructive behavior from which they’re unable to escape.
Human behavior flows from hidden springs and calls for constant and crafty prodding more than blunt hectoring. The way to get someone out of a negative cascade is not with a ferocious e-mail trying to attack their bad behavior. It’s to go on offense and try to maximize some alternative good behavior. There’s a trove of research suggesting that it’s best to tackle negative behaviors obliquely, by redirecting attention toward different, positive ones.
Note that “unable to escape”. In Lutheranism we have two big phrases: sinner and saint, law and gospel. We all know the law. It is written on our hearts. We just can’t keep it. We are unable to escape the law, both its accusation and its trespass. Getting real theological Christianity calls this original sin. After Eve took that apple, all the bad apples looked good. We can’t help ourselves.
The big internal break is when you stop trying to keep the law but rest on grace. When you know that you are a sinner and as long as you are in this body will be a sinner, but that God has saved you by grace. Jesus Christ released us from the penalty of the law and put his Spirit within us. That is the gospel. You are a sinner, but also a saint. And the call of the Saint is to follow Christ, to pick up the cross. What does that mean? To crucify all that bad stuff. Laboriously, bit by bit. How do we do it? I prefer what I ended last week’s sermon with. “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phi 4:8 ESV) Or “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” (Gal 5:22 ESV) Or what David Brooks calls “obliquely, redirect attention toward positive things”.
Here is the difference. You try and do that yourself as Brook’s psychology language would lead you to believe you can, still trying to perform, you still fail. You are still under the law. The first two steps of AA have the truth: 1) We admitted we were powerless over alcohol – that our lives had become unmanageable.
2) Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. The Word comes from outside of us. Christ puts his Spirit within us.
The Crews Missile was an impressive piece of preaching the law. But the law does not save.