“Where there is no vision, the people perish” (Proverbs 29:18)
Change Or Die is the provocative title of a 2007 book by Alan Deutschman. It describes the difficulty people face in making lasting lifestyle changes – even if failure to make these changes could result in death! For example, in the U.S. roughly two million people annually undergo angioplasty or heart bypass surgery. During recovery they are informed by their doctors that their surgeries will ultimately fail unless they alter certain habits – typically diet, exercise, and/or smoking cessation. In effect they are told to change or die. One might think this would be a major wakeup call and motivation to change, and indeed many patients make some initial adjustments in their lifestyle choices. Nonetheless, two years post surgery fully 90% have reverted to their previous habits, a number which has been corroborated in multiple studies.
If the specter of physical death is not sufficient incentive to change one’s lifestyle, we may wonder at how difficult it is to transform the habits that comprise our character? That is to say, if an exercise regime is unattainable despite the near certain knowledge of clogged arteries and likelihood of death, where is the hope of growing in virtues such as gentleness, or goodness, or self-control? Or if poor eating habits are too hard to change, how are anger and lust to be overcome? This is hardly an academic question given the state of many professed Christians. For example, a 2007 Barna study concluded, “When measured for other moral behaviors, born-again believers are not much different from non-born-again adults.” Hardly a resounding description of a holy or abundant life.
And so we ask, how is spiritual change possible? Is there a path for those who truly desire to clothe themselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience as directed by Paul? In other words, is there a way in which the habits of holiness are acquired?
A helpful reference point is found in the secular world of heart patients described in Change Or Die. In one experiment of over 300 patients, a medical doctor devised a program that nearly reversed the conventional statistics of failure, so that after three years, roughly 75% of patients in the trial had made and kept the necessary lifestyle changes recommended by their doctors. One of the key insights of the study was that helping patients develop a positive Vision for their lives was a far greater motivator than the fear of dying. This was so because often bad habits were a way patients coped with other emotional issues. The way it was phrased in the book was “Who wants to live longer when you’re in chronic emotional pain?” The goal then was to help the patients change their thought patterns or narratives that controlled their lives. In other words, to help them be “transformed through the renewal of their minds.” (Romans 12:2)
In the study there were other things that helped the heart patients successfully develop habits for healthy hearts, such as a support group and repeatable actions. Similarly, there are other building blocks that help Christians develop habits for healthy spiritual hearts, such as a community of believers and spiritual disciplines. These I have and will continue to explore in postings. But for today, I focus on a critical influencer of spiritual health, namely, the Vision one has for his or her Christian character.
The power of vision became real to me when I was in 8th grade. In my first two years of junior high school, I was the class clown – always looking for outrageous things to say or do to make my friends laugh. I did not spend a lot of time at my studies, preferring sports and being the center of attention. During the end of the school year I applied for an elite high school in the city – one that my older brother was attending. When I was rejected based on my grades, I was crushed. Indeed the pain and shame was so intense that I resolved never again to fail due to lack of effort. And so when I arrived for the first day of school in the fall of 9th grade, my classmates barely recognized me. Outwardly I was wearing a tie and jacket, but inwardly I was clothed with a new attitude. No more fooling around at school – I was all business. And at home, literally all of my time was devoted to my studies. I started studying and working on homework assignments Friday afternoon and did not stop until Sunday night. Weeknights were spent with the same level of intensity. As a result of my efforts, I achieved a measure of academic success. In subsequent years I have read similar stories of students drifting through school and then suddenly getting a vision of something they really wanted in life. Perhaps an interest in a certain profession, or a desire to follow someone they admire. My vision, which was simply to avoid rejection, was not particularly noble as it was driven almost exclusively by my pride. Yet, once the narrative of my life changed from being a failing clown to a diligent student, there was literally nothing that I let stand in my way.
At the time, I did not realize the deeper spiritual truth of what was happening, namely, that I was being changed or transformed by the renewal of my mind. I was literally rethinking the way I was doing life (or at least how I was approaching my studies) and deciding upon a different approach. When John the Baptist heralded the coming Messiah and when Jesus started his ministry, their call went forth to “repent for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2, 4:17) Many hear the word repent and believe it means to apologize for one’s sins. Perhaps so, but it is much deeper than being sorry because it literally means “to change one’s mind.” More specifically, “to change one’s mind for better, heartily to amend with abhorrence of one’s past sins.” As Dallas Willard has written, “As we first turned away from God in our thoughts, so it is in our thoughts that the first movements toward the renovation of the heart occur. Thoughts are always the place where we can and must begin to change. … The ultimate freedom we have as human beings is the power to select what we will allow or require our minds to dwell upon.”
Realizing the centrality of Vision is key to change. But how do we develop a positive vision? How do we change the ideas and narrative controlling our life? This is not easy. As Willard has written, “To change governing ideas, whether in the individual or the group, is one of the most difficult and painful things in human life.” Thinking deeply about our thoughts, actions, and relationships is certainly a good starting point. I once heard a speaker (in describing the process of spiritual growth in young people) assert that the most important thing we can do with our youth is to help them to develop a “moral imagination.” By this she meant that we should help them reflect on two questions: What kind of person do I want to be? What kind of life do I want to live? These are great questions for people of any age, and particularly for those who claim to be followers of Christ.
About fifteen years ago I found myself growing increasingly impatient with other drivers. It seemed to me that everyone was out to cut me off in traffic or drive too fast or too slow. Many mornings I arrived at work so angry from my commute that I was literally sweating. Things got so bad that some days I did not want to get behind the wheel. And really, at one level I felt that if I didn’t become patient I would die. Although Paul says that “love is patient” (1 Cor. 13:4), my initial goal had nothing to do with loving other drivers and everything to do with my own survival. In other words, my goal of becoming patient was based entirely on self-interest. Nonetheless, as I prayed about the matter and started taking simple steps to become more patient, I gradually experienced some healing. This proved not only therapeutic but ultimately gave me more compassion for other drivers. The steps I took were important, but my point here is not the steps per se but the seminal role of vision to stimulate and initiate radical change. My key insight was that I had no chance of changing the behavior of other drivers, that my anger at other drivers was hurting only me, and that my single hope was to overcome my anger with patience.
Jesus described the kingdom of God in terms such as a pearl of great value and a buried treasure, and he claimed that those who follow him would have an abundant life. He has given us a glorious vision for the good life, but yet it can feel so elusive. Perhaps the reason spiritual change seems difficult is the lack of a strong vision for the virtuous life. In fact, we often have narratives that are starkly opposite. I had a friend who struggled in his marriage, yet when I asked him about it, his response was, “it will never change.” Obviously, when one’s overriding narrative for a difficult marriage is that it will never change, it won’t. I wonder if he ever thought about what a good marriage would look like for him? What changes could he make to improve it? Were there ways he could love his wife that did not depend upon her response? How far would he be willing to go to love his wife better?
“Vision” is a word that I have not always valued. I found it particularly off-putting during my years working in a corporation where we periodically crafted “vision statements” for our job assignment. For me, it was a waste of time because I never believed in the vision I was helping to create. Oh sure, I could come up with some grand sounding words, but it was for show and not for real. As far as I can tell the same principle applies in the spiritual life. Grand sounding words are not enough – I need to hunger and thirst after righteousness. Only then will I be filled.
Lord, reveal to us the ways we have strayed from Your path; show us the way forward with a powerful vision for a virtuous life; and empower us by the strength of the Holy Spirit to live as people worthy of our calling.