Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Thoughts on Sanctification

John Schroeder, posting at Blogotional, discusses Idols and Idolatry (with a little help from the Jollyblogger:
If I am in an upscale community that values family, success and financial freedom I might decide that the way to reach these folks is to build a family friendly church with classes and seminars on marriage and parenting, money management and a biblical view of success, or how to use your success in a godly way. There are many good aspects to all of these emphases, but we can miss the fact that people often value family, money and success for idolatrous reasons. In other words, it may be helpful to give someone biblical principles for budgeting, but it may be that their interest in budgeting is driven by an idol of greed.

And so I am suggesting that we not treat sinners as if they are sinless. For some time now it has been en vogue to listen to the unregenerate and tailor our ministries to their stated needs, desires and values. This has been the case with the church growth movement, the seeker sensitive movement, and in many cases with postmodern and emerging movements. In doing so we often fail to get behind the sinless and idolatrous motives that are driving the needs, desires and values.
John amplifies this thought of the Jollyblogger’s, that otherwise harmless or acceptable behaviors may prove sinful, based on our motivations. John extended this idea into a very interesting area: church growth, and efforts to build fellowship without proper focus on God’s purposes for that fellowship:
Now here's the really insidious part - church growth is not a sin, unless I approach it with an idolatrous attitude - that is to say I operate my church in a fashion to pursue growth when I should be pursuing God.

Anything can become an idol. Have you ever thought that the Pharisees real problem was that they made the Law an idol? Think about it. They were so zealous to do what they thought God wanted, they forgot God, isn't that the very definition of idolatry?
John goes on to ask some good questions and seek feedback on how God wants us to respond in cases when a church may be straying from a focus on God’s purposes, and stumbling off into areas of a sinful (prideful) focus on numbers, attendance, growth for growth’s sake?

For John, leaving the work of change only to the Holy Spirit may be suggested, but that seems troublesome:
Of course, changing people "on the inside" really is the work of the Holy Spirit, but somehow that seems like a cop out. Surely God has a role for us in situations like this?
This resonates with me particularly now. Mrs. Dadmanly and I undertook a 12 week small group study in our fellowship, involving a biblical process for seeking change. The book, and materials, have been written by James MacDonald, called “I Want to Change…So Help Me God.”

In an opening chapter of the book, MacDonald starts by speaking of the need for God’s people to “take out the garbage.” This relates to getting rid of faulty psychological and spiritual methods for change. One of the faulty psychological methods for change was identified as “digging up your past.”

MacDonald, mentioning Freud and alluding to questionable practices like “recovered” memories, makes the point that any attempt to change that involves will, manmade, or other self-centered methods, is bound to fail. Only God can change the heart, based on the tried and true process of true repentance and sanctification.

While I might objected to an outright dismissal of various psychological methods for change, I think MacDonald makes a point here that I need to absorb. I still have some concerns that MacDonald’s treatment of these methods as “garbage” are too negative and judgmental, but I know I have things I WANT to change and haven’t been able to, and I know that God needs to change my heart. And I think that’s where this is best suited, lingering sin and resistance to God. NOT that everything else is garbage, but just not what’s needed now, for these circumstances and sin areas. And I also think, McDonald describes Therapy in VERY limited and archaic terms, more Psychiatry than psychology, Freud, etc., and did not mention 12 step (which is not exactly self-help in my opinion), recovery from addiction, Christian counseling, etc.

Mrs. Dadmanly and I received healing from 12 step, both secular and Christian based, and from secular and Christian counseling. The twelve steps themselves are scriptural (even if widely misunderstood). Yes, people get stuck in the past, and latch on to human beings, and never really come to know their Higher Power intimately, but that’s a failing of the individual (and sometimes groups that don’t hold themselves accountable), not to a weakness of the program per se.

I want to make one other observation about change. A CORRECT or appropriate identification of what a person REALLY needs to change is not trivial or properly dismissed with a joke along the lines of “Now what could I possibly need to change, I am so near perfect…” (As an aside, I think any time we say to ourselves, “Ordinarily I don’t like negative [critical] teaching, but…” that should be a warning sign. Attacking anything or other alternative approaches is a weaker place to start than why a different approach is RIGHT.

In my experience, one reason (among many) some Christians from dysfunctional families have not been able to “change” is because they identify the wrong things to change, and the wrong things as sins. In an abusive or dysfunctional family, the pressure is overwhelmingly that the abused “get with the program” and stop making waves. Putting up with the abuse and putting it out of mind is the fix. “I am the problem” can be very destructive and counter-effective. I can think of several current circumstances that people remain in bondage by thinking it’s all them, and they “conform” to what they think is right. Hitting someone over the head with the Bible may seem simple, but it can backfire (and represent the garbage bag candidate of a Legalistic approach by the way).

Mrs. Dadmanly observes that she needs no practice looking in the mirror and saying, “what a wretched, worthless creature am I.” Many of us spent the better part of our lives doing just that. As I said, I think it is vitally important that we in pastoral and teaching roles (and in Christian counseling, for that matter) be alert to what people focus on as what needs to change. Yes, we can only change ourselves, but we need to know what things God wants us to change, and what we are being “pushed” into change for conformity or to fit some Legalistic definition. I think McDonald’s approach could continue to work oppression on some, and reinforce an external (legalistic) conformity. Makes for a lot of sick fellowships (and bad counseling) if not properly accountable to God, and each other.

So how does all of this relate to what Jollyblogger and John Schroeder are discussing? I think they are the two wider paths upon which well-intentioned believers can stray.

Seekers and the searching bring a lot of diverse points of view, opinions, and life experiences, and many of these will be blended in what could be a much richer tapestry of the Christian life. Sure, there are non-negotiables, but all of us have prejudices and limitations to our experiences, areas where a brother or sister can reveal that God works in at least some mysterious ways that we ourselves have not experienced directly.

I can argue this point of view all day long. And Jesus associated with all manner of sinners in His ministry, that the religious purists of his day were shocked to observe. But if we never reach beyond that initial invitation, and we continue in what we want to be true fellowship, we do need to be attentive to each other’s walk, even if it is difficult to fully understand or identify with our brothers and sisters. We can risk discarding or neglecting important issues of sin, mutual accountability, sanctification, walking through salvation, in the interest of reaching people “just as they are.” Reaching people is one thing, helping them transform is another. I came to faith with a lot of “unchurched” areas of my life, and if I was never confronted with the distinctives to which my new brothers and sisters attend, I would have missed out on a very important process of prayerful reflection, conviction, and eventual sanctification (at least in individual areas).

It may be as simple as learning table manners, and it might be ways that my behavior is hurting my friends and family, and I have lacked an ability to perceive the effects of my behavior. It may be an area of addiction or compulsion that I was not willing to deal with until God had worked sanctification far enough in me to accept correction.

On the flip side, a fellowship can set standards so high, that many are turned away in despair. Sadly, many of us who spent time in recovery, have first experiences with other Christians outside recovery and therapeutic settings that greatly limited the positive influence that broader Christian fellowship might have had, both for our sanctification, and for theirs.

We all sin, and fall short of the glory of God. When we set conditions for the types of sin we can work with, and others that we can’t, or criteria for “how saved” we must be to participate in fellowship, we limit what God can do in our midst. Too frequently, it’s not just that we don’t give each other room to grow, but we discourage the kind of sharing lead to living a transparent life with each other. We may also be so used to our own way – say, what it means to be a foot in the Body of Christ – that we can’t recognize the differences on the part of the Body that is an arm.

Change is needed, and there is no time to waste. And surely the change most needed is a change of heart. Sometimes, the change will be some outward behavior and manifestation of rebellion, and loving correction that continues the lifetime process of sanctification. And sometimes, that change needs to be in the heart of him who would sit in judgment.

For me, I know I have to watch myself both ways. Because I still rebel at times, and need more sanctification. And I know I need to grow in tolerance for my brothers and sisters in Christ, because they struggle as I do too. And joining each other in that struggle is what God has called us to do.