A Model for Character Reformation

Part III

    Posted by Admin on September 6, 2008

Changing Our Desires For the second arena of character reformation, a different strategy is needed to deal with core desires and their related "automatic" bodily actions (e.g., anger and shouting). The apostle Paul directs our attention to work backwards, specifically focusing on the bodily actions in order to change the root and cause, that of wrong desire: "Do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God" (Rom 6:13). Furthermore, "If by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live" (Rom 8:13, emphases added). Any view of Christian spiritual formation must include a role for the body. To change one's deeply embedded desires one must focus on the body and bodily actions.

The apostle Paul testifies, "I buffet my body and make it my slave, lest possibly, after I have preached to others, I myself should be disqualified" (1 Cor 9:27). His statement is set within the context of exercising self-control in athletic training and competition. On four occasions in the New Testament, the writers tap into the imagery of an athlete in training by using the Greek term from which we get our words "gymnasium" and "gymnastics" (gymnazo). The classic text is 1 Timothy 4:7b-8, mentioned previously, "discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness."

The writer to the Hebrews employs the same term on two occasions to challenge his readers to regain their forward momentum in obedience to Christ. "Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil" (Heb. 5:13-14). "No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it" (Heb. 12:11).1 Training, itself, is not joyful, but yields good results. As William Lane remarks, "It is only after the fact, when the results of that discipline emerge, that its relative value can be determined. . . . The benefits of divine discipline belong . . . 'to those who have been trained by it."2

In general, one cannot change deeply embedded desires and behavioral patterns without some form of bodily or behavioral training. For example, to stop slicing a golf ball off course, you learn what is wrong with your swing, become aware of the correct way, and practice, practice, practice, until the corrected swing becomes normal and habitual. Likewise, wrong behaviors (linked to wrong desires), can be corrected through practice. The traditional spiritual disciplines were developed and practiced as a means to change wrong desires and to grow in personal Christlikeness. Dallas Willard explains, "The disciplines for the spiritual life, rightly understood, are time-tested activities consciously undertaken by us as new men or women to allow our spirit ever-increasing sway over our embodied selves. They help by assisting the ways of God's Kingdom to take the place of habits of sin embedded in our bodies."3

Based on his study of church history, Willard identifies fifteen particular spiritual disciplines and arranges them into two general categories: disciplines of abstinence and disciplines of engagement.4 Willard notes, "The need for extensive practice of a given discipline is an indication of our weakness, not our strength. We can lay it down as rule of thumb that if it is easy for us to engage in a certain discipline, we probably don't need to practice it. The disciplines we need to practice are precisely the ones we are not 'good at' and hence do not enjoy."5

Without specific attention to modifying one's own desires, limited sanctification will occur.6 A concert musician practices hours on end in private so that music flows effortlessly from a musical instrument in public. Developing godliness requires that same kind of rigorous practice (cf. 1 Tim 4:8), so that our human instruments freely resonate with the music of God's holiness. As in all of sanctification, we need the Spirits power, and we need others to assist us, to help identify problematic areas, to brainstorm what positive strategy might be best, and to encourage us as we are in training to make progress toward Christlikeness. The church is the main corporate context for personal growth.
1Commentator William Lane explains, "As athletes engaged in a contest, for whom discipline is the key to their training and perseverance, the members of the house church are challenged to respond appropriately to the abuse and hardships they were experiencing and to remain steadfast. Their sufferings were disciplinary in character and were assigned by God for their benefit. They hold the prospect of joy and rest following painful suffering." Hebrews 9-13, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas, TX: Word, 1991), 426.
2Lane, Hebrews 9-13, 425, 426.
3Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1988), 86.
4In practicing a discipline of abstinence, Willard continues, "we abstain to some degree and for some time from the satisfaction of what we generally regard as normal and legitimate desires" in order to "bring these desires into their proper coordination and subordination within the economy of life in his Kingdom." Disciplines, 159-160. Seven particular disciplines are listed, including solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice--each of these were evident in the life of Jesus (e.g., Lk 4:2, 5:16, 9:58, Mk 10:42-45). By practicing disciplines of engagement, we attempt to "counteract tendencies to sins of omission." Disciplines, 159-160. Of these there are eight: study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, submission. Such disciplines always stand as a means for growth, never as ends in themselves (cf. Matt 6:1-18).
5Willard, Disciplines, 138. The reader can also consult the work by Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1998). One outstanding resource on habit formation, although not written from a Christian perspective, offers a number of practical suggestions on the specifics of the process: David Watson and Roland Tharp, Self-Directed Behavior, 7th ed. (Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1997)
6Regarding other matters of sanctification and differences among various theological traditions, see Melvin E. Dieter et al., Five Views on Sanctification (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1987), with exponents from the following views: Wesleyan, Reformed, Pentecostal, Keswick, and Augustinian-Dispensational. Three differences, discussed in the Five Views book, worthy of note, as stated by Grudem. "Many within the Wesleyan/Arminian tradition have held that it is possible for someone who is truly born again to lose his or her salvation, while Reformed Christians have held that that is not possible for someone who is truly born again. Most Baptists have followed the Reformed tradition at this point; however, they have frequently used the term 'eternal security' or the 'eternal security of the believer' rather than the term 'perseverance of the saints' [e.g., Matt 10:22, 24:13]." Systematic Theology, 788. Grudem's position is, with which I agree, that "The perseverance of the saints means that all those who are truly born again will be kept by God's power and will persevere as Christians until the end of their lives, and that only those who persevere until the end have been truly born again" (788). Another difference in the discussion about sanctification relates to whether or not Romans 7:7-25 is relevant to the matter of sanctification. For example J. I. Packer believes it is an important passage (an appendix on the passage is included in Keep In Step With The Spirit). Anthony Hoekema thinks the passage does not specifically address the matter of sanctification (see his chapter in the Five Views book mentioned above). A final difference relates to whether or not some kind of "second blessing," a definitive milestone or experience (e.g., baptism of the Spirit, entire sanctification, or once-for-all dedication to the Lordship of Christ), is expected subsequent to conversion. The Wesleyan, Pentecostal, and Keswick traditions agree that some milestone or experience subsequent to conversion is necessary for progress in sanctification.
Dr. Klaus Issler