on behaviour modification

I heard a recent prayer for people willing to accept Jesus into their hearts. One thing that irked me about it though was its handling of sin. The prayer talked of sin as doing bad things, and asked of Jesus’ help as more behaviour changing than the radical change and metanoia described in the Bible.

What does behaviour modification look like?

Thirty years ago it was commonly held that outside stimulus shaped a person’s character: hence the kerfluffle about rock music, violent tv shows, etc. These days it is increasingly held that though violent and disturbing media does corrupt those who are exposed to it, it’s more about those people wanting these things in the first place. Someone who loves horror and violent films is probably just a disturbed person whose attraction to these things is a manifestation of inner troubledness.

So I began to think of Jesus’ teachings in Matt 15: what goes into a man’s body doesn’t corrupt, rather the corruption that comes out reflects the sin within. (Granted the immediate context of this passage is food, but sin is a wider topic encompassing this one, and embraces not just food but all sorts of intake).

I was impressed with this foresight on Jesus’ part, that God, who knows us better than we know ourselves (cf my post on realistic gods), long ago taught us something – that outside stimulus matters less than inner sin – that we still haven’t completely understood even today.

I was impressed, I told myself. Jesus knows that bad roots are the problem, probably more so than the symptoms themselves. In this way he is far wiser that many self-help people and professed sages I’ve heard of.

And yet this goes deeper.

So many religions and approaches to righteousness and goodness aim at behaviour modification, but therein lies their arrogance, foolishness and – the crux of the issue – their sin.

When we treat our betterment as an issue of merely acting better we belie our ignorance to our ultimately, fundamentally evil nature, which cannot be rectified through human effort. So in that very act of ignorance, he who treats righteousness as a matter of being better proves himself evil, that is, depraved and blinded to the point that he thinks he is anything less than completely helpless in his, and idolatrous in his obstinance in looking to himself.

God, on the other hand, knows us. The premise of the gospel is that no matter how hard man tries to regulate his behaviour and buy his way into eternity through good deeds (why else are men so concerned with their legacies?) he is simply not good enough. By nature he can never attain eternal life, that is, oneness with God. Witness Jesus’ rectification of the Law of his day, twisted by the Pharisees into a series of hoops through which to jump, on his Sermon on the Mount.

Again and again God’s holiness and our distance from him is stressed in the Bible: God’s instructions to the Israelites not to approach Mount Sinai; Uzzah’s death for even touching the holy ark; Isaiah’s cry of despair upon seeing the angel of the Lord; and Psalm 24, the Ten Commandments, and the like, which set the bar of God’s standards, define acceptability as having clean hands and pure heart.

And what is God’s follow-up to his impossible holiness? He doesn’t tell us to try harder and be nicer and mind your manners here and stop drinking there. From the first death of the innocent creature slain to clothe fallen Adam and Eve, God outlined his antidote to our sin. Not wistful ignorance of sin, not legalistic nit-picking, not behaviour modification, but grass-roots, radical change.

The crux of our condition is sin, and God in his wisdom knows that no amount of self-righteousness or behaviour modification can fix that. Grass-roots, radical change is necessary, and since the only way to once and for all break the curse of sin is through judgement and death – such are the wages of sin – God stepped into the breach.

To that end, God’s message to us is shot through with the theme of imputed justification; God, in his wisdom, knew the route to take in order to put sin to death and not merely its fruit. Now his nature as a holy, righteous judge requires the death of the sinner to deal with sin. But his love for us compelled him to withhold our judgement but instead allow for propitiation. And so starting with the first slain lamb which diverted the Lord’s wrath on the Hebrews in Egypt, down through Israel’s history and its propitiatory sacrifices commanded by God, down to the first clear promises of a messiah and his role as Lamb of God, through to the consummation of that promise, God acted to redeem our sin by tackling its fundamental debt clause – death. Sin’s power and ability to keep the sinner from oneness with his creator can be rectified only by the death of the sinner, not by his personal betterment. And so having stepped forward to die for the sinner and died the sinner’s death, Jesus forever fixed our problem from roots up.

The Christian thus does not live for self-betterment and moral regulation. His life is not about denying such a sinful indulgence or giving up such a habit for Jesus. He is to take up his cross and follow Jesus to Golgotha; he is to identify himself as a dead man, as Jesus was, dead to the world, dead to his own authority. The Christian hands over the keys of his life and all that he does to Jesus.

So it is not about praying that Jesus will stop you from sinning. A better life, a life free from the inevitability of sin, is promised, gifted by God through the Holy Spirit as the process (albeit gradual, and us being yet fallen, an imperfect process) of sanctification. No, the Christian lives the life of a man whose core illness has been rectified, who no longer coughs merely because his cough is gone, but no longer coughs because the fever is gone. And in awe of this healing and the treasures bestowed by God through Jesus, the Christian lives a life in submission to, and imitation of, Jesus. When sin attempts to seduce the Christian he does not examine his actions (or heart) and pledge to change this or that; he acknowledges that he is redeemed from the inside out, and that Christ the King of his heart has broken all sin, and that it is unnecessary and ridiculous to bargain with sin.

So from start to finish, one of the key messages of the Bible is that man looks at the outside, at moral regulation and betterment. God knows us and looks at what’s inside. And he, not us, forever rectified our condition. Behaviour modification is beneath the Christian. He lives as a free man, not a pedant.

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