Formation, Knowledge and Desire

A bewildering array of semi-professionalized terminology awaits anyone who simply wants to know how to fulfill Christ’s command to make disciples. Formation. Paedagogy. Spiritual direction. Ascetical theology. This doesn’t even touch on methodology. Cell groups. Class rooms. Home studies. But one thing you can be sure that nearly all of these “programs” and “methods” will be chock full of: information. Information is reproducible (I won’t be so cynical as to say marketable, but there you are). One thing you will not find so much of is twelve men shuffling dusty through the Galilean countryside. That’s a problem.

The way we train and educate fellow Christians today says a lot about what we believe about the Incarnation.

We often act as though the most important thing about Christianity is being able to pass a dogmatics exam. So we make a big deal out of men and women who know stuff. We do our darndest to make sure all our people know stuff. We have PowerPoint sermons, marriage seminars, evangelism conferences. And there’s even tables in the back so you can buy the latest books. There is no doubt that the information pipeline is open and unclogged. Data flows.

So, with all the books and marriage seminars and sermons and couples classes and what not, why do Christian’s rates of divorce equal the rest of society? With all the Christian yoga DVDs and Christian diet programs are Christians just as obese as everyone else? With all the financial training and programs and Dave Ramsey materials and Larry Burkett books are Christians still swimming in debt, just like everyone else?

In a nutshell: information is not transformation.

We have known this for about 2500 years. A Macedonian transplant to Athens, gave the conceptual framework, but the Israelites and their progeny, the Christians, knew this from the Scriptures. Formation, indeed transformation, takes place not in the brain (or mind, really), but in the heart.

Let’s lay out the conceptual framework and then put flesh on it. We make choices. Those choices result in actions. Those actions, repeated when faced with the same kinds of choices, result in habits. Those habits develop characteristics of the soul (or, if you will, the heart), which characteristics match the sort of habits that have been developed (i.e., you don’t get figs from thornbushes). The characteristics of the soul then affect the choices we make, which then result in further actions, and reinforced habits and so on.

So, it would appear then, that to get the process started right all we have to do is pump the choices full of information, right? The more we know the better we can choose?

Not exactly. Because information alone does not move a choice into an act. The energy that moves a choice into an action is desire. That is to say, we do the things we do because we desire what we think we will get when we do them. It’s the age-old question the Apostle Paul raises in Romans 7: we know the good we ought to do, but we don’t do it; instead the bad thing we know we ought not to do, that’s what we do.

Knowledge, in other words, is not the problem. Desire is. We don’t need more information for transformation, we need good desires.

Christians get divorces at the same rate as everyone else, carry the same sort of debt loads as everyone else, cheat on their taxes like everyone else, and tip the scales at obese weights like everyone else because we do not have changed desires. Change desires and we change choices and we change actions and we change hearts which then allows us to make the choices that result in the right actions.

We don’t need information, we need transformation.

And God has designed it so that we accomplish this transformation not by informing our minds but by bending the knee, by abstaining from food and sex, by encountering infuriating brothers and sisters in Christ. That is to say, it is our bodies that are the locus of change as much as it is our minds. If Christ took on a body to save us, then we are only going to be saved in our bodies.

So we need far less conferences and far more confession, far fewer books and far more prostrations, far fewer seminars and far more fasting. To speak more particularly: it is by disciplining the body’s appetites and denying it meat and dairy on Wednesdays and Fridays every week (and for forty day fasts around Christmas and Easter), that we teach it the right desires: God, not food; service, not satiation. By abstaining from sex we teach our bodies and our desires that the other person is not a tool for our release but a person made in the image of God; we learn to desire their good not our orgasm. Men: By refusing to look at even the soft porn of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue we teach our sexual desires and mental fantasies that women’s bodies aren’t meant for our masturbation.

Let me be clear: I am all about Sunday School, good doctrine, and inspiring sermons. I’m not against conferences and seminars. I’m just saying that you don’t get good Christian men and women from information dumps. You get good Christian men and women from disciplining the body and disciplining the mind. Far better for us to learn through our bodies not to eat meat on certain days, than to buy a book on dieting. Information is part of the process, to be sure. But only if it teaches us what to do with our bodies, and only if we spend far more time acting on it than learning it.

A Christian man will get farther along in his growth in Christ by putting his body through the rigors of rock climbing with his Christian brothers, than by sitting through a month of Sunday sermons. He’ll need both, but he’ll need to discipline his body first.

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