People often say, “Everything old is new again.”, and today some prescribe ancient spiritual practices as a positive way to impact the deepest needs of modern people. Much of what I hear being said sounds like the “full gospel” more than anything else I’ve ever heard. By that I mean that I’m hearing “good news” for me as an individual (I can know God more deeply and increase the possibility of being changed by him.) and “good news” for others (since God can use me in the lives of those in my circles of influence to profoundly affect them in their relationship with God.) In other words, I can become a better human being, and God can use me to help others also “morph” in this way. These others would include my spouse, my children, my siblings, my parents, my friends, my neighbors, the poor, and other disenfranchised people that I seek out as I become a neighbor to them. (These notes reflect a logical approach, not a chronological one, meaning that they attempt to answer these kinds of questions: “If I’m hoping and praying for God’s kingdom to come into my life and circles of influence, how should I go about that? Logically, where do I begin? What are the priorities? What things depend on other prior things?”, etc.)
What follows is an outline of what I’m hearing, the full explanation of which would be a book.
1. You can’t control others or your own circumstances, so don’t waste important energy trying.
2. You are not responsible for the reactions and behavior of others. That’s their business. They have to attend to that.
3. Focus on yourself. That’s where you have some control. You are by far the biggest problem you have. Expending energy on this makes sense. Each of us must invariably start here.
4. When you change yourself, that affects all your “systems.” (marriage, family, work, church, neighborhood, etc.) You’re not giving up on change in the lives of others you love, you’re simply approaching it in a way that makes that change more likely – you’re addressing the need for person change. As you change, others will change.
5. The most important thing you can do is to change yourself, and changing yourself is the only hope you have of changing others or your circumstances. (Obviously, points #1 through #5 all go together.) This statement summarizes the first four points, but also holds out personal change as the most critical, wisest, most strategic commitment you can make.
6. None of these will be enough to change you: more information, more motivation, more accountability, or more serious effort. This may sound like bad news, but it’s really actually good news, as we see in the points that follow.
7. The possibility of change increases with new perspectives – a) when I see myself as loved and valued by God, b) when I see others as loved and valued by God, c) when I see exactly where I need to be changed or transformed (my ego, temperament, ingrained habits, signature sins, thought patterns, etc.), and d) when I see that God is bigger than my problems.
8. The possibility of change increases with the learning of new skills entailed in attending to God, for instance in learning a) to sit in God’s presence, b) to wait, c) to listen, d) to let go, e) to be mindful, f) to do without, g) to meditate (lectio divina), h) and to practice solitude and silence. (Practicing these things is the key to the new perspectives of #7 above.)
9. The possibility of change increases with the learning of new rhythms in attending to God, for instance in practicing a) the daily office, b) an examen, c) unceasing prayer, and d) keeping Sabbath. (These will be aids in building the new skills of #8 above into our daily lives.)
10. The possibility of change increases as I bring new attitudes and practices to my relationships – a) speaking truth in love, b) practicing loyalty and kindness (embracing managed conflict rather than running from it), and c) looking for and capitalizing on transformational moments in each day (Nouwen’s “full moments.”)
11. The possibility of change increases as I adopt new priorities – a) living out the great commandment, b) involving myself in the great commission, and c) seeking justice for the poor and disenfranchised. (These will be the measures of success of this “project” at all times.) If you’re not growing in a life of love for God and others, and if you’re not practicing justice, something is amiss. These are the Biblical measures of progress.
12) The possibility of change increases as I embrace a new kind of patience – applying grace to myself and others, and embracing the unique journey that God has for me and them – remembering that personal transformation is the work of a lifetime and cannot be forced in my life or the life of others.
In the end, I am powerless over my sin and when it comes to truly changing myself. Only God can change me. My job is hospitality toward him – welcoming him and creating space for him to continue the work that he has begun in me, no matter how daunting that may be. Seeking God’s kingdom first (his glory, his agenda) will be the only appropriate and most effective way of entering into personal transformation. Seeking after the good things he has for me must take a secondary place to these priorities of his. The foundation of all that I do in this regard will be my refusal to insist on my rights before God, and with others. (Phil. 2) The commitment to do this a central and intrinsic part everything above. (#1-12)
I don’t know if this sounds new to you, but much of it is revolutionary for me. It’s a lot of familiar ideas, but the words are all arranged in new ways. I hope you find this provocative and helpful, and as always, I welcome your reflections and contributions. In the end, it’s all about our greatest happiness, and God’s greatest glory (but not in that order).
I see where you are going in this, but you defer most of the specifically Gospel content to 9 and 10. While I agree that items 1-8 might help us effectively do 9 or 10, there is a danger in having the pendulum swing too far. In other words, we can retreat from trying to change and control others but we can also get self centered and passive about others. I know that you are the last person in the world I need to warn about that, but I’m just saying what the list brings to mind.
Thanks for the great feedback Ann. This is the kind of interaction I’m hoping for. When I can, I’m going to look back over what I wrote (in light of what you’re saying), and see it I can bring more balance and clarity. Thanks for reading and interacting! Bill
Bill, as I said, I don’t think you are in any danger of getting self-focused — you show a clear passion for justice for others, and a certain self-examination is probably healthy as a balance. My thoughts were more about whether it was a generally applicable list. As Steve Robbins used to say, you can fall off one side of the horse as easily as you can fall off the other side.
Those whose hearts resonate to injustice around them probably need to look inward also, while those who are focused on themselves need to be the light in the world. Your list did include both, it just front-loaded the stuff about looking inward. Which is not bad, merely something to be aware of.
I’m thinking of the dynamic and the balance that’s illustrated in Jim Wallis’s comment: “Contemplation prevents burnout. Action without reflection can easily become barren and even bitter. Withoug the space of self-examination and the capacity for rejuvenation, the danger of exhaustion and despair is too great. Contemplation confronts us with the questions of our identity and power. Who are we? To whom do we belong? Is there a power that is greater than ours? Drivenness must give way to peacefulness and anxiety to joy. Strategy grows into trust, success into obedience, planning into prayer.”
Jim Wallis in The Soul of Politics
This is good stuff, Bill. I’m reading Wisdom Distilled from the Daily right now, and so much of this resonates with what I’m learning about the Benedictine Rule. You could rename this post 11 Ways to Become a Better Person. Thanks for this!
You’re welcome Laura. I look forward to what you have to say about you’ve digested some of what you’re learning from the Benedictines.
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