Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Expulsive Power of New Affection

How do you change? 

It's a difficult question. Anyone who's attempted to drive past a Krispy Kreme (which shall be forever praised) while on a diet when the "Hot Light Now" sign broadcasts the sacred advent of its satiny rings of hoary temptation knows in a moment the fundamental powers that resist change. This is, if you will, the issue writ fried. And as an important caveat, it is something approaching a creedal belief of mine that said sign's amber glow is surely a reflection of the lights of heaven.
The question: Can this sort of temptation--at whatever level--be overcome? Not just how do you change, but can you change? 

The obvious answer seems to be that we have to dump out the junk. The dirt. The hurt. The desires. The addiction. The hate. The bitterness. The donuts. We somehow think we are like a cup that's easily turned over and the contents easily dumped out. If we just get a handle on the cup, problem solved, right?

However, try just once to actually do that and all manner of strange forces materialize. Something immediately moves back in. Nature abhors a vacuum, and even if we do succeed in dumping the junk of our hearts out, something immediately takes it's place. Our hearts aren't cups that can be turned over and dumped out, said Jonathan Edwards. What's currently in our hearts is only replaced by something else displacing it. There is a transfer that always takes place. 

Augustine of Hippo said it this way: We are what we love. If you want to really know me, don't find out what I know or where I've been or what I've done, find out what I love. Our problem then is not that we love and desire, it's what we love and desire. 

Augustine's remedy for lasting change is straightforward: change what you love. For example, it's entirely possible to love the feeling that comes from bitterness. In a Hollywood-worthy Anger Fantasy involving that kid from 7th grade, you finally triumph. You say just the right thing. Or punch him in the nose. Sweet victory…and a sweet feeling sweeps over you. How would you change this? Augustine wouldn't say stop loving the anger, he'd say to love something else more until it overwhelms your torrid affair with anger, resentment and rage. 

This is simply good psychology. You won't replace a bad habit by focusing on it and conquering it by willpower. If you do, you'll only make the habit stronger. Rather, you replace it by focusing on and doing a good habit. You displace the bad habit with a new one.  

So when Jesus says that the greatest commandment is to love God with my entire being (Mark 12, Matthew 22, Luke 10), he is saying something (if we'll accept it) incredibly wise. Love God. Make that the focus of your life. Turn toward it and in the interchange of your love with God's, everything else is displaced. Jesus even takes that a step further. Rather than commanding us to love him, he loves us first. Empties himself out for us, in fact. Sacrificially lays his life down--like the bravest fireman running into the towering inferno of your life. Ergo, the cross.

We love because we've been loved. The love of God displaces our fears and the our love for God displaces our idols. Change starts with love, not effort.