Monday, October 18, 2010

Lessons From a Year of Preaching Part 3: Beyond Behavior Modification

So this series has outlived its name[1] and I am going to make this the last post on this topic, for now. My preaching partner and I are teaching a preaching class this year so, if you are interested in my thoughts on this, the MP3’s and resources will be showing up at the class website. But for my final post in the series I wanted to talk about the motivating behavior change in ourselves and others, a topic that has far more nuance, complexity and peril in it than I ever imagined.

Most of us share the experience of trying to motivate behavior change in ourselves. We have a behavior or habit that we want to minimize or discontinue all together (e.g. over eating, carbon usage, prejudging people based on perceived relationships between their easily observable characteristics and behaviors we have formerly correlated with those characteristics[2]). Or there is some behavior that we would like to do more than we do (e.g. exercise, spending time with kids, or allocating resources for the poor or the environment) [3]. But one of the great shared experiences of our humanity is that most of us who have undertaken some long term project of behavior change have also failed at it. So, if at least part of the intent of preaching is to help offer cosmic resources for behavior change it would seem like understanding what motivates behavior change in ourselves and others would be fundamental.[4]

But the water is actually murkier than that. Because, from a Christian world view it is not sufficient to do the right things. Doing the right things for the wrong reasons makes them the wrong things. Behavior change with the wrong motivations is not progress. So simple behavior change is not a reliable metric of either personal growth or effective preaching. We are a very clever species. We can often find ways to ‘hotwire our hearts.’[5] That is, we can find ways to modify our behaviors or the behaviors of others[6] by appealing to fears, insecurities or appetites that are themselves unhealthy.[7] This kind of behavior change can leave someone worse off than before.[7.5] So the key to motivating behavior change both in our own spiritual journeys and in the journeys of those in our communities (through preaching or other graces/sacraments) is to reject illicit motivational strategies. But we can’t simply reject manipulation. We have to replace it with something better. So this final post will look at the two sides of the ‘motivating behavior change’ coin: a warning and a proposed way forward.

1. Beware of Moralism

Christianity is not a religion…so you can not treat it like one. The standard religious resources are not available to us. In general, religions hold out the prospect of earning divine favor and avoiding divine punishment as a cosmic ‘carrot and stick’ to motivate the behaviors the religion deems valuable and disincentivize those it considers antisocial. But the Christian story is not one of accumulating merit and avoiding guilt in the cosmic ledger…it is a story of unilateral rescue. If you try to apply the carrot/stick motivational methods to Christianity, it becomes something else.[8]

This means there are tools in the motivational tool box that are simply off limits for Christians. Guilt is very effective for short term behavior change, but it is out of bounds. And this turns out to be pragmatically helpful anyways because, as my brother likes to say, ‘the guilt button is effective but fragile.’ If you push that button too many times, it stops working. Guilt and fear are simply not long term motivators. They require an emotional intensity that we cannot sustain. Trying to earn God’s love and stay off his naughty list is not unlike trying to earn the love of a parent or avoid our daddy’s belt…it can motivate behaviors but it leaves you disappointed and bitter. It can make you do stuff but it can’t change your heart.

2. Offer a Greater Love

But it would be absurd to suggest that Christianity does not have relatively rigorous behavioral prescriptions. So those of us who are ‘all in’ on Jesus are constantly looking for licit ways to bring our behavior in line with many of these counter-cultural practices which, we believe, are fundamentally pragmatic.[9]

The reason that simply telling people to knock it off because God is gonna get em doesn’t work, is because we are fundamentally motivated by what we love. You hear people say all the time that we should all ‘follow our hearts[10].’ This is an empty cliché. But it is not absurd because it is false; it is absurd because it is trivial. We all, always ‘follow our hearts.’ We, without exception, behave in accordance with what we love. If you are going to give yourself or your community a significant chance at spiritual progress, you can’t just try to modify behavior you have to help develop better affections. You have to cultivate and offer a better love that can supplant the parasitic, destructive things that currently fill our hearts. You have to reintroduce us to a God whose beauty and worth dwarfs the paltry half loves that currently motivate us.[11]

Sin is fundamentally a worship issue. It is organ failure of our capacity for wonder. If someone is stuck in a behavior that diminishes them, strategies will help[12], but fundamentally, they need a bigger God. They need to love the good and the beautiful more intensely. And the role of the preacher is to reveal it to them. You need to exalt a beautiful God and call us to his beautiful mission…so that the bleak life of self centeredness looks as pitiful as it actually is.

[1] I am now well into my third year of regular preaching.
[2] i.e. prejudice or the more insidious racism
[3] I recently made one of the strangest resolutions of my life. I resolved to watch more football this season. I love football (for reasons I will cover in an upcoming post) and watched less than 4 hours of it last season. This is symptomatic of self importance and an unhealthy addiction to productivity. So this year I am going to try to prioritize Sabbath and rest by watching more football. So far, so good. I am already up to 6 hours for the season.
[4] I realize that ‘preaching to cause behavior change’ sounds arrogant…almost like a violation. But in the Christian community it is consensual. We all recognize our need for help and look to each other for spiritual resources. Preaching is one of the formal methods we utilize to look together at the scriptures to find that help.
[5] Credit, Keller…I know, shocking.
[6] Way too many marriages work this way.
[7] The most glaring example of this in college ministry, where spiritual zeal is hypercharged by sexual tension, is students whose confuse their desire to impress cute Christian girls with their motivation to live the Christian life. I honestly think this is an underrated reason why so many people find the transition from Christian community in college to the Church (as a married adult) to be underwhelming…because they lose the powerful sexual components of their motivations and it feels a little flat.
[7.5] This is at least one reason why Jesus recomended that so much of Christian practice should be done 'in secret' whether acts of personal devlopment (e.g. prayer and fasting) or acts of social justice (e.g. generosity). By taking the opinions and reactions of other humans out of the equation we are freed of many (though certainly not all) of the illicit motivations for these activities. You simply cannot read the Jesus narratives without coming away with the overwhelming impression that motivation is more important to him than act. He is more interested in who we are becoming than what we are doing.
[8] I started this paragraph by stating categorically that Christianity is not a religion. But, of course, it often is. Many self identifying Christians have no idea that it was never meant to be a merit based worldview. And even those who understand the rescue narrative find themselves lapsing often into moral performance categories. So, Christianity is not a religion but it is full of religious people…like me…which is why we have our share of self righteous prudes. But the goal of spiritual formation (and, therefore, preaching) is to move from a self righteous merit based belief and praxis to a grace based self understanding and lifestyle.
[9] In that, they do not feed our physical or even social appetites, but we believe they are fundamentally for our good. This is what Piper means when he bombastically claims that Christians are just hedonists with perspective. We are looking to maximize our good on a cosmic scale. The idea has rhetorical flourish and some theological issues but is interesting.
[10] This, it seems, has become the only acceptable polemic for contemporary art to assert. Either art has to be non-polemical (as if that was possible) or it has to offer this cliché.
[11] What the Hebrew Scriptures like to call idols.
[12] Preaching has to be practical. It HAS to engage with the daily life and felt needs of a non-religious-professional. But it is an error to think that practical means non-theological. If worship is the engine of behavior…if we do what we truly love…then it is highly practical to paint a picture of God’s worthiness that creates more space for him in our hearts. But we would also error to think that this justifies turning preaching into a regular lecture in academic theology. Worship is fundamentally holistic, so preaching that generates worship has to engage the mind, emotions, volition and soul.

1 comment:

JMBower said...

I wish I had something clever to say, but this is just excellence all around. Oddly enough, I have just been spending some time contemplating guilt, though less in the context of religion, and more in the context of its relationship to society as a whole, contrasted with that of shame. I agree guilt is not the preferred motivator when love is available. But in a discussion of guilt based versus shame based social controls, I think I would argue there is some benefit to motivation being internalized (guilt) versus externalized (shame). Regardless, great post. And I love that watching more football is a behavior correction for you:)