Discipleship is hard.
Sometimes I think that it should be easier. If the Holy Spirit was truly in control of my heart, I would be much more able to obey Jesus. If the Holy Spirit had changed my heart, I should want to live by God’s will at all times. It should be easy. Sometimes, because it isn’t easy when I think that it should be, I pretend. I put on a holy face and pretend that obeying is easy.
Sometimes it is difficult to know what to do as a Christ-follower. What, exactly, is it that we are supposed to do between our decision to follow Jesus and our death when we go to live with Him? Is it only that we are supposed to walk around telling people about Him?
These are hard things. Too many Christ-followers, too many churches struggle with these ideas.
Recently, as I have been thinking about these sorts of things, I have been reading After You Believe by N.T. Wright. He is writing about the formation of character, what that means and how it is formed, and is also writing about how forming our character is the answer to many of my thoughts.
Wright describes our moral transformation as “a long, slow change of deep, heart-level habits”. Hard work up front to make small deliberate choices. These choices feel awkward and unnatural at first, but they allow the Holy Spirit to form our character.
This only follows what humanity seems to have always known, from Aristotle to modern neuroscience. That the very small, daily choices that you make forms who you are, it physically changes your brain. Some think that if they act before they “mean it”, they are being hypocritical. Rather, as we struggle to follow Christ, authenticity will follow. If you wait to practice virtue, to make character-choices, until you mean it, you will wait a very long time and will mess up a lot of lives in the process.
Wright compares this idea of character formation to learning a second language. At first, it is awkward, uncomfortable, unnatural. Yet the more you work at it, the more you practice, the easier it gets. The goal? To be at home in the place where that language is spoken, to enable you to function here and now as a competent citizen of that country. The biggest compliment you could receive is to be mistaken for a native.
Isn’t that what we want? To be at home in a world that has been made perfect, that has been filled with the glory of God? To be mistaken for a native of God’s kingdom?
The habits of character is all about learning in advance the language of God’s new world. C.S. Lewis says that
every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state of the other.
To be clear, the Bible is emphatic that we cannot form a Christ-like character on our own. We cannot work hard enough and practice long enough in our own strength to be able to become perfect. Instead, we are like members of a really awful choir. When we welcome God as our new choir director, we suddenly can hear our out of tune singing and ragged rhythms and we find a new desire to learn how to sing in tune. We can’t sing in tune immediately, simply because we have a new choir director, but the Holy Spirit gives us direction and guidance to help us acquire the right habits to replace the wrong ones.
Why, though? Why does this all matter so much? I think I’ll leave that until next week.