I was listening with great interest to our lead pastor as he continued to take us through the Sermon on the Mount. As he was talking, it occurred to me that the questions we ask when presented with the truth is actually quite telling of what we are trying to do with the information that is presented. There have been many times as I have been talking with people whether in counseling , or in an “ordinary” conversation (whatever that is), he or she will almost inevitably drill down to the question, “How?” It’s quite understandable actually. Whatever we are hearing, we want to know how to implement it into our lives. In other words, what does it look like when I try to apply a principle or concept that I have heard. We have been taught that truth is only as good as what I choose to do with it. Yet, I would suggest that asking “how” too soon often reveals what we think is the most important thing to look at in our lives. Let me explain.
When I “find out” or rediscover something about myself through someone pointing it out to me, or through what God may be revealing to me. My first impulse to ask a question. Whatever that question is typically betrays what I believe about what has been revealed to me. Let me give you an example. I grew up as an only kid, and actually came to believe (how horrifying) that I was the ‘center of the universe.’ For my parents, I really was, and when my dad passed away, I literally was the center of my mother’s universe. Yet, I was done a disservice in spite of the intention that was behind believing in me the way they(she) did. It was a blind faith and not really predicated on a composite picture of me that included my flaws and strengths. No matter what I attempted to do, my mom believed that I would simply be the best. Unfortunately, as life passed, I was constantly reminded that wasn’t the case. There was always someone better. God has been at work in that particular area of my life throughout my 50+ years always reminding me… “you know, it’s not about you!” Ouch… really? Ugh, okay. My first question often is, though, “Yeah, but how can I change it?” Makes sense, right? That’s the only responsible thing to say when confronted about something we don’t like about ourselves. The “problem” with that approach that it completely bypasses other things that we need to understand about ourselves before we attempt to correct the issue. I would assert that the “how” question is actually our “inner pharisee” speaking. We don’t really care about the internal conditions that produce the behavior that is pointed out to us, but instead we are only interested in the solution to the “problem.” The actual Pharisees had codified “laws” and “traditions” that were meant to address whatever the problem a human might face in order to put him/her in right standing with God (a.k.a. “righteousness). After asking “how?” the Pharisee always had an answer or an encyclopedia of solutions that would correct his “relationship” with Yahweh. Now, before you get your nose out of joint by asking, “Wait, what? Are you calling me a pharisee just because I ask the question, “How?”” Actually, I am so go ahead and put your nose back in joint. The reality is that we all are, and sometimes that streak runs pretty strong in us (me). The reason is that I simply don’t want to take the time (it’s not because I don’t have the time) to explore the landscape of my heart to get a better understanding of the “what?”, the “where?”, and even the “why?” That would simply take too much time. Of course, when I do that I’m just dodging the issue and settling for the solution first. If I can put the solution in place, and the behavior or belief temporarily abates or even disappears, I can rest on my laurels of conquering another “bad habit.” I did it!
Now, lest you run ahead of my questions above and make the quick conclusion that I’m going to propose Christian navel gazing – which many people see counseling or even self-exploration as being. Yet, I would say at the outset that I can’t give to God something that I haven’t taken the time to “own.” In other words, I have taken the time to know this landscape (no matter how familiar it might be) well enough to cry out for God’s help (his “how”) to walk into a way of being that makes the troubling assumptions or behaviors unnecessary. This all sounds pretty idealistic and utopian. Yet, we are not talking about a destination, we are talking about a journey. Let me take each question in turn, and unpack it. Let’s start with “what?” No matter what I’m confronting in myself, I have to ask the question, “what is going on?” Or, “what am I actually doing?” Both are pretty difficult questions since it requires self-exploration, and even an invitation to others to help me discover this. Yet, all change starts with identification. The real envelope-pusher is asking those with whom I’m in a relationship what they have seen me do that betrays this issue. With the issue I mentioned above, it shows itself in my jealousy of others getting what I think I deserve. It may take different forms for everyone, but the real risk is inviting others to hold up the mirror for us. Now, that doesn’t mean that someone who has taken it upon himself/herself to hold up the mirror for me without my request is legitimate (although it might be). Asking others to hold the mirror up for us flies in the face of our designs to manage others’ perceptions of us. When we ask someone to give us this kind of feedback, we will actually find out what they are thinking/concluding that we haven’t been able to control. Yet, the people who are safest in our lives, are the ones who have the courage to tell us the truth in the face of our reaction. These same people have been in relationship with us, and we have given them permission to take this liberty. In spite of it all, I’m not so sure that I want to undercut my sense of control over others in my life by making such an invitation.
What about the question, “where?” This, too, is an interesting one. Because we are moving beyond the what, to the where. In other words, where does this “stuff” come from? It may be an indirect way to answer the question, “why?” too. The one thing that needs to be clear is just because we know where such behaviors and assumptions come from doesn’t mean that they will be addressed or even changed. In other words, knowledge ≠ understanding (see video below). In spite of those qualifiers, knowing where some issue or behavior
comes from might give me some insight into how to tackle it. Interestingly, Jesus had the same interaction with a group of people who had surrounded Him to hear his first “sermon.” This is often referred to as the “Sermon on the Mount.” Given the length of so many sermons today, I can’t help but wonder just how many people stayed for the entire sermon. Most sermons today are often no more than 45 minutes tops (an average concluded from experience not anything scientific). Our attention span for truth is pretty
brief (see clip above). Okay, enough of my soapbox… Back to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus made a number of statements that began with… “you have heard it said…” and then followed that up with “I say to you…” One way to look at that in light of this question, “where?” is that the tradition said to focus on changing your behavior, but Jesus calls us to look at our hearts instead. Why? Because, a little like buttoning a shirt, if you get the first button right, you will be able to button the whole shirt. It’s about our hearts, and what emanates from them. That’s the focus of the Sermon on the Mount. It isn’t about “doing the right thing;” it is about looking in the right place to understand from where change comes. If we start with our hearts, then the change will take care of itself. Easier said than done, to be sure. The biggest difference between what Jesus was talking about, and the Pharisees had everything to do with the heart. For the Pharisees, they were still living from Jeremiah 17:9 which says that the “heart is desperately wicked.” For them, then, the way to deal with the “wicked heart” was to whip it into shape with a tome of traditions and laws developed to contain it and punish it into goodness.
For Jesus, the things He was talking about highlighted the hopelessness of the human condition without some major surgery. It wasn’t about managing the sin, it was about the desperate need for a heart transplant. What is even more amazing was that Jesus was promising a heart exchange first based on faith in Him rather than proposing a trade between “righteousness” in exchange for an improved heart based on all the work I do. In other words, I am given a new heart, and then I’m called to live out life based on my new heart cultivating its health by making life choices according to it. Of course, it doesn’t mean that I lose my “old heart” – it can either be nourished and lived by, or it can be diminished by living out of my new heart.
Allow me to “put some flesh on it.” If I know that my “trust issues” comes from some specific relationships in the past, then I can begin to explore these relationships in order to understand my patterns (not the other person’s behaviors) within my relationships that contribute to the present-day behaviors, attitudes, or assumptions I am making. On the other hand, there may be relationships in which I had no part to play at all other than being an unwilling participant or caught in the fallout from someone else’s choices and behavior. Even in these instances, since that event/relationship happened, I’ve been making choices based on powerful assumptions and conclusions I have made about myself and these beliefs have shaped how I “do” relationship today. I will grant you, it’s a little more difficult “split” to make between being a victim or part of what we glibly call “collateral damage.” Yet, it’s important to examine more closely. We are belief-producing beings — we make conclusions all the time based on the data we have before us. This is particularly true about conclusions we make about ourselves. In psychology, we have discovered a principle known as the “confirmation bias.” In a rather innocuous way, we do this/it happens to us when we are thinking about buying a particular car, or we have purchased one. The moment you are out on the road, you begin to realize just how many people have the car you’ve just purchased! Because we have been designed to pick out patterns and data, we will do the same thing based on what we believe about ourselves. If I have already made the conclusion that I’m not worth of being loved, then it’s likely that I will find “evidence” everywhere that that assertion/conclusion is true. This is where the “where?” question and the “why?” question merge. Where the behaviors or conclusions come from answer the question “why do I do that?” The ultimate answer lies in what is happening in our hearts that is betrayed by what we believe about ourselves, the world, and even the future. These beliefs are not what spiritual/religious beliefs are made of, these beliefs are the ones we form over time from our life experiences including relationships.
Okay… I’ve probably held you off long enough, and probably the “how?” question is just waiting to burst onto the scene. In many ways, the answer to the “how?” question is embedded in the foregoing discussion. If the answer to the questions of “what?,” “where,” and “why?” are found in a relationship with God (the searcher of all hearts) and others, then the means to deal with it is also found in relationships. Unfortunately, for those of you who are looking for a specific formula to follow to change yourself or even others, you are not going to find it here. If we are going to seek change, then we have to start from where it emanates… our hearts. Now, I realize that may not present an immediate solution or steps to follow, but perhaps it’s more obvious than that. It’s in our relationships that heart change can be experienced. It’s not immediate, but that’s point. It’s about the journey, not the destination. When it comes to personal change, we would much prefer a jet pack, than a journey through the mountains and valleys of life. When it comes to our relationships, though, we do have some measure of influence and choice. The people you choose to have in your life is going to be even more important if it’s about our relationships. We are responsible for the condition of our hearts, and because of that, we need to make active choices about the people who will populate our lives. Some people we will not have a choice (e.g., workplace and family), but some we do have a choice. Choosing who to be part of our journey is our decision. Just because people present themselves into our lives doesn’t obligate us to include them. We can choose, and that is our responsibility not someone else’s. Now, I know that this discussion opens a can of worms about safe people and boundaries which I’m not prepared to open up (just yet), but let it be said that Scripture makes it painfully clear that the condition of our heart is our responsibility, and if we are seeking change we are going to need to make some decisions about who will accompany us on that journey. Enjoy the journey!