“Turn and face the strain, ch-ch-changes”

January 4, 2011

I finally finished reading a book by N.T. Wright entitled After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. It’s a book that focuses not on Christian ethics—a subject we study in seminary that relates to our understanding of “the good,” and tackling often difficult questions of right and wrong—but on a subject we don’t study in seminary: becoming good and virtuous people. To put it in theological terms, the book focuses on what the church (and our Methodist tradition, especially) calls sanctification.

It doesn’t sound like much fun. And it was difficult at times to slog through (in part because the prolific Wright has touched on similar themes in various places before). But it was worth it.

The book begins with an analogy: In January 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger III, known to friends as “Sully,” successfully crash-landed his Airbus jumbo-jet, which had just taken off at LaGuardia, into the Hudson River. Everyone survived. No one was badly injured. (The plane’s jet engines had sucked up a flock of Canadian geese not long after take-off.) In the two or three minutes he had before the plane crashed, he had to make literally dozens of intricate decisions. There were probably 5 millions ways to get it wrong, costing the lives of everyone on board, and exactly one way to get it right. Sully found that one way.

How did he do it? He had never crash-landed a plane before, or practiced this exact scenario on flight simulators. He didn’t have time to consult a manual or even think much about what he must do. In order to be successful, his decisions and his actions had to be automatic. And he had to make them without freaking out or losing his cool.

Sully’s success certainly wasn’t a matter of doing what came “naturally” to him. After all, he wasn’t born knowing how to fly a plane. It was a matter, according to Wright, of following not his nature but his second nature. And, of course, this very unnatural thing—successfully and safely crash-landing an airplane on the Hudson River—begins to seem natural only after years of practice, turning deliberate action into habit and instinct.

And so it is, Wright says, with Christian virtue. If we want to practice the Christian virtues of love, joy, and peace, and bear the spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, gentleness, patience, kindness, goodness, and self-control, it is not a matter of doing what comes naturally. Our nature, after all, is badly damaged by sin. And while being born again by the Spirit is the beginning of the process of change, it’s only the beginning. Sanctification is a life-long project, which is ultimately made possible through the Holy Spirit in concert with our own effort.

I wrote earlier about the perceived danger of “works righteousness.” Of course we cannot make ourselves righteous. Wright repeats a joke about a rabbi who prays for years that God would enable him to win the lottery, and for years God doesn’t answer his prayer. God finally tells the rabbi that he could at least meet him halfway by buying a lottery ticket!

You get the point. We must do something. Becoming virtuous doesn’t happen without much effort. Wright reinforces this point time and again, paying particular attention (as usual for Wright) to Paul’s letters.

So what must we do? Nothing surprising here: We first read and study the Bible—we locate our own story within its overarching story. Next, we learn from and are inspired by the examples of other Christians who demonstrate this new way to be human. We live as part of a Christian community that prays, worships, reads and preaches the scriptures, and practices the sacraments. We encourage one another with stories of faith, hope, and love.

These are not optional “extras” of the Christian faith. They are required of all Christians.

This book has made me seriously question the notion that for some Christians the virtues just come more naturally than they do for me. That some believers are just “nicer” people, after all, so they can achieve kindness, patience, and gentleness, for example, without much sweat. That somehow it’s different for me—with my disposition, environment, upbringing, etc. The truth is that no one has what it takes—by nature, apart from God—to be the kind of person God wants them to be.

Besides, my previous thinking just gave me an excuse to be lazy; to let myself off the hook for my own shortcomings; to believe that substantial personal change is impossible. I’d swallowed too much of our pop-culture propaganda that says we’re mostly products of either nature or nurture, and there isn’t much we can do about it.

Maybe there isn’t much that we can do, left to our own devices, but what about God? Isn’t this where the Christian virtue of hope comes into play?

I’ve had a chance over the holidays to spend much time with my three children, one of whom, Ian, is six. I’m insanely in love with the kid, and to me he’s nearly perfect in every way, but it’s apparent that he whines… A lot. At least when he doesn’t get his way or feels put upon by his brother or sister. Yes, it’s age appropriate, and he was more sleep-deprived than usual over the holidays, etc. I know all that.

But what’s my excuse?

Not that I whine, necessarily. But when I don’t get my way I have been known to yell and curse and stomp around like it’s the end of the world. This happens way too often. Where is patience? Where is peace? Where is self-control?

The book has inspired me to consider a new possibility: What if there is an alternative for me? What if I’m not just this way?

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