Resisting the Temptation of Moral Formation
I have a deep concern for believers struggling in their faith. [The first thing that] is important to remember that no amount of effort can relieve our burden, except Christ. I think especially of my students because they want so badly to come to the Institute and begin to engage in certain activities, rigorous regimens of spiritual disciplines because they’re hoping this will finally grow them.
They’re hoping this will be the answer to some of the unresolved guilt and shame they have in their own life, that they are not more mature than they are. And so I just want to say to them right up front:
No amount of effort can ever relieve us of this burden of shame and guilt, except Christ.
[I want us to remember] that spiritual formation (spiritual discipline, service, ministry, mission) will not work as a self-help program to fix ourselves, to grow ourselves, or to take away the shame that we have [concerning our immaturity].
And that shocks them. [When] you [engage in] spiritual disciplines, the spiritual disciplines do not grow you. They do not transform you.
The [second thing to remember] is that the Christian life is not fundamentally about being moral in itself.
It’s not fundamentally about being a good boy or good girl.
It’s not fundamentally about obedience to a set of principles written in a book.
It’s not most deeply about character development.
It’s not even most deeply interested in imitation of Christ, as Christ is out there as a model to the soul.
It’s not fundamentally about doing spiritual disciplines.
In fact, everything I just said is what all the moralists of all the ages have said to do.
My Ph.D. is actually in ethics, in Aristotle’s virtue ethics, and I studied individuals from Plato to Aristotle, to Kant, all the way to Freud.
All the moralists of all the ages have given us some measurement going back to the early Stoics. They said the way you change character is you take a wonderful, great person and you model that person. And so, you take a great person in a community, a citizen, a hero, and you model externally those virtues and you can transform yourself.
And I want to say to [everyone], this is, in fact, what we’re saved from.
We’re saved from that life. It’s a life of trying to be good, to please God, and to try to deal with our guilt and shame by our own power.
Now I’m going to be using the word moral in a certain way here because, in one sense, the Christian is going to be the most thoroughly moral of all. He has the opportunity to really be moral, but it is going to be a change of the character to another person.
The word moral refers to any attempt to grow the self. It’s any attempt to try to fix yourself. It’s any attempt to try to transform yourself and deal with your guilt and shame and the power of your being good.
Remember that book? It’s an old one. It’s called, In His Steps. I don’t know if you remember, it was an old kind of classic, and the town began to ask the question, “What would Jesus do?” And so now it’s been made into a wristband. I mean, there is going to be something right about that.
But there is something that can be quite wrong. Because it’s going to turn out in the Christian life you can’t do what Jesus did, unless you’ve learned to abide in the Vine.
You see, it’s not going to be about character imitation. That’s not what formation in the Christian life is about.
[Rather], it’s going to be about participation in a new life. Another "person" [God] who has invaded and now the task of formation is how to open up to what that "person" [God] is doing inside [of us].
And so the Christian life, as I say, is about denouncing the moral life as a way to find happiness and to please God.
And I will say this, the Lord used quite a bit of our moralism early on in the Christian life.
He used your efforts,
He used your works,
He used what you gave Him to grow you.
But there comes a time in the Christian life when it’s time to grow up, and that time to grow up is usually when the Spirit is beginning to do something else. When the Spirit is beginning to show you, "you know it’s not working like it used to."
Remember back here it was all working, your prayer life worked, your meditation life. Everything was kind of working. Now it’s kind of dry bones. Now you’re beginning to see other parts of yourself. That’s the time in my life I used to get really frustrated.
That’s the time when I say, “God what is wrong with me?”
Now when my students go through that, I say, “This is wonderful. This is wonderful when the dryness comes. When the Christian life starts to feel like a burden, what I’d like you to say is, “Mmm. Yum. Mmm.”
Because do you know what the Spirit is doing now? The Spirit is saying, “I’m going take you on a journey. I’m going to take you on a new kind of journey, into the deep of yourself with my Spirit.” That will be a journey of a lifetime.
And so the Christian life, is a certain kind of obedience and it is going to be a certain kind of effort, but it’s going to be an effort that is opening the heart to this new relationship, about participating in the Vine. About what it is to depend upon another "person" [God] in what I’m doing.
You know none of us were born this way. We were all born, what I would say, spiritually challenged, because we were born without the Spirit of God. Theologically we call that spiritual death. I was born with a hole in the middle of my chest where the Spirit of God should have been. That’s when Paul said we were born dead in our trespasses and sins.
And so in the power of myself, I’ve been leading and guiding my life and that even came into the Christian life. At some point, the Spirit now says, “John, I want to take you on a whole new journey. Thank you for all your efforts, John. It’s been good. Now I’ve got a different turn for you. And it’s going to be the ride of your life because I want to take you to places where you’ll discover that apart from me you can do nothing. I want to take you to a new place of dependence.”
So, none of us are born this way. We’re all challenged.
And so I want to say here in this introduction I don’t want to be a good boy anymore. I don’t want to try to fix myself. I can’t fix myself. I, now at 50, 30 years into the faith, am learning every day because he is having to come to teach me every day, “John, would you give up on the project? Would you give up on the project of trying to reconstruct John Coe so you can feel okay about John Coe being a disciplined, good Christian? And would you rather open more deeply to my work? Open more deeply to what my Spirit is doing?”
I don’t want to live the Christian life alone anymore. I want to learn to abide in the Vine. This is what the whole New Covenant is.