I once had a friend who asked me an important pastoral question: "How do I keep my dog from darting across the street?" My reply was simple: Teach it how to cross the street. That thought hadn't entered his mind. Teach it how to cross the street? He was so determined to solve the problem of his darting doggy that his mind automatically went to how do I restrain him rather than how do I reform him.
Now, I am not the dog whisperer. My brother is. I am sure that my friend asked me because he had seen one of my family members walking our yellow lab, Abi. Abi was delightfully obedient. Truth be told, she might not have been that way if my younger brother who really is the dog expert hadn't got us off on the right track. He taught us how to train our dog to look and to wait for directional cues.
The thought of reformation versus restraint is an important concept not just in dealing with canines. It is important in the development of Christians. For many people, their view of the Christian faith is primarily one of restraint. How do I stop people from doing bad things? How do I keep my kids from getting into a mess of trouble? How do I stop myself from falling into thoughts or behaviours that are dishonouring to God and damaging to my relationships?
Lest I press the doggy metaphor too far, there are times when it is helpful to tell someone that they need to stop doing something. Self-restraint is a good thing. When you stick your finger in your eye and tell the doctor that it hurts, he will probably tell you to stop doing that.
Nonetheless, it is extremely helpful to understand that one of the ways to look at living an effective, productive, faithful Christian life is to realize that our focus needs to be upon what God is calling us to and not simply what God is saving us from. The beauty of the Christian life is that God has promised to make all things new. That begins with the heart of a Christian.
That is why I personally have been in the grip of the teaching of 2 Peter 1 for some time now. In that passage, which I encourage you to read (repeatedly), the famous Simon Peter tells us how to avoid being "ineffective and unfruitful" (vs.8). Peter knew what it felt like to fail and to fall spiritually. His claim to fame is his three cowardly denials of having any personal knowledge of Jesus on the night before our Lord was crucified. Failure wasn't the end of his story. It really was part of the beginning. At the time of writing 2 Peter, the apostle of Jesus is at the end of his life. He has finished the race that Jesus had laid out for him. It is from this vantage point that Peter lays out the path to becoming a faithful man of God. What is his approach?
1. Clarity of Purpose - Peter writes down a specific list of attributes that every genuine Christian should be adding to his or her life. It isn't enough to restrain ourselves from evil. We must progress in Christ-likeness. In order to make real progress, we must have clarity. What does it actually look like to become more like Jesus? Here is his list:
- Moral Excellence or virtue
- Brotherly Affection
2. Three Purposeful Questions - Peter doesn't ask questions. He makes declarations about these attributes. He writes "If these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ" (vs. 8). He adds in verse 10 "if you practice these qualities you will never fall." It is from these statements that I have formulated three questions for myself:
- Possession - Do I possess these qualities? Would those that know me best recognize these attributes in me? Peter writes "if these qualities are yours...". Are they mine?
- Progression - Am I progressing in these qualities? Is there prayerful intent in my life to have these qualities permeate more and more of my life? Peter writes "If these qualities are yours and are increasing...". Are they increasing?
- Practice - Am I deliberately seeking God's help to put these attributes in action today? Can I name one attribute that I have deliberately chosen to work on in my interactions this day? Peter writes "if you practice these qualities you will never fall." Which of these attributes have I intentionally been putting into practice in my life?
Do you see how this is so different than simply trying to avoid sinful and destructive choices and behaviours? This is progressive. This is transforming. This is the beauty of being a follower of Jesus. Every day, regardless of your age or previous failures, you can focus on becoming increasingly more like Jesus. God is absolutely committed to successfully completing our transformation into His likeness. The forgiving Saviour is now the Lord that leads us forward and guarantees the goal.
A crucial starting point is to know where we are headed and not simply from where we have come.