Practicing Jesus: Part 2, The Second Mistake of Spiritual Formation

In Part 1 I pointed us toward the first mistake we make in regards to spiritual formation, namely treating spiritual formation and Christian discipleship as an educational problem. 

In this post we turn our attention toward a second mistake we make in approaching spiritual formation. 

The second mistake we make about spiritual formation is related to the first mistake, but is a bit different. We could call this the "WWJD Mistake," as in "What Would Jesus Do?" I also describe the mistake to my students this way: "Being like Jesus isn't a Trolly Problem."

At the heart of this mistake is the belief that "being like Jesus" involves making good moral choices in life, successfully navigating a series of ethical decisions. We imagine the Christian life to be a moral journey where we reach, from time to time, a moral crossroads. At this moral crossroads we must make a Christ-like decision. We stand at the fork in the road and ask ourselves, "What would Jesus do?" Having made that assessment, we make the choice we think Jesus would have made. The journey continues until we reach the next moral crossroads.

Basically, we think following Jesus involves solving a series of "Trolly Problems" that life throws at us. By "Trolly Problem" I mean those bedeviling ethical conundrums students debate in a college ethics classes. At the heart of these debates is the pressing question: "What's the right thing to do here?" That's what we think following Jesus is like, facing moments in life and asking ourselves, "What's the right thing to do here?"

To be sure, life is filled with momentous moments of great moral and ethical import. I don't deny the fact that we find ourselves throughout life standing at moral crossroads. But there are two issues we need to face here.

First of all, the nitty gritty of our moral lives doesn't happen quite this deliberatively and slowly. Life comes at us fast, so fast that we have automatic, emotional, and unconscious reactions to events before we even have time to process what is happening. When I lose my tempter it's not because I'm standing at the moral crossroads contemplating if I will choose to be patient or impatient. I just, as we say, "lose" my temper. And by "losing" my temper I mean that I had a quick, emotional reaction. Before I even notice that I am standing at a moral crossroads the game is already over. The horse of anger already out of the barn. I never got a chance to stop and ask myself, "What would Jesus do?" As I describe all this to my students, "The challenge of being like Jesus isn't about solving a series of ethical puzzles; it's about being ambushed by a series of emotional triggers."

There's a second issue in play at the moral crossroads as well. A lot of what will determine our fate at the moral crossroads, when we find ourselves standing there, depends almost entirely upon the sort of person we've become when we arrive at that fatal moment. You can arrive at the critical moment of your life story selfish, weak, sick, delusional, and scared. Or, you can arrive at that decisive moment full of love, strong, healthy, honest, and brave. The choices we make today were actually made a long, long time ago.

Both of these issues--life comes at us fast nullifying conscious decision-making, and our choices today were actually made yesterday--highlight the role of virtue in Christian spiritual formation. We can think of virtue as a holy habit, or what I call holy automaticity

When life comes at you fast you don't have time to solve the ethical Trolly Problem. Your first, automatic, and instinctive response has to be right. Holy automaticity is responding with knee-jerk kindness, patience, gentleness and self-control in the face of the emotional trigger. Holiness is not a choice, it's an instinct, a reflex. 

So, how do you acquire holy reflexes? The same why you acquire any automatic, reflexive skill. You want to play a guitar? You have to practice. You want to drive a golf ball long and straight? You have to practice. Practice is how we acquire automatic behavior patterns. So if you want to automate something expertly you have to put in the proverbial 10,000 hours of practice. Being like Jesus is no different. It takes lots and lots of practice.

This issue sits at the heart of our spiritual formation failures. We keep telling our people to ask themselves, "What would Jesus do?" That's fine, but where are we putting in the 10,000 hours of practice?

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