I think it may be the Calvinist in me, or maybe it’s the inner bibliophile, but for some reason I’m quietly convinced there is no problem that can’t be solved with a few facts. If only you knew what I know, you’d change your behavior. If you would read what I’ve read, if you would listen to what I’ve listened to, you would see the impropriety of what you’re doing, and you’d stop doing it. Virtue is just a few simple facts away.
If only it were so simple.
I am a problem-solver, and my default means of solving problems is through information—I am quick to distribute books, and quick to recommend sermons or conference talks. Struggling? Read this. Looking for life-change? Try these conference talks. I apply the fix to myself, and I apply the fix to others.
None of those things are bad, and none of those things are wrong. Conferences and sermons and books can be life-changing. But they often represent the easy way out. And they often represent the less effective way.
I was thinking about these things already when I got punched in the head by words from Kent Dunnington, author of the wonderful book Addiction and Virtue. Dunnington provides a long, dense, philosophical, and powerful argument that addiction is really a kind of habit. He is convinced that the Bible and the Christian faith offer a robust understanding of this kind of habit, and that the gospel offers the best hope for overcoming it. But even as he argues this, he has to grapple with the reality that when it comes to addiction, 12-step programs are often far more effective than anything the church offers. And, of course, he has to ask why this is.
Much of his answer settles on the fellowship and community that comes with a 12-step program. These words, coming in his closing argument, hit hard:
The church fails to provide sustaining and transforming relationships for addicted persons in its midst wherever and whenever it buys into the modern assumption that growth in virtue is a product of learning abstract principles whereas friendship is a private endeavor that is based on “similar interests.” Such an assumption is in direct opposition to the biblical understanding of friendship. Although affection characterizes many of the friendships portrayed in the Bible, affection is ancillary to the animating center of friendship, which is nothing less than the willingness to lay down one’s life for one’s friend (Jn 15:13). Such friendships are not optional for Christians … For Paul, friendships of accountability and training are central to growth in holiness.
What is true of addicts is true of all of us, to some degree. We are all battling addiction to sin. What the church fails to provide addicts is what it fails to provide all those who are battling the deep-rooted habits of the flesh.
What makes 12-step programs so effective despite vague or even antagonistic notions of God? To large degree, it is the fellowship of addicts or alcoholics, who walk together, and battle together, against a common enemy. They develop transformative friendships based not on doing fun things together or sharing common amusements, but on the growth and development of virtue. They form and foster deep, meaningful, lasting friendships that pursue the good of others through the growth of good habits, patterns and behaviors.
Here’s the thing: Addicts are not transformed by learning facts. They do not find freedom by acquiring and applying abstract principles. Not only, at least. They find freedom by surrounding themselves with a community of people who are pursuing the same goal and who will pursue it with them arm-in-arm. They see the principles lived out in others, and learn to imitate them.
As Christians we form communities in which every individual is in need of transformation. We need facts and principles to guide and motivate us, and God provides those through his Word. We hear those principles from the pulpit and encounter them in our daily Bible reading. But we also need to see those principles, to surround ourselves with living examples of those principles. Otherwise church is simply a place we gather to hear preaching about Christ, rather than a fellowship of people displaying life in Christ.
Maybe what we need is need fewer books, and more friendships, fewer abstract principles and more applied principles. We need to be less willing to say, “Read this and call me in the morning” and more “Walk with me and I’ll show you. Come into my home and watch. Come into my life and see.” If it is true that in the Bible “friendships of accountability and training are central to growth in holiness,” There is a necessary application: “Mentoring programs in the church ought not to be something parishioners must seek out but rather something so prevalent that parishioners would have to intentionally avoid them.” Is this the case in your church? Is this the case in your life?
Every church is a community of recovering sin-addicts, fellow sufferers who are longing for freedom. Freedom comes through principle taught and principle displayed. Who needs to hear you say, “Walk with me. Let’s learn to be like Christ…”
(Note: I’m sure I will have more to say about Addiction and Virtue in the future, but for now, do consider reading it. It’s a difficult read, but the final chapter makes it all worthwhile.)
Fist-bump image credit: Shutterstock.