Friday, July 22, 2011

You Can Change #4: I Struggle Because I Struggle

Having looked at the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ of change, it’s time to get down to the ‘what’ in chapters 4 and following. This is where Chester urges us to examine our change projects- the behaviour or emotion you want to change- to discover the underlying mistaken beliefs and desires.

In chapter 4 we are called on to think about a particular sinful behaviour or emotion and to pin-point exactly when we are most susceptible to it. Chester suggests that this can help us to hone in on the deeper issues of the heart that manifest themselves in sin. This rings true for me. If I am prone to being judgmental, then it is not only when I pass judgment on someone that I am believing or desiring the wrong things. Surely I am always carrying those misconceptions around in my heart and mind. But it is in the moment that I act on them, when they come closest to the surface, that I am most likely to be able to identify them. This in turn creates the opportunity for correction.

While Chester has raised a helpful principle here in Chapter 4, I found the flow of his argument difficult to follow. I think this is because of his use of the word struggle. If we were having a conversation about sin, and I asked, “When do you struggle?” you would probably take this to mean, “Under what circumstances are you most likely to sin?” The word struggle is used in reference to sin. If my change project is to deal with lust, then I might say that I ‘struggle with lust’, or that ‘lust is my struggle’.

Of course, we do at times refer to struggles that are unrelated to sin. If a friend tells you that their family is struggling, you would deduce that they are dealing with some difficult circumstances. If I tell you that I am struggling financially, then you would know that money is tight for me. These struggles are unrelated to sin.

And finally, the confusion factor sky-rockets when it is a difficult circumstance that triggers our sin. I could, in effect, say that I am struggling (with sin) because I am struggling (with life). Phew.

This relationship between circumstances and sin is key to Chester’s argument. It is a good argument, which when understood properly will help us dredge the depths of our hearts to bring to light what festers there. But he muddies the waters and raises unnecessary questions by failing to explain what he means by struggle, and by using the word in different ways from one section to the next.

The title of the chapter, and indeed the introductory paragraph, suggest that our struggles are the sins we are prone to. It seems, however, that from then on Chester uses the word in reference to difficult circumstances, before finally reverting to his original usage in part 3. Here are some excerpts that have brought me to this conclusion:

1. God cares about our struggles [difficult circumstances] (p. 68)
"But God doesn’t just look on our struggles from a distance. He has rolled up his sleeves, come down, got stuck in, and experienced our struggles first-hand… Jesus knows what it is to be hungry, assaulted, rejected, tired, lonely, tempted, needy, opposed and busy… Jesus shared our struggles." ( p. 69)

2. God does something about our struggles [difficult circumstances] (p.70)
"First, he uses our struggles… It’s easy to believe that about the good things that happen to us. It’s not so easy to believe it about the bad things. But the Bible is clear that God uses suffering to make us like Jesus." (p. 71)

3. Our struggles [sinful behaviours and emotions] reveal our hearts (p. 72)
"If you see a bush with thorns, you know it’s not a fig tree. It has the DNA of a thorn bush and it’s this DNA that causes it to grows thorns rather than figs. It’s the same with people. Our sinful behaviour reflects the sin in our hearts. Every sinful action and negative emotion reveals a problem in our hearts." (p. 73-74)

It is a pity that semantics subtract from an important chapter that sets the framework for the chapters that follow. When confusion arises, it may be helpful to remember the flow of the argument:

Difficult circumstances
can trigger
sinful behaviour and emotions
which we can examine to
reveal our hearts

In a sense, both our difficult circumstances and our sinful behaviour can reveal our hearts. Our sinful behaviour does so directly, and our circumstances do so via the behaviours they trigger. It may therefore be legitimate to say that ‘our struggles reveal our hearts’, while maintaining some ambiguity as to the meaning of the word ‘struggles’.

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