Sunday, November 14, 2010

Limitations on change?

November 14, 2010

Good afternoon, friends,

When I sat down to write, I discovered that my head was still occupied with change and the self-talk issue we thought about last week.

Our culture teaches us the idea that we can become whatever we think--or dream--we can be. Last week's blog left us watching Aldonza in the Broadway version becoming the Lady Dulcinea. This successful play show-cases the power of self-talk in the terms of our cultural narrative--we can become whatever we think, or dream.

My desire to have an additional word about the Aldonza-Dulcinea transformation stems from the confusing combination of truth and error in this picture. What we tell ourselves changes us--no doubt. There is no question about the power of self-talk to elicit change. However, there is another question to consider: Is there something that we humans cannot talk ourselves into?

Oddly enough, the answer appears to be yes--we cannot talk ourselves into true goodness. In a recent blog we talked about the human impulse to break the speed limit. We noted that we can indeed talk ourselves into law-abiding behaviors by self talk that reminds us that if the patrolman sees us we are in big trouble. But we also noted, with some amusement, that this change is temporary--over the hill, around the curve and across the bridge, the obedience to the speed limit vanishes. Self-coerced change is often disappointingly transitory as most unsuccessful dieters know. Law conforming behavior, we discover, can be produced without an accompanying change that makes the heart embrace the Law as good. Honest employees can become embezzlers given opportunity. In life, unlike Broadway, we can learn to behave in ways that earn social approval without changing the dark impulses of our hearts.

It is change at this deep level of the heart that God works toward. It is God's insistence upon changed hearts that led to the intense debates between Jesus and the "good people" of his culture. They were shocked and offended to be told that their good behavior was not enough. The limitations of self-talk to provide this level of heart change led Jesus to tell Nicodemus, gifted teacher and faithful practitioner of the Law, that he must be born again.

The "born again" phrase in the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus has been widely lifted out of context and misused. As a result, in our culture at large "born again" often serves as a code word for an unattractive fundamentalist mentality and a rigid rule-oriented pattern of religious life that is widely ridiculed. This is not at all what Jesus was talking about with Nicodemus.

In reality Jesus was looking with Nicodemus at the limits of self-talk, even using the words of Torah, to produce the depth of change that God desires. Nicodemus, properly using the language of the Law, had produced in himself good behavior that was publicly apparent. Jesus did not question either Nicodemus's knowledge of the Law or his good behavior. What startled and confused Nicodemus was Jesus' insistence that Nicodemus needed something more than more good thinking--he needed a new life, a life produced by the Spirit.

The Aldonza/ Dulcinea transformation has a seductive fairy-tale quality that makes wonderful theater but a totally unreliable principle by which to live.

Sorry, folks, it's not that easy.

How can we change beyond the limits of self talk?

See you next week,


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