A friend recommended an article to me a couple of weeks ago entitled, “The Secret to Breaking Out of Our Most Destructive Habits” by Stephen Stosny. I took issue with some of Dr. Stosny’s evaluations of cathartic experience, but I did agree with his assessment that the path to change involves more than an exploration of the past. For me, the exploration of past experiences and facilitating cathartic experience is only meaningful if it leads to the opportunity for change and helps create an understanding of a path to change. I appreciated that Dr. Stosny could talk about how continued focus on what is not desired actually reinforced the very thing that a person wished to be rid of. The path to change then lies in a focus on what is desired and involves repeated attempts to practice new skills, new reactions and attitudes until the under-developed becomes second nature. Though he talked about brain chemistry, I could affirm this reality both in my own therapy with clients and my own personal journey of change.
In the same week, I read in Peter Rollin’s Book, Insurrection, thoughts on how the desire to observe an authority’s prohibition and the desire to transgress the prohibition can exist in the same mind. Similar to Stosny (but not identical at all), Rollins describes how the focus on a prohibition actually can drive the very behavior that is prohibited. As I reflected on the intersection of both of these writings, I began to think about Christianity and pink elephants with purple polka dots.
For years, I have worked with clients who have rehearsed and ruminated over attitudes and behaviors that they wanted to change. However, they only ruminated over how much they desired those things to change and how much they did not want those things in their minds. Often times, the people have prayed that God would remove certain thoughts or feelings from them. They have sought to be free from something in their life without really knowing what change would look like other than to be free form that which seems to hold them down.
For some of these clients, I have asked them to close their eyes and clear their minds. I tell them that I do not want them to think about anything…especially pink elephants with purple polka dots. I repeat the admonition, “Do NOT think of anything, including pink elephants with purple polka dots”. Facetiously, I will ask the client, “What is now on your mind?” The answer is obviously pink elephants with purple polka dots. My point is that even if we are thinking about it in the negative, when we focus our attention on what we do not want, we are still reinforcing those very thoughts in our head. Instead, we work on figuring out what we would prefer to have in our heads instead.
When I realize this as a path to true change, I realize what a poor job we have done in the church in helping people find real change even as we are trying to tell people “Good News”. The Good News that we like to tell is that people are sinners; that we are born with a sinful nature, BUT God loves us anyway. Not only does God love us anyway, but God sent his son to die on the cross for our sins. Then we tell people that if we accept the gift of Jesus’ death on the cross, we are a new creature and we then should live differently. To help people with this, we have created a list of things that Christians do not do and many times week after week we hear sermons about what we should not do and what we have to be careful of. However, if we look at what actually brings about transformation in a person, then we realize that if we continually focus on how terrible and sinful we are, then the love of God DESPITE our failures only keeps us focused on our failure. Likewise, the more we focus on what we should not do, the more we reinforce the desire to transgress the prohibition and the more we actually reinforce the behavior that is not desired.
The process of salvation then is worked out as we seek to live more and more as Christ did. This is not defined by what we DON’T do (and not even so much by what we DO), but the attitude, outlook, and heart that is in us. In Christ we are a new creature. As Rollins writes, “In grace we are able to accept that we are accepted [Paul Tillich’s concept] and, in this very act of knowing we do not have to change, we discover the ability to change. It is in experiencing the license of grace rather than the legalism of prohibition that real transformation becomes possible” (p. 106).
This concept is not a comfortable one for many because of fear. What if we are truly free? What if we do not condemn others for their “bad” behavior? Aren’t they likely to continue in their “ungodly” ways? While there are concepts of healthy community that would have us interact with one another around hurtful and self-destructive behaviors, it is radical acceptance of others that allows for the possibility of growth and transformation. Many times what keeps us from this radical acceptance is fear, but we know that perfect love casts out fear (I John 4:18). Our church communities have too often become places where we pretend to be perfect and talk about those who don’t live up to the standards we have created. Instead our church communities should be places of encouragement where we are practicing the new attitudes and skills we want to live into and support and encourage each other when have setbacks knowing that we are all on the same journey towards the same destination. The path of true transformation lies not rehearsing the pink elephants and purple polka dots of how terrible we are, but in encouraging one another on the path of being all that God intended us to be.