Behavior modification and why I struggle to get the gospel

gemd_01_img0020.jpgI was reading “Shepherding A Child’s Heart” this morning and I had a bit of an epiphany. I was reading the chapter about discarding unbiblical methods of parenting. I realized that behavior modification is the way I tend to approach parenting. That means that I reward good behavior and punish bad behavior just the same way that one might train a pet.
While I meditated on my parenting, I realized that this is the general way that I looked at life as a child and the way I tend to view the world today. I like to think that I can modify my behavior to be a better person. I tend to punish myself for failure (like my current “fast from the web“), and I tend to believe that my successes deserve praise or reward. When I do fail, I tend to doubt the power of the gospel and the existence of God. Besides, if the gospel really worked and God really existed shouldn’t that be reflected in my behavior?
To boil it down, the basic idea is this: If I do good, then I am good. If I do bad, then I am bad.
Over and over in the gospels, Jesus Christ tried to hammer into the brains of thick-headed Pharisees like me that the heart was what mattered, not behavior. “You shall not kill” is easy enough to obey, but if I hate my neighbor in my heart then I am a sinner. So you can train a child to act nice, obedient, and cheerful, but you can not do anything to change their heart. That is why we end up with churches filled with nice little Ned Flanders evangelicals who worship God with their lips, but their hearts are far from him.
Jesus also offered an alternative to behavior modification: heart modification. Through the completed work of Christ I have been justified from my sin, and I have received the goodness of Jesus. When I fail, it doesn’t change the state of my heart. The new heart that Jesus gave me has been cleansed of the sins I have committed and the sins I will commit.
In the gospel, the basic idea changes to this: Once I was bad, and I did bad. Now I am good, and I still do bad, but good has been prepared for me to do.
Here’s how Paul puts it:
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Colossians 3:12

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