Action or Reaction?

One of the biggest questions I run into as a pastor and as a person is "Why can't I seem to change?"  Even when I know the right thing to do I struggle to do it. I see time after time when people can't seem to shake a destructive behaviour, despite the fact that it brings them pain. This is obvious in cases like addiction, where drugs and alcohol take over a person regardless of how much pain and brokenness their presence brings. But the same thing happens more subtly with tendencies toward pride and selfishness, fear of failure and shame. All of these characteristics seem to propel us toward behaviours which actually do us harm, and yet it appears we are often powerless to choose the better, and healthier, path. I am coming to realize that while we think we spend our days taking "action", far too often what we are really doing is "reacting" to what happens around us.  These reactions are not driven by our logical, rational conscious mind, but by the deep subconscious, a part of the mind with which we are often quite unfamiliar. 


Like an iceberg, our lives have more under the surface than we can see from above. Our conscious mind, home to our logical and critical thinking, our short term memory, and our will power, seems to think that it is alone in the world.  But deep beneath all of that, shaped by our experiences over a lifetime lies the subconscious, the seat of our beliefs, emotions, habits, values, and intuition. My theory is that we chose the destructive because our choices flow more from the deeps of who we are then from our rational thinking. That's why we do things that are bad for us even though we know better. We react, rather than merely act.

So the issue with our slowness to change has to do less with knowing on a conscious level the right thing to do and more with the need for transformation at a deeper level. So much of Christian discipleship over the years has been about teaching people the truth about Jesus and the Scripture.  But you don't have to look far to see that this knowledge, while vitally important, hasn't brought about the transformation of character that flows from deeper within the subconscious. I believe that is because you don't think your way to a renewed subconscious. These deep recesses of who you and I are were formed over time through our experiences. They are reformed the same way. Paul writes to Titus, 

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.
— Titus 2:11-12

It's not more knowledge of God that teaches us to say no to "ungodliness and worldly passions." It's the experience of the grace of God. We can't think our way into transformation. We'd like that, because it allows us to maintain control. The reality is that we experience grace and forgiveness at the deep level of our brokenness and shame. This experience shapes our subconscious which in turn allows us to react in healthier ways. 

This has implications for us personally, as it means the path to transformation becomes more about acknowledging our shame and letting the grace of God heal it than about learning conceptually about the forgiveness of God.  It also has implications for how we treat others, because the best thing we can do is not "teach them the error of their ways", but to open a doorway for them to experience the grace of God. What about you? Are you receiving grace or trying to learn about God? Are you seeking to control others by teaching them a lesson, or serve others by showing the love and grace of God to them?

Jeff KuhnComment