Threats and Treats

February 2, 2022
Tim Lien

And we all, with unveiled face,
beholding the glory of the Lord,
are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another.
For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
II Corinthians 3:18

Consider the following (true) situations:
1 – A man consistently addresses his wife using crass, bad, and degrading vocabulary.
2 – A sad and confused teen carves up her arms and legs using razors, knives, and pins.
3 – An eight-year-old (that I may or may not know) rejects presented breakfast items and calls them “trash.”

Behavior modification is needed.  The guy needs to stop berating his wife.  The girl needs to stop cutting. The eight-year-old needs to show a little respect and gratitude FOR THE HOT BREAKFAST THAT MAGICALLY APPEARED BEFORE HIM; secondarily, it would be great if he ate a nutritional breakfast.

Two tools present themselves for modification (change): threats or treats (positive or negative re-enforcement). Most opt for positive encouragement.  It just feels better.  It works sometimes.  And then sometimes it doesn’t.  Enter threats.  Threats are the Conor McGregor of behavior modification.  The phrase “Ima take your power cord and change the WiFi password!!” causes my kids to undergo drastic external transformation. Behold!, a behavior modification miracle.

These are the great benefits to behavior modification.  The homework gets done, the screaming stops, and the arms begin to heal.

Something has been modified. Something has changed.  Positive change is good. Non-cutting is better than cutting. Every time.

But here’s a tough question: is behavior modification an acceptable substitute for true, godly transformation?  Is behavior modification the secret behind true religion, true godliness, true Christianity?

This is the great limitation of behavior modification as a substitute for godly change and transformation.  No external stratagem, resolve, program, routine, pressure, treat, or threat can change the affections of the human heart.  I can make my 8 yr. old perform external obedience to his daddy.  I cannot make him trust his daddy. I cannot make him want to follow his daddy’s heart and intentions.  I cannot make him desire nutrition over short term sugars.  I cannot make him show an un-rewarded tenderness to his mom.

When I first started in vocational ministry, I didn’t have enough experience to watch people over time.  I was too impressed with external behavior modification.  I clapped too hard for people trying too hard. But as the years piled up (this is sound observational data for you) people consumed with behavior modification as a way to accomplish spiritual maturity became meaner, more exacting, joyless, judgy, harsher, and dare I say it: complete dullards.  Those consumed with knowing God (especially God made known to us in Jesus), seemed to bubble carbonated joy and their behaviors started to mimic their Savior yet without an obsessive conscious management of those behaviors. In other words, an unconscious affection for something bigger than their behaviors began to take shape.

The Apostle Paul says as much in II Corinthians 3, doesn’t he?  People beholding his glory are transformed.  People who uncover Him experience an unexpected impact on their affections.  People who marvel and geek-out over his greatness are not left unchanged (see: glow-face Moses, stain-lipped Isaiah). This comes from the Lord who is the Spirit, Paul says.

Do not abandon behavior modification.  You are nicer when you don’t hit people. But give it up as a way to draw closer to God. Give it up as a qualification to enter his throne-room in prayer.  Give it up as a way to get his approval. Give it up as way to change your affections, your heart.

But don’t just give something up. Give yourself a new affection.  A new desire that eclipses all other desires.  You need a big love. And not the HBO kind.

See you on Sunday, Tim

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