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Christianity is Not a "Behavior Modification Program"

Updated: Jul 13, 2020

“Christianity is NOT a behavior modification program!”

I’ve been saying this for years when I teach the class from the book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero. When we talk about legalism, people-pleasing, perfectionism, doing for God more than being with God, and all the works-based, human-centric pitfalls we so easily fall into, this sentence inevitably comes out of my mouth. I usually say it at least twice, loudly, maybe even with a bang of my fist on the table, as if by my volume and violence I can get this revelation into their heads. “Of course behavior is important,” I continue. “But Christianity is a relationship with Christ above all else! Your behavior flows from that relationship. If you think by your behavior you can make God love you more or less, then your life will be miserable! Why? Because religion always makes us focus on ourselves. And we can never be enough.”

I’ve said this, I’ve preached this, I’ve believed this, and yet I’ve wrestled with this for years. It is one of the themes of my life, coming up over and over, cropping up continuously. What am I going to focus on now—my shame or Christ’s grace? My imperfections or Christ’s offer of freedom? My sinful behavior or Christ's gift of righteousness? Will I choose to view myself in light of His total salvation of body, soul, and spirit, secured for me through the ultimate sacrifice and suffering, being held out to me every moment? Will I choose relationship (my eyes on Christ) or religion (my eyes on me)? Every day affords countless opportunities to test this belief, and I long to grow in my understanding and ability to live in it. Only in this relationship can I find true freedom and rest for my soul.

It’s an incredibly powerful and important revelation, but strange to say, lately I’ve begun to see that even that belief is not enough. What I mean is, it might be a great start, but there is yet more. And the more I’ve been thinking so much about is the fact that if I truly believe that relationship is more important than behavior, and grace and mercy truly do triumph over judgment, then when exactly am I going to give that gift I have so undeservedly received to the world? Especially to my “neighbor”—to those close to me, consistently around me, family, friends, and brothers and sisters in Christ? If Christ does not relate to me on the basis of behavior alone but on the basis of choosing to love me in a covenant relationship, then I must at some point realize that I am called to do the same for those around me.

Does that seem very basic to you? Like, after 25+ years as a Christian, you’re only NOW getting that Kim? Ah, yes, but be careful my friend. What may seem easily accessible in some Theology 101 or “new believers” course and breezily preached every Sunday is very, very difficult to live. When your eyes have been opened you see the evidence everywhere.

Just think about your own life for a moment: how often do you react to people’s behavior towards you, what they say and do, rather than the deeper things going on inside of them and the deeper things going on inside of you? How often are you able to see in the moment what is under the surface of bad behaviors and hold yourself back from reacting to them, and instead reach out to the heart and core of that person with all the gifts you have been given in Christ: grace, mercy, patience, kindness, and love? Maybe upon reflection you, like me, could use a fresh dose of revelation on the simplest foundations of our faith.

Probably no arena affords more opportunities to test this revelation than parenting. Parenting is perhaps the most difficult thing we ever do as human beings. There are many reasons for this, but one of them is that it’s a place we can hide all our own insecurities, fears, and pain under the guise of an innate authority we have over helpless, vulnerable human beings. And those helpless, vulnerable human beings seem to be born with an incredibly unique ability to push all our buttons and trigger every one of those dark places inside us. And so the constant temptation we face is to use our position as parents to justify our own deepest heart issues, whether it’s legalism or laziness, anger or emotional distance, perfectionism or permissiveness. And so simply looking at my own children, my own parenting, is like looking at a blueprint of my soul.

So now I come to situations where the “bad behaviors” surface in my kids and I have a moment in time in which an enormously important decision must be made: am I going to react to their behavior or instead to what’s going on beyond and behind and beneath it? Am I going to enter into “behavior modification” by yelling, threatening, or even just disciplining them without asking deeper questions, OR am I going to breathe through the boiling blood and then zero in on the true issues of their heart? Ultimately the question is: am I going to treat them like Christ treats me, with grace, mercy, and love, always in the context of a loving relationship, or will I “treat them as their sins deserve,” which the Bible clearly states GOD DOES NOT DO (see Psalm 103:10)?

A couple instances come to mind from the last few weeks. The circumstances aren’t important, but let’s just say there were several meltdowns with lots of anger and tears in both of my sons. Not surprisingly, the bad behaviors follow. Theirs and of course mine, if and when I don’t pay attention. I could feel the pulse racing, the anger bubbling up inside, the desire to yell and control and use my “authority” to force them to behave in the way I see as right. But I guess this gift of grace that I have received has truly done some real work inside this heart of mine (credit: Jesus) because I simply squeezed my eyes shut, threw up a prayer to heaven for help, took a deep breath, and began some very hard and emotional conversations. Those conversations took time and effort. I had to dig deep. I had to ask questions. I had to continue down the course I had chosen even when their reactions did not reflect the effort I was putting in. I had to stretch my belief in the truth that we will reap a harvest if we do not give up (see Galatians 6:9).

Those conversations ended with me asking for and requiring behavioral change. That’s the full circle that we come to, isn’t it? Behavior must and should change as we grow as human beings, and especially as we grow as Christians. Jesus never, ever let His disciples “off the hook” so to speak from making true and lasting changes that reflect His love. But He didn’t address the behavior until He dealt with the heart and then always in the context of relationship. And then He graciously poured out His Spirit upon them, and upon us, so that we could actually do what He is asking of us. He made provision in every single way. Such a Savior could not be even imagined by the human mind!

My prayer for me, and for you my friends, is that we can transform this world for Christ as we so often talk about—but that it would start from deep within, anchored in our constant relating to and looking to our Savior, being filled with His Spirit, and then flowing out of that to this broken and sinful world. Find a way to dig deep, look past the ugliness that we are all capable of, and speak life to the hearts of the people closest to you. Give the gift you have been given. You will find there is an endless supply, more than you could possibly imagine, and as you give, it will be given back to you!

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