Has someone ever told you that you are perfect just the way you are? It’s a lie. Ask actor Chris Pratt who told a crowd at the MTV Movie Awards, “You are imperfect. You always will be.” And deep down we know it. Every time we feel a twinge of guilt, shame, or plain misgiving over something we’ve said or done we betray a gnawing sense that we are not what we should be.
So what to do?
According to folks who take naturalism seriously, we are creations of Nature by biochemical processes that direct our thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors along deterministic paths amenable to scientific investigation, prediction, and intervention.
Richard Dawkins has gone as far as to claim that we are genetic robots mechanically responding to the “desires” of selfish genes. Such thinking motivates the ongoing efforts to discover the genetic “causes” for sexual preference and bio-physical “remedies” for anti-social behaviors and mental illness.
For example, education advocate Stacey DeWitt credits Darwinian processes for child bullying, as does psychologist David Buss for adultery. Dr. Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, attributes “faulty circuits” in the brain for depression and various mood disorders.
Insel muses that treating mental illness may be “akin to ‘rebooting’ a computer that has become frozen.” His expectation is that our “science-based understanding of mental illness very likely will revolutionize prevention and treatment.”
According to the “machine view” of human nature, improving the human condition is a matter of treating defective parts, scientifically and impersonally.
Against that view are a couple of Duke University neuroscientists. In 2010, Drs. Terrie Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi received an award for their research on the influence of genes and environment on human behavior. The summary of their key finding is that “you can’t choose your genes, but you face many choices in life which can determine how those genes will play out.” (Emphasis added.)
The late Bill Wilson would agree.
Wilson was a hardened atheist and struggling alcoholic who was frequently hospitalized for his addiction. It was during his fourth hospital stay that Wilson, at the end of his rope, raised his voice in desperation, “If there be a God, let him show himself!”
Wilson would later say of the experience: “Suddenly my room blazed with an indescribably white light… I was seized with an ecstasy beyond description. Every joy I had known was pale by comparison.”
The following day a friend and recovering alcoholic convinced Wilson that surrendering to God was the only thing that could emancipate him from the grip of the bottle. This became the vision for the organization Bill Wilson founded over 75 years ago, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
At the core of AA’s method is its “12-Step” Program. Of the program, addiction-specialist Drew Pinsky states, “In my 20 years of treating addicts, I’ve never seen anything else that comes close to the 12 steps,” adding, “In my world, if someone says they don’t want to do the 12 steps, I know they aren’t going to get better.”
While the 12-Step Program has been credited by millions of addicts for saving theirs lives, its effectiveness is a mystery to many observers.
Contrary to our “science-based” understanding, there is the acknowledgement of a higher Power, God.
Contrary to the culture of self-esteem and personal power, there’s the call for surrender to God and change through submission and prayer.
Contrary to the view of man as a genetic machine, there’s the requirement to acknowledge and confess moral failures and make amends to those who have been hurt.
Contrary to go-it-alone individualism, AA is a community of “one-anothers” built on trust, accountability, and mentoring.
Another organization has remarkably similar features: surrendering to God, confessing our sins, reconciling with our neighbor, growing in maturity through the spiritual disciplines, and fellowship in the community of faith. And, like AA, many of its members credit those “steps” with their salvation not only in the here-and-now, but in the yet-to-come.
Despite AA’s unparalleled effectiveness, many alcoholics who enroll in the program fail to overcome their addiction. The same is true of that other organization, the Church.
For decades now, pollsters have observed that church membership is not correlated with behavior outside of church. It is a sobering reminder that ever since Jesus called Andrew and Simon to become fishers of men, many of the “called” have failed, and failed miserably, in their calling.
During Jesus’s earthly ministry, James and John were given to pride and self-promotion, Thomas to doubt, Judas to theft and betrayal, and all of the Twelve to fear and lack of faith—Peter to the point of denying his Lord thrice. Then there were the “many of his disciples” who turned away after Jesus’s hard teaching on the Eucharist. All this by individuals who walked with Jesus and witnessed his divine powers!
Considering that nearly all of Paul’s letters contain pastoral teachings against carnal practices that threatened the unity and witness of the Church, it should come as no surprise that people in every organization struggle mightily against the pull of the flesh only to succumb to its gravitational force. It is a sign that human nature is far more complex than the scientific view would have us believe.
Not a Machine
Rather than a cog in the cosmic mechanism, man is a free moral agent whose behaviors are intrinsically resistant to scientific analysis. Free will is a wild card that can trump the demands of our chemicals and genes.
Through the power of will a person can complete a 40-day fast, live in life-long monogamy or celibacy, sacrifice his life for another, endure persecution, or submit to martyrdom.
For that reason, overcoming the pull of nature is a matter of conditioning the will, not re-engineering the genome. As the apostle Paul reveals, it is a life-long process of transformation that begins by “renewing our minds” (as opposed to re-wiring the brain) and remains, as Chris Pratt implies, incomplete this side of eternity.
Ahead of His Time
Indeed, Paul was twenty centuries ahead of the modern psychological insight that thoughts influence actions, which lead to behaviors and habits that shape character. Therefore, he counseled believers to direct their thoughts to “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable … excellent or praiseworthy,” and to put into practice what they had been taught.
But Paul knew that character formation required more than information; it required preparation, girding oneself with the spiritual weapons of truth, faith, righteousness, salvation, the gospel, and engaging in the spiritual discipline of prayer.
He also knew that character is tested in private, when no one is watching, but is forged in community by faith that is not only professed but practiced.
Accordingly, he encouraged believers to see themselves as vital parts of a Body united under the headship of Jesus Christ.
Likewise, the author of Hebrews urged his readers: “let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Channeling our thoughts, applying our faith, practicing spiritual disciplines, and participating in a community of mutual support and encouragement involve moment-to-moment decisions that defy methodological explanation and control. They are the actions of free-willed individuals pursuing a character-shaping process that will remain unfinished this side of heaven.
Along the way, there will be failures, as there were for the early disciples. And yet because of those failures (i.e., our imperfections), there is grace. To the church in Ephesus, St. Paul, who acknowledged his own imperfection, wrote, “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.”
To a more secular audience, Chris Pratt put it this way: “You always will be [imperfect]… and if you are willing to accept that, you will have grace. And grace is a gift. Like the freedom that we enjoy in this country, that grace was paid for with somebody else’s blood. Do not forget that. Don’t take that for granted.”