How to Grow in Grace: Step Five

Have you ever been in a heated conversation with someone and it was just the two of you in a room? In the middle of the argument, your cell phone rings or someone else enters the room and you change in an instant from angry and agitated to quiet, calm and sensitive! Have you ever wondered why you were able to change so quickly? This is the next critical step in the change process that we will cover in this blog series.

If you have been following this series, we have covered four steps for growth in grace so far:

  1. Look to Christ
  2. Look for Evidence of the Spirit’s Work in Your Life
  3. Rightly Pay Attention to Your Circumstances
  4. Identify Unproductive Coping Strategies and Ungodly Responses

If Step Four begins to move inward, Step Five goes even deeper. All the more reason to keep the first three steps on the horizon. The more you look inward, the more you must keep the grace of the Gospel central. Your ultimate identity is not found in a specific struggle with some temptation and sinful behavior, nor is it located in some form of suffering you may have experienced. If you are in Christ, you belong to God and you are deeply loved by him.

Step Five: Ask the “Why?” and “What?” Questions

That being said, if lasting change is going to happen, you must begin to ask “Why?” and “What?” questions. Why do you do the things you do? What motivates you to do the things you do, either good or bad, helpful or unhelpful? It is at this very point that you begin to grow in self-awareness. The passages of Scripture from our last blog on self-examination are as relevant here as they were in looking at certain behaviors. The call to self-examination includes behaviors but goes deeper to the heart of one’s motivations. Consider Paul’s admonitions in Philippians 2:3:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.

Selfish ambition and vain conceit are attitudes that express themselves in certain behaviors that will propel someone to put themselves first instead of seeking the well being of others. In Philippians 2:5, Paul goes on to say that your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. This way of talking about behaviors growing out of fundamental attitudes is confirmed all throughout Scripture. Consider Paul’s teaching in Romans 1:25 where he describes the inner disposition of the non-believer:

They exchanged the truth of God for a lie and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator.

From Paul’s perspective, human beings are fundamentally worshipers. The word “worship” is not a common word in our culture. It means to give worth to something, to honor something. For a human being to worship something, it means that they are ascribing worth to it, consider it worth pondering and revolving one’s life around it. Paul says that the tendency for all human beings is to find something in the created world and revolve one’s life around that rather than the only one who rightly deserves it; who is the true God. This fundamental loyalty will express itself in specific behaviors.

Jesus is saying the exact same thing in Luke 6:43-45:

No good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. Each tree is recognized by its own fruit. People do not pick figs from thorn-bushes, or grapes from briers. The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.

If Jesus uses an agricultural metaphor to describe what drives our behavior, James uses that as well as one of a spring’s source in James 3:10-12:

Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring? My brothers, can a fig tree bear olives, or a grapevine bear figs? Neither can a salt spring produce fresh water.

Scripture is painting a picture of what ultimately drives our behaviors. It is a fundamental orientation of one’s inner person.

What’s Under the Hood?

For the sake of argument, let’s use a more modern metaphor; the car engine. Suppose you are driving down the road and you notice that your temperature gauge is running high, moving into the zone where there is a red bar. What would you naturally conclude if this happened? Hopefully you would conclude that the temperature gauge is not the ultimate problem and that the real problem is under the hood. It could be a bad water-pump, a broken belt, a hole in the radiator, low oil or a busted hose. In order to fix the car, you would need to get under the hood and diagnose the problem in order to fix the issue. Only then would the temperature gauge return to its normal and appropriate level.

The same can be said of humans and their behavior. If you see good or bad behavior (like the gauge) it is revealing what is going on in someone’s heart (under the hood). The Bible has many ways to describe this; idolatry, spiritual adultery, false worship, evil desires, over-loves. St. Augustine called these struggles “disordered desires.”

Be Careful

It is fairly easy these days to diagnose what is wrong with a car engine. But you must keep in mind that you and other people are much more complex than even the most sophisticated car engine. Therefore, it is important to move carefully and wisely when asking the “why?” question. You want to avoid becoming simplistic when assessing motivational drives in yourself as well as others. You certainly don’t want to assume that you have such clear discernment that you have the right to go on an idol/sin hunt in someone else’s life. This could be devastating if you are not careful, wise and loving in how you help others grow in self-awareness.

Application

The challenge at this level is growing in self awareness so that you begin to see the kinds of things that drive your behavior. When you begin doing this, you will likely see themes and patterns that are unique to you but are also common to many other people.

How do you begin to determine why you behave in unproductive and even ungodly ways in response to your circumstances? You need some tools to help you gain clarity of what you are living for in the moment. In How People Change, you will find some guidance on detecting underlying motivations in chapter 10. Here is another tool:

Look at negative behaviors and ask two questions:

  1. What did I want in the moment but was not getting?
  2. What did I not want in the moment and was getting?

These simple two questions will open a window into what you tend to live for and what drives your responses to your circumstances.

Let’s take the example at the beginning of this blog of two people arguing and then suddenly stopping when one of their cell phone rings:

  • You are arguing with another person.
    1. Why? Because they are getting in the way of something you want and giving you something you don’t want.
    2. What is that? You might want comfort, respect, affirmation, acceptance, and/or peace, but you are getting disagreement and/or disrespect instead .
  • You change immediately when your cell phone rings and become very polite.
    1. Why? What do you want? To be thought highly of? To be seen as a nice person?
    2. Why? What do you not want? To be seen as a mean, selfish person? To tarnish your reputation?

Take a recent situation and describe what was going on and how you responded in an unproductive and ungodly way. Now begin to ask the “Why?” and “What?” questions. What did I want that I was not getting? What did I not want that I was getting?

Chances are, as you do this in a variety of areas in your life, you will probably see particular themes that show up in many other areas of your life.

This step is critical for the next step which involves engaging in robust repentance and faith and savoring the grace of Christ.

Copyright © 2017 Timothy S. Lane

How to Grow in Grace

Over the coming weeks, I will continue to add "steps" that are practical ways of thinking about the process of growth in grace. If you want to be alerted each time the next post goes live, you can sign up to receive e-news here:

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Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at CCEF in Philadelphia, PA (Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation). Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches.  For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.