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Second Nature: Cultivating grace-shaped virtue in a works-based world

ben dailey Oct 28, 2021

We’re bombarded with messages every day. The cumulative effect is powerful. A journal of psychology reports that the average American is subject to between four and five thousand advertisements a day, and 62% of shoppers buy products just to cheer themselves up. It’s a form of self-help we call “retail therapy.”

Add to that total the messages communicated by our spouse, kids, parents, teachers, boss, friends and neighbors. And then there’s the news. Our nation has become so polarized that many of us have concluded that people who disagree with us aren’t just wrong, they’re evil! We’re standing against hurricane-force winds of opinions, pleas and manipulation, and we enjoy only a few breezes of affirmation and encouragement. We’re new people, with a fantastic new status and a new identity, but we still live in a messy world. The voices that compete with God’s truth are loud and constant: these voices come from the world, the flesh and the enemy of our souls.

In practice, here’s how it works: We live in a smog of confusion about God and we experience opposition to Him, our inclination is to believe the lies and reject the truth, and Satan uses the messages coming from the world and our wrong thoughts to steer us off course from God’s best.

 

 

The battle is in the mind. How we think determines what we believe, and what we believe shapes our actions. The Bible is filled with admonitions to “consider,” “think,” “set your mind,” “let no one deceive you,” and “ponder.” Our task is to do the hard work of recognizing lies and replacing them with truth, and we’re soldiers in this fight. Paul explained to the Christians in Corinth:

For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:3-5, NIV).

What are the “arguments and pretensions”? They’re thoughts that lean hard against the gospel of grace. They tell us that God doesn’t care, He isn’t in control over all things, and He’s very unhappy with us. They insist that the way forward is to try harder to be a good person, to be more disciplined, more committed, and more zealous for God. They blame us for not feeling passionate enough, not loving God enough, and not doing enough for God. They’re effective in the lives of believers because they use the Bible, and they often come out of the mouths of Christians.

What are the weapons we fight with? The truths of the gospel of grace. It’s not enough to be religious, and in fact, religion alone is a deadly poison. The gospel corrects our perspective of God, of ourselves, and of how we grow in our faith. Grace is, to put it mildly, countercultural.

I hate to say it, but the message in many churches is mostly religion. The preachers and teachers talk about Jesus dying for our sins, but they don’t communicate how the grace of God changes everything. Our identity is radically changed the moment we trust in Christ, but our minds need constant renewal so they focus on the things above and build up defenses against the world, the flesh, and the enemy.

Let me illustrate what renewing the mind looks like. When someone wants to become a plumber, he starts with only a desire but with very little knowledge. If he didn’t learn the trade, he’d flood basements, break disposals and hook up the wrong pipes all over a customer’s house. He knows that to become a master plumber, he needs time as an apprentice under someone who has the skills to impart.

At first, he makes some mistakes, but the master plumber oversees him and doesn’t let him get too far out of hand. Gradually, the apprentice gains knowledge, and he sees how to put that knowledge into practice. At some point, what he has learned becomes second nature—he doesn’t even have to think about the things he was so confused about at the beginning. They come naturally.

In his book, After You Believe, N. T. Wright cites the story of the aborted airline flight of US Airways 1549 from LaGuardia Airport in New York to Charlotte, North Carolina. On takeoff, the plane hit a flock of geese, and both engines lost power. Instantly, Captain Sullenberger had to decide how to save the passengers. Two local airports were nearby, but either path would risk crashing into populated areas, and the plane was too far away to turn back to LaGuardia.

He quickly thought through his options and concluded that his best choice was to put the plane down in the Hudson River. He and his copilot went through dozens (or maybe hundreds) of steps to prepare the plane and the passengers for a water landing. As they approached the water, Sullenberger turned the plane to go with the flow of the river, turned off the engines, and pulled the nose up so the plane could land flat instead of digging into the water. The next scenes were of ferries and other boats rushing to the plane to take the passengers off the wings. No one was hurt. People said it was a miracle!

Wright disagrees. He says that a life that is in tune with the gospel of grace, a life full of, in his terms, “virtue,” doesn’t just happen. For years, Captain Sullenberger had flown in many different situations, and his choices that day above New York were the product of his training. Years of study and experience had given him a “renewed mind.” Wright explains:

Virtue is what happens when someone has made a thousand small choices requiring effort and concentration to do something which is good and right, but which doesn’t come naturally. And then, on the thousand and first time, when it really matters, they find that they do what’s required automatically. Virtue is what happens when wise and courageous choices become second nature.

Attending church is a good thing. Reading the Bible is also a good thing. So are prayer and giving and serving. But an hour or so a week does little to combat the powerful onslaught of lies and half-truths we’re subjected to every day. And even doing these things isn’t productive, if our assumptions are that doing more religious activities is the answer to every spiritual problem. We need to see the drastic contrasts: light and darkness, virtue and selfishness, humility and pride—and see the negative factors in our hearts so we’ll say, “God forbid!” and feast our minds on the marvelous truths of the gospel of Jesus.

The truth that we died with Christ when He was on the cross adds another dimension to our understanding of the upside-down kingdom: the way up is down, the way to have power is to serve, the way to honor is humility, the last shall be first and the first last, and the way to experience real life is to recognize we’ve already died in Him. These concepts are affronts to our cultural hopes and expectations, but this is the way of the cross … this is the way of Jesus.

 

 

This article was extracted from Issue 7 (Fall 2021) of the AVAIL Journal. Claim your free annual subscription here.

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