Two young brothers seem to enjoy getting on one another’s nerves.
The older brother is bossy. The younger brother is a pest.
The older boy wants some space, but the younger boy keeps poking him with his index finger just to provoke him.
In a sudden burst of rage, the older boy yells, “Stop touching me!” The younger boy, sly and sassy, holds his finger an inch away from the tip his brother’s nose and proclaims, “I’m not touching you!” (For some of the parents among us, this scene is not hard to imagine!)
Has the younger brother done what was asked of him? Technically, yes, he has stopped touching his brother.
But at the same time, he has found a way to disregard his older brother’s intention altogether. Or, we might say that the younger boy’s behavior is compliant but his heart is still being a pest.
Now, the Christian faith teaches that all humans have a propensity to disobey the will of God, and so we fail to reflect God’s character.
It also teaches that this is a problem which must be addressed. But it is possible to obey God like the younger boy obeyed his brother.
It is possible to keep the Ten Commandments, give to the poor, and practice spiritual disciplines, and yet have an inner life that is full of pride, resentment, anger, lust, stinginess, anxiety and dishonesty.
For example, if I never kill anyone but live my life with a perpetual anger or irritability or self-importance, my actions are obedient but my heart is still defiant.
In that case, I am the younger brother saying, “I’m not touching you!” while still being a pest in my heart. I am superficially obedient, but ultimately still resistant to being what God wants me to be.
When humans are righteous with our words and actions but not with our hearts, we experience a fracturing of the self.
Our outer lives and our inner lives are not in alignment. And when our inner and outer lives are in that kind of tension with one another, we are not being fully human.
In order to be fully human, each of us must undergo a transformation of our inner lives.
The question is, how? How does one experience that kind of heart-change?
That question is biased, I know. It suggests that transformation of the inner life is a matter of technique, as though we were dealing with a problem that had a quick and programmatic solution.
The truth is, humans do not have any capacity to deal with our own misalignment of heart and action. If anything is going to change, we will need help from outside of ourselves.
The Bible calls this help “grace.” Grace is a gift from God. More specifically, it is the gift of God’s ongoing work of heart-change. Grace is not merely pardon, but the power to be a new creation.
So I give thanks to God that he is a God of grace. I am thankful he does not merely say, “Thou shalt” or “Thou shalt not,” but also says, “Let me help you.”
Parker Bullard is the Senior Minister of the Poncha Springs Church of Christ.