Behavior Modification and the Christian Life

I’ve been processing this post in my mind for over five years now. Just so you know… my headspace is not for the faint of heart. I’m a lover of systematic theology and live for the tension often times found in the collision of sound doctrine and consuming grace. I believe in willful obedience, but get a little nervous when a true desire for seeking righteousness becomes nothing more than hollowed-out, white-washed behavior modification. Today, I’m going to dive into the deep-end on this one… and give you a preview of what Searching for Jesus in America will be like once we hit the road.

When we were church planting in Rhode Island, I had the privilege of discipling two young women. I would meet with them about once a week, simply talking about Jesus while reading through the gospel of John. They had so many questions and I had so few answers, but if nothing else, during that season of life, I learned that being a good teacher of God’s Word meant being a better student of God’s Word. Every week, I walked away with more homework for myself than I actually gave to those women. But, I LOVED every minute of it… until the subject of sin, more accurately “right living” entered the picture.

One of the women was a divorced mom embarking on a new relationship with a man who had invited her to church. Both had been raised in the Catholic Church and knew basic tenants of the Christian faith, as well as the traditional liturgy of the Catholic faith, but the concept of living your entire life for Jesus offered a mixture of excitement, intrigue and dread… a 100% accurate assessment in my humble opinion! Each week she brought a list of questions about the passages of scriptures she was reading, but as the weeks progressed, she also started bringing a list of questions about her life that she wanted me to answer. Some of them were easy: What does quiet time look like? How do I create a reading plan? Others were more difficult: How do I discipline my kids? How do I talk to family that doesn’t support my faith? And then there were some that didn’t sit right with me from the moment they left her lips: Can I still live with my boyfriend? Can I still watch certain movies and listen to certain music?

During the next few weeks, I notice a substantial lack of zeal and enthusiasm in our conversations. When pressed, she initially shrugged it off, but after some persistence on my part she shared what was bothering her. You see, while I was meeting with her every week, her boyfriend was also meeting with someone from the church. In their conversations, it was revealed that the two of them were living together. Her boyfriend was told that if they were going to take their faith seriously, then someone needed to move out… or they needed to get married. There are two things I still remember about that moment to this day: #1 How distraught this woman was; #2 How much I wanted to vomit in that moment.

I began to have flashbacks. Once I had a pastor list off a slew of musicians, many with cds taking up residence in my car, only to inform the congregation of our need to throw them away and repent for our vile taste in ungodly music. (Sorry, pastor, but The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill will NEVER see my trash can and the suggestion of such borders on insanity in my book!) Or there was the time I found myself facing the daunting reality of an unplanned pregnancy… and then asked to leave the church because I obviously wasn’t serious about my faith. Or the time two pastors’ wives told my friend that those who are “truly” saved pray in tongues… they also told her that if someone’s faith is real then they would never get cancer. I could go on… unfortunately. False doctrine is a real thing. But, in this particular situation, we were dealing with something else, something not so “black and white” (And just so you know… I laughed out loud when I typed that last statement. The Church has more “shades of grey” than the women in their congregations with books touting the same title… which, ironically, reinforces the point I’m trying to make!)

The concepts of obedience and behavior modification have always been melded together in my brain. I’ve heard people use them interchangeably. I’ve heard some say obedience is about teaching someone to do something and behavior modification is about teaching them NOT to do something. I’m sure there are dissertations written about the subject. But, for the sake of this post, here’s where I’m landing: Obedience is about choosing righteousness when our heart wants otherwise. It’s about trusting God’s best for us, even when we don’t want to. Behavior modification is about changing our behaviors in hopes of obtaining a desired outcome. I think about my kids acting all nice to one another so they can get ice cream for dessert, but once the bowl is licked clean, the boxing gloves are back on. With obedience, we have to deal with the heart…. maybe we could say obedience is behavior modification paired with a heavy amount of hope and prayer for the Lord to change our hearts in the waiting. It sounds good in theory, right? But what about in practice?

I remember sitting in front of those “ungodly” cds, staring at my adolescents, wondering what was so bad about a teenaged boy band or an R and B artist whose passion for social justice challenged my own set of beliefs. I remember looking through the music and coming to a very important conclusion: I could throw out the music, but it would cause me to become resentful. Why? Because I was modifying my behavior to please a pastor… not because I WANTED to please Jesus. I would’ve been reacting to another man’s conviction and not my own. I remember sitting on my floor and asking the Lord to change my heart and to convict me of my sin… if He didn’t want me to listen to this music (to read that book, to watch these shows), then I wanted Him to open my eyes to why. And guess what? He did.

I shared my experience with the woman and she left hopeful. But, unfortunately, the couple eventually left the church. I know her boyfriend didn’t receive the same advice. I know the weight of feeling like she couldn’t live up to the expectations of others was too much to bear… even if the expectation was only in her mind. I know I should have done more to advocate for her. I should have advocated for grace. There aren’t too many things I regret doing over the past six years, but this is one of them. I fight for truth, but I also need to staunchly advocate for grace… and pray for God to soften hearts and open eyes. Mine included. I’m quick to remind myself that we all fall short (Rom. 3:23), and that telling someone to “fix” their sin is so easy when it’s not something I battle. We need to push one another on to good works, but we also need to love one another well and pray for the conviction of the Holy Spirit to rest on all of us as we live out our testimonies in this world. (And just for the record… I still own The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Now and FOREVER!)

2 thoughts on “Behavior Modification and the Christian Life

  1. Good stuff D, I wonder what advice and direction you would have given to this couple. Just curious if your advice then and now would be different or the same?


    1. I definitely would have asked them to sit down with me and Jamie to talk. Sharing our testimonies is the most powerful tool we have. I would have also given them additional resources that I felt would have been helpful. I actually just heard a really great sermon from McLean Bible Church that addressed this issue. But I also would have made sure that I was on the same page with the person meeting with her boyfriend. So much can get lost when the people offering counsel are coming at th issue from different places. And I would have prayed a whole lot more. A WHOLE lot more! With them, with others, by myself.


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