Posts Tagged behavior

What’s So Bad about Moral Improvement?

By Paul Wilkinson

Discussion of moral improvement or behavior modification, so-called, has become taboo or equivalent to a four-letter word in much of contemporary discipleship discussion. Well-meaning comments about how we are after something other than behavior modification or after more than a self-improvement program abound in contemporary discussions of discipleship. I have even made such comments myself. However, in reading Dallas Willard’s The Divine Conspiracy this weekend, I was convicted to qualify such statements against discipleship as moral improvement a bit more than is commonly practiced.
First, the dark side of things that generate anti-moral improvement comments. I’m sure we all know of individuals who were brought to church as kids in order to get some morals. Many of us attended, perhaps endured, countless Sunday School lessons on the don’ts: don’t hangout with those sorts of kids, don’t do those sorts of things, don’t be out past such and such an hour, etc. And, if we were to faithfully avoid the don’ts, then we could consider ourselves disciples. Oh, how much more our Lord wants for us! This mentality which generally minimizes our evangelistic opportunities and places us in prime context for a self-absorbed faith is rightly condemned by contemporary, and ancient, disciplers.
Nevertheless, we follow a Lord who said, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect,” (Matthew 5:48) and, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of God,” (Matthew 5:20) and follow the teaching of Peter who quotes Leviticus, “Be holy, as I am holy,” (1 Peter 3:16) and the teaching of John, “This is how we are sure that we have come to know Him: by keeping His commands.” (1 John 1:5) Yikes! On my best days I’m still far from perfect, certainly infinitely far from the maximally perfect being!
Clearly, moral behavior matters to our God. After lamenting the 1990’s scene on moral and ethical teaching in the university, Dallas Willard wrote that “there now is no recognized moral knowledge upon which projects of fostering moral development could be based.”[i] In other words, moral behavior or “right and wrong” are not pieces of knowledge; they are more like feelings or mere expressions of the values of a particular community. They are by no means objective truths given to us from outside the physical universe.
I was convicted that if I am not careful when talking about discipleship as distinct from moral development and behavior modification, then I will be in precisely the same boat as these individuals who reject moral truths as candidates for knowledge. Perhaps my blunder was simply selling short the calling of Christian morality, that is, perhaps I sold short the Lord’s majesty as the maximally moral being.
For example, is it moral to knowingly allow people to endure great suffering? If the answer is no, which it is, then it is immoral to not evangelize. Is it moral to have the ability to help someone mature in their faith but to refuse because of concern for our own wants? If the answer is no, then it is immoral not to invite along the lost, searching, and maturing. Is it moral to be self-absorbed about what the faith can do for me? If the answer is no, then it is immoral to act as if the entirety of the kingdom of God is about you.
In short, I am arguing that we do not need to avoid moral improvement as a major part of our discipleship. Instead, we need to properly understand morality as the full expression of the words and deeds of Jesus in our day-to-day lives. My new statement, henceforth, will be: moral improvement is God-glorifying and Christ-honoring, and to be moral we must faithfully obey the commands of God, including sharing our faith and discipling the lost, searching, and maturing.
[i]Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (New York: HarperOne, 1997), 3.