It seemed so obvious.
Recently, I was reading a book that noted that many new Christians enter the church having long-standing impaired maturity and relational skills. The author then wrote, “Simple conversion does not provide the missing brain skills they need for healthy relationships, any more than salvation will make them suddenly literate.” I had a mild jolt when I saw that point put so bluntly.
I am constantly disappointed in my own — and others’ — bad treatment of each other. We often fall so short of Jesus’ intention for our interpersonal behaviors. Reflexively, I thought the answer was to have “more of Jesus” –that it was purely a spiritual problem. But this author was pointing out that in the same way I wouldn’t expect to be a better reader simply by praying for that to happen, I cannot get “missing brain skills” just by spending time with Jesus. I need those proficiencies taught to me through mentoring, training and other learning experiences.
Salvation brings many gifts, but instant Christlike behavior is not one of them. Just as people have to be taught to read, they have to be taught emotional intelligence, interpersonal maturity, and good communication patterns.
That certainly fits my experience. Becoming a Christian changed my life profoundly when I was 16 years old, but the past 50 years of my Christian experience have been the real story of transformation with regard to relationships — not the first 50 days. Whatever changes may have happened overnight, the deepest work has taken decades.
The author’s statement also made me realize I will have to accept that virtually every Christian I’ve ever known will quite likely look very un-Christlike in their social interactions even after being saved. I must also be sensitive that they will need very specific help and training to look more like Jesus — it’s not just a matter of them “trying harder.” Skills are missing. And those skills need to be learned.
I can make instant oatmeal, but I can’t make an instant better me.
So that means if I was an impatient, opinionated jerk before my conversion, I’ll probably act like an impatient, opinionated jerk for a while afterward. I’ll probably make the same relational mistakes even though I’m trying to follow Jesus. I will likely express the wrong political views (according to Christians on the other side, anyway) even though I am sincerely trying to line up my beliefs with Scripture. I would hope the conviction of the Holy Spirit will begin to make me uncomfortable when I mistreat people and the teachings of Jesus will convict me of my immaturities. Yet none of that is any guarantee I will behave like Jesus right after I accept him in my life — or even for a while afterward. I need training, not just trying.
The Apostle Paul agrees that maturity happens over time through training. In 1 Timothy 4:7, he writes, “…train yourself to be godly” — the operative word being “train” (not try). In 1 Corinthians 9:25, he says, “Any man who enters an athletic contest goes into strict training to win a wreath that will soon wither; but we do it [that is, train ourselves] so we can compete for one that will never wither.” And the writer of Hebrews says solid food is “…for those whose senses have been trained to distinguish between good and evil” (Hebrews 5:14) — obviously a process of training, not a one-time event.
Fast forward to a few days ago. I was having a discussion with my pastor about the process of healing our emotional wounds. It occurred to me that while I could point to many New Testament examples of Jesus giving someone miraculous, sudden and complete physical healing, I couldn’t think of a single example where Jesus “healed” someone’s character immediately. Bodies can be instantly restored, but Jesus’ only method employed to change character was gradual.
The disciples were a perfect example. What was his plan to develop them into the leaders he wanted them to be? Was it to grant them instantaneous perfect character? Hardly. His strategy with them was to spend years — years — having them follow him around, watch him, try to imitate him, get it wrong, be forgiven, and try again. Rinse and repeat, over and over.
Why was that his method, instead of miraculous intervention?
I freely confess I don’t know. As impressive as a physical healing can be, what could be more impressive than instantly breaking an addiction, or suddenly removing a besetting sin pattern, or making a self-centered, defensive person always open to correction and appreciative of criticism?
Think of the person you have the hardest time loving. Would you be more impressed with their runny nose being instantly cured, or them suddenly becoming the most lovable, Christ-like person you ever met?
One exception might be the story of Zacchaeus, and how after one dinner with Jesus, he pledges to return any stolen money. But while that was a pretty impressive change in a short amount of time, we don’t know how long that lasted (did he have any relapse?) or what other areas of his life he still had to work on. I’m sure there must have been more work for him to do. So despite this one apparent “quick-fix”, all of Jesus’ other followers took years to develop their character — and likely never finished that work.
All this tells me we must not get discouraged when we look in the mirror. God is at work in that person, and what’s missing might be a matter of getting some “brain skills” that are lacking. You’ve tried hard enough; now get some training. Find a mentor. Get in a small group. Practice some new relational patterns, and don’t get bogged down with your setbacks.
Oatmeal simmered overnight is actually a lot tastier than the instant kind. The version of you God is making over time is going to be way better than if he microwaved your character.
By Judson Poling
Judson met Greg Huston (The Crucible Project’s founder) in 2002 and staffed his first initial weekend the following spring. Judson is a founding board member of The Crucible Project and co-developer of The Crucible Project’s four second-level weekends. He also served on staff of Willow Creek Community Church for 29 years. Judson is now a best-selling author and President of Cambia Resources, LLC, doing consulting, coaching and freelance writing.
Photo Credit: Ella Olson via Creative Commons