One of the reasons we have designated February as a month of Reflection is because of the early arrival of Lent, due to the early date of Easter this year. Before we can enter full into the season of Lent we need to reflect. Lent is about repentance which is about change, a change of attitude, mindset, behaviour, etc. So, in our reflection, what causes us to resist change, and sometimes, even have immunity to change?
As a clergyman I am always bound to use examples from the bible, especially the Gospels. While this may seem odd for modern day thinking on this issue, please bear with me. When I encourage us to think and to reflect on this immunity or resistance to change I am not just thinking in spiritual terms, but also in every day terms. What are the things in our lives our everyday lives that we are resistant to or even immune to allow change to occur?
Is it interpersonal relationships? Is it an unhelpful relationship, a toxic relationship, a destructive relationship. Do we relate to our spouse helpfully or unhelpfully? (I recognise they are all similes, just trying to help us drill down to the issue.) Do we engage in recreational drugs, porn, even if its behaviour that only we ourselves engage in? Is it the way we drive our car, I mean in an unhelpful manner, are we always speeding, do we drive intoxicated? How doe we conduct ourselves in business, or the work environment here I am thinking of our exercise of power and authority?
These are really some very simplified examples. In the bible, especially in the Gospels, there is this interplay between love and fear. When I speak of fear in this context, it is not being afraid of something, or someone, though that may be part of the issue. Fear has more to do with resistance to change, because the uncertainty of what might happen once change occurs places the person in a position of uncertainty. This resistance to change because of the uncertainty is so strong that a person is willing to remain in, for example, a destructive relationship because they have a level of knowledge in how to manage the situation, even though it is dangerous to stay in the relationship, and the uncertainty factor is too much to bear and contemplate.
Now this is an extreme example, but I think it demonstrates what I am trying to get at here. While we may not be at this level of fear as in the above example, more often than not we become resistance to change because the dive into the unknown should we decide to change becomes a preventative factor. It inoculates us from the desire to change and we become either resistant or immune to change. Where the behaviour is only about our personal behaviour such as the use of pornography, alcohol and/or drugs the inoculating factor is that in the use of such material and substances we are able to escape who we are, or who we perceive ourselves to be, and the fear of having to face up to that reality is too much to bear.
Jesus’ antidote to fear is love.
One of the problems we have in English is that we only have one word for love. Context is so vital for us to understand what we mean by love. For example, I love my wife, does not necessarily carry all the connotations that saying I love my dog carries. (At least it shouldn’t) I love my parents, but not in the same way I love my siblings. In the Greek language of the New Testament there are three words that are used for love. Eros is used to denote erotic or sexual love. Interestingly, and helpfully it does not carry any negative overtones. It is simply the word that is used to denote sexual desire. It may have negative overtones, but in and of its self it is ethically neutral. Phileo is used to denote filial love that one might have towards a brother or a sister. (I recognise that not all siblings do get on, let alone love one another, but that is the fault of the siblings, not the word!!) Finally Agape is used to denote the pure form of love that is expressed by Paul in 1Corinthians 13. It is always used to express God’s love to us, and sometimes our love to God.
A very good example of where two different words of love are used in the New Testament is in John 21 when Jesus restores Peter after the resurrection. Peter denied knowing Jesus at the High Priest’s house. Jesus, after the resurrection asks Peter, do you Agape me? He replies, you know I Phileo you. Two different words, we have translated in English simply as love, but in the Greek deeply meaningful.
We need to learn how to Agape ourselves and others if we are to overcome this immunity or resistance to change in our lives. We need to learn how to apply agape in relationships where it is appropriate to phileo, and we need to apply agape where it is appropriate to eros.
In the first instance we need to learn how to agape ourselves. We are made in the image and likeness of God, and so we have value and worth. The problem is we often either don’t believe we have this value and worth, or understand it either because of our cultural influences, or social influences. We need to recover this. Next we need to apply agape in our interpersonal relationships. When we truly love ourselves, and we truly love others then we are less likely to be concerned about the consequences of change, because we are confident in ourselves, in our abilities because we are ultimately confident in who we are before God, which is all that matters in the end. We will not be interested in power struggles, trying to trample over others on the way to the top, for we will see other as image bearers of the living God. In issues such as pornography, substance abuse and the like having a sense of worth is the vital first step. Pornography and destructive sexual relationships are where eros has been allowed to run riot like a wild child and it requires agape to give it shape and context to allow eros to be exercised ethically, and helpfully. We will not see others as simply to be used for our pleasure for they have their own dignity and purpose in life. Scott West unpacks this further in his book “The Love that Satisfies.”
Ultimately, if you allow God’s agape to rule in your life as the controlling expression of love towards others two things will occur. God will be at the centre of you life, and as a result of that you will no longer be gripped by a fear of the unknown because of your contentment and assuredness of who you are before God. You will be then more open to change, because fear will no longer be able to inoculate you or give you a resistance to change.
However, be warned. This takes time. It is not simply a case of saying “I open myself to Gods’ agape” and everything is all good. As I have spoken about in other blogs this all takes time, commitment, and a certain amount of discipline. All that I have written before in my other blogs still apply. I myself am still in the process of doing this. I can assure you it takes time and effort, but on refection that just might be about me!!!
Open yourself to the agape of God, allow God to be the centre of your life. Perfect love does indeed cast out fear, and when that happens we are able to change, and then through repentance be transformed in our lives, and conformed more fully to the likeness of God.