Do Rules Help Us Change?

One of the most challenging things about the spiritual life is progression. How do we change? What’s the key to transformation? How do we make and embrace rhythms that will foster the kind of growth we desire (or at least claim to desire). This is a problem for those who explicitly identify as religious and count themselves as members of religious communities and institutions. It’s also a problem for those who would identify as spiritual but not religious. Whether it’s body image and weight issues, general health, overcoming co-dependent tendencies or dealing with deleterious habits, the problem is the same: how do I embrace what I know is good for me, but hard, without being consumed by resentment or just becoming plain exhausted?

Rules tend to not work very well. The problem is that the deepest transformations in our lives come from the inside out, not the other way around. We are creatures of desire and unless we desire the thing that is good for us we’re not likely to pursue it in any deep sustained fashion. You can make a law that prohibits theft or embezzlement, and it might stop someone from stealing, but the avarice or sense of entitlement that create the motivation to steal in the first place remain impervious to legislation. Hence Augustine’s famous prayer: “Lord command what you will and give me the grace to will what you command.”

This passage in Frank Lake’s  Clinincal Theology is instructive here:

When a man becomes related to the law by effort, instead of to the Lawgiver by affiance, related to the ethical demand but trying to satisfy it, instead of to God by trusting the satisfaction of Christ, related to the standards by discipline instead of to the Person by discipleship, he frequently ends up in depression. This is because the law of the Spirit of Life is not to be found in the law of self-effort, self-discipline, or will-power. The spirit of joy is the fruit of a life in loving relationships on the human level, and ultimately with Christ Jesus on the divine. In His concern for the truth of eternity, the Holy Spirit must withdraw Himself and His endowments from the man whose life is centered in regulations, especially religious regulations. Depression, and aridity as one of its cardinal symptoms, is a direct effect of disobedience to God’s law of life through-interpersonal-contact with His creatures.