My Pastoral Theology professor was a sage: proverbial sayings, experience, the “look” – he had it all. The only Anglo-Catholic priest at my evangelical Episcopal seminary, he was the least likely source of radical grace.
Surrounded by young seminarians eager to change the world, he would drop adages like “people can’t hear you until they’re moving towards you.” Not exactly words of encouragement to young women and men looking for immediate results. (But maybe everything we need to hear in our current political climate.)
Another of his sayings that seems particularly appropriate for Advent was “dormant faith is not awakened by telling people to have more faith.” In this season, when we rightly heed John the Baptist’s call to repent, I think the truth of my professor’s adage will save us from a lot of disillusionment. Yes, we preach about the need for personal and corporate repentance, but if this were the only word to say, well, we’d be giving a whole lot of unheeded ultimatums.
I think the truth of this adage applies to more than just preachers. No one goes to AA because their spouse nags them to go. No daughter stops loving her boyfriend because her father thinks he’s bad news. Just think of the last time someone tried to fix you.
Which leads me to yet another of my professor’s popular sayings, “If you fix someone’s problem for them they’ll resent you for it.” We see the reality of this truth illustrated in a scene from The Brothers Karamazov. Alyosha is trying to help the cowardly Captain Snegiryov feed his family. (A noble goal, indeed.) He goes so far as to present the solution to the problem completely free of charge. After initially accepting Alyosha’s money with joy and gladness, Snegiryov ultimately throws it on the ground and stamps it into the dirt. While he knew his problem was fixed, he couldn’t bear the fact that he couldn’t solve it on his own.
All of this demonstrates that people don’t change because you tell them to ‘repent’. They have to come to the solution on their own. At least, they have to feel like they’ve come to it on their own. In reality, what these adages show is that the people who we love the most need a power from outside of themselves to bring them to repentance. Constant criticism and lectures — the very tools we think will change the ones we love — have no power to bring about their desired ends. In fact, these tools often make things worse. So, more than repentance, the message of Advent is this: neither you nor the ones you love can “just do it,” we need a savior, better yet, a warrior, who “raises the dead, and calls into existence the things that do not exist.” (Rom. [4:17])
Come Lord Jesus!
Ben DeHart is the Associate Rector at Calvary – St. George’s Church in New York City.