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Training Our Affections

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     I recently installed Covenant Eyes software on a new work laptop. This is not, by any means, the first computer on which I’ve installed Covenant Eyes, and, given what I know of my own heart, it’s unlikely to be the last. Covenant Eyes—for those of you who are too sanctified to know about it—is an internet accountability software that tracks members’ usage and then reports any questionable activity to designated accountability partners. The idea is, as Paul puts it, to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Rom. 13:14).
     There have been times in the past when I have made provision for the flesh, so here I was again, putting these sadly necessary protections in place. And as I checked the appropriate boxes, and clicked the necessary buttons, and restarted my machine, all the old, familiar, half-accusatory thoughts came slouching through my mind: “This is just a Band-Aid on a laceration; this only deals with the symptom of the problem, not the real disease; this only controls a behavior, it doesn’t address the heart issue.”
       I find a unique breed of despair lurking behind these considerations, largely because of their almost-accuracy. I don’t want to deal with just the symptom, I want to attack the disease itself. I want to get to the root of the problem, not just its surface. Shaping behaviors at such a seemingly surface level feels as Sisyphean as shoveling out the driveway in my newly-adopted Cleveland: The result may look good today, but tomorrow the driveway will just be filled in again. That’s the problem with focusing on behaviors instead of heart affections: The result is nothing more than an outward appearance of righteousness—an appearance that will likely prove to be only temporary, at that.
       So what’s the point? Why bother attacking the behavior at all? Surprisingly, I discovered the answer to this question lying unassumingly under the family Christmas tree last December.

What hath Christmas to do with Covenant Eyes?

     Our modern celebration of Christmas and the protection provided by Covenant Eyes have this in common: their value lies in their potential to shape our affections by reinforcing behaviors. Let me show you what I mean.
     At Christmas we engage in all kinds of positively reinforcing behaviors: we put up festive decorations, we eat special foods, we throw parties, we sing seasonal songs and Christmas carols, and we give one another gifts—all with the particular aim of stimulating joy in our hearts. Of course, many in our world are content to allow that affection to remain vested in those behaviors themselves, which (being a weight too great for the behaviors themselves to bear) tends to spawn a need for ever-greater expressions of the behaviors. This is generally seen in ever-more extravagant, ever-more expensive, and ever-more stressful celebrations, as well as an ever-more devastating sense of post-holiday ennui.
     But such excess is not inherent to the Christmas celebrations themselves. The potential exists for the joy we first learned to experience in our Christmas celebrations, and which was reinforced through those annually repeated behaviors, to be transferred to its proper object: the glory of the incarnation of the Son of God in Jesus Christ. Stimulating our joy through these behaviors at Christmastime is one way we train our affections to recognize their proper object: Our eternally-satisfying God.
     Covenant Eyes works on the same operative principle. In the case of the accountability software, the reinforcement is negative rather than positive—it aims at dissuading from a particular behavior. Just as with our Christmas celebrations, we can choose to be content with the surface-level behavior or we can allow the reinforced behavior to begin the long work of strangling our misplaced affection and thus create space for a proper joy in the Lord. Cutting off our joy in sinful behavior is one way we train our affections to recognize their proper object: Our eternally-satisfying God.

What hath AWANA to do with fasting?

      This same idea lies behind other programs and spiritual disciplines: youth programs like AWANA are sometimes disparaged for incentivizing Bible-memorization with meaningless rewards (patches for uniforms or parties or trophies or public recognition). It is sometimes suggested that this type of artificial incentivization just teaches children to be legalistic—to go through the motions of religious duty for all the wrong reasons. This is a legitimate concern precisely to the extent that a young person’s affections are allowed to remain at the surface level of the program’s meager incentives. But that is not the intent. These programs and their incentives are not designed to be ends in themselves. They are designed to shape the behavior of Bible-memorization. And that behavior has the power to train children’s affections so that they learn to take joy in the Word on account of the God revealed in it.
     The spiritual discipline of fasting has the potential for misuse when it is viewed as nothing more than a demonstration of one’s self-sacrificial spirit, or as a mere religious duty, or as a kind of spiritual hunger-strike to show God how serious we are about some issue. But when it is employed as a means of reshaping our behavior—replacing mindless consumption with mindful restraint—it becomes a strategic reminder that our true sustenance comes not from food but from God. Fasting thus transforms from a dull task-master, ordering us about, into a merciless assassin set on dispatching our misplaced affection for unsatisfying food so that we can begin to feel our deeper hunger for the ultimately-satisfying God.

The fear of legalism must not blind us to the power of discipline.

     The argument against each of the practices I’ve mentioned is the potential for fostering legalism (or, in the case of Christmas celebrations, legalism’s less pious cousin: materialism). The fear is that focusing on outward behaviors will result in a failure to ever focus on anything else. And, indeed, a worldview built on outward behaviors alone is empty and damning. I affirm this truth. Jesus, quoting Isaiah, rebukes the religious leaders of his day for this kind of focus on outward behaviors to the neglect of heart affections, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, ‘This people honors me with their lips but their heart is far from me’” (Mk. 7:6).
       At the same time, as we labor to kindle the fire of our affections, we must never underestimate the power of behavior to act as a bellows to stoke that fire. It is with this reality in mind that Jesus tells his followers,
Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. (Lk. 12:33–34).
Jesus instructs his hearers to engage in an outward behavior (giving money to the needy) as a way of training their hearts. He does not tell them to get their hearts right first, and then to give to the needy. It is the behavior that will train the heart. Behaviors have the power to train our affections.
       So, for the time being, I will keep using Covenant Eyes. And giving Christmas presents to my kids. And sending them to AWANA. And even fasting sometimes. I will keep trusting God to use these disciplines to shape my behaviors, believing that my behaviors will be one of the ways God trains my affections. And I’m looking forward with inexpressible anticipation to the day when all such measures become obsolete in the presence of the One who is my affections’ true Object.

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