May 20, 2010
by Patrick Lafferty
Love does not. . . boast. It is not arrogant or rude.
1 Corinthians 13:4–5
According to Wolfram Alpha this morning, life expectancy for the average American is 77.9 years. Compared to 1935, that represents an astounding increase of over 15 years, or nearly 25 percent.
We’re probably aware of some of what accounts for the change: seat belts and reflective tape, improved regulation of risky activities, access to healthier food and cleaner water.
And, of course, medical advances. Two in particular: more sophisticated diagnostic tools and more robust forms of treatment. The success of the latter is contingent mostly on what the former seeks: early detection. Even the most devastating diseases have significantly improved potential for cure the closer to onset they are recognized—before they have had time to ravage their hosts.
Though our souls are the immaterial complement to our material bodies, they operate in much the same way. The maladies that afflict them are most profitably treated when detected early.
We heard Sunday what stands opposed to love. We considered not only the offense of love’s absence, but also its cost. Left unchecked, the boastfulness and rudeness born of arrogance will metastasize and consume us like a cancer. Too often, though, the effects spread beyond us into the lives of those we love.
What, then, facilitates early detection? And what can be applied to effect a cure?
We mentioned Sunday a regular practice of reflection, oriented toward the question “Is love our priority?” Over the centuries those who’ve taken an interest in seeing Christ formed (Gal. 4:19) in those they serve have created their own diagnostic tools: questions that get to the heart of the heart. Maybe you’ve heard of Donald Whitney’s Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health; or, even more recently, David Powlison’s thirty-five “X-Ray Questions.”
John Wesley formulated a set of questions he considered crucial to growth in what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. It was his practice to enter a time of stillness at the close of each day and ask himself questions like these:
- Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
- Do I insist upon doing something about which my conscience is uneasy?
- When did I last speak to someone about my faith?
- Is there anyone whom I fear, dislike, disown, criticize, hold resentment toward or disregard? If so, what am I going to do about it?
These questions don’t address a to-do list of behaviors. They serve as a barometer of our heart.
Our hearts have great potential for operating in a precisely opposite fashion to the character of God. Yet our lifestyles most often reserve precious little time for patient, prayerful consideration of our own hearts. Submission to questions like Wesley’s provides the diagnostic tool for detecting what is insidious in our hearts.
But as both doctor and pastor will tell you, early detection is only helpful if the proper treatment is applied. It’s a misunderstanding of the nature of the gospel to think of it as an immunization that you only administer once. Even after the Spirit of God persuades and enables me to believe and embrace the gospel (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 31), I have to rehearse at every turn what is true of the gospel. Every time I discover there is someone I “fear, dislike, disown, criticize, or hold resentment toward,” I have to come back to what’s true in the gospel to keep the absence of love each of those things represents from incapacitating my soul.
Two caveats are in order, though. With all due respect to John Wesley, the last question of his soul survey leaves the impression that the solution to my lovelessness is found in my own will to conform. Seeing the lack of conformity will necessarily motivate me to alleviate the disparity, so it seems. On the contrary, only by meditating on what Christ has done shall I find the will to do what I must. His love disconfirms my reasons to be afraid. His kindness to me weakens the urge to protect myself against another’s unkindness by criticizing or resenting.
Second, while we’re called to account for our own heart, our nature always requires the observation of others to get a clearer view of its condition. The diagnostic questions may yield great insight, but without the loving insights of others, we depend too much on the very faculties in need of healing.
Only by detecting what is putrid about my soul can I see why it must be and how it can be made pure again. Dosing yourself with the gospel may not necessarily lead to a longer life (Matt. 5:10, 2 Tim. 3:12), but it does promise a truer one. If new health begins with early detection, what’s keeping you from making use of His diagnostic tools?