Lately, I’ve been thinking about how rhetoric, advertising, and imagery in general can influence our view of the world.
This got me to thinking about the nature of suggestibility and achievement as well as the relationship of false expectations to achievement.
The research on these subjects is pretty vast, so you’ll just have to look it up (I’ll probably post a bibliography in the bottom).
Anyway, suggestibility is the state of being primed to accept an idea without argument or coercion.
In one study, easily suggestible students were told that a cognitive game with no known effects on IQ would increase their intelligence and it did. Teachers typically want students be convinced of inferences through argument but of their abilities through suggestion (arguing a person in a state of self-doubt into a state of confidence is difficult). “Won’t you be able to do this if you try it?” “Imagine yourself as the kind of person who regularly does her homework. Do you like that version of yourself? Try doing your homework.”
In Christianity we are primed to resist temptation based on the believe that our personal history was interrupted, not just in at our conversion or baptism, but miraculously through the life of Jesus Christ. While there are certainly spiritual realities behind all of this, the simple idea of “considering oneself dead to sin” really does help one to resist it on the human level. Research shows time and again that consdering oneself up to a task predicts one’s ability to achieve said task.
On the other hand, having false expectations can be very unhelpful.
For instance, I think that movie montages, commercials, and the concept of diet pills have convinced people (without argument or coercion) that their weightloss and exercise problems can be solved easily and quickly.
But, as every Rocky fan learns, doing 400 pushups after watching Rocky II won’t get you in shape unless you watch the movie every day.
Here’s a problem in evangelical culture, then. The idea of a giant, “Aha!” moment conversion in which one instantly stops sinning, has deep knowledge of God, complete wisdom, and insight into evangelical taboos is a common enough notion. It’s not evident in the way that people treat new Christians usually (although, I ‘ve seen it happen and it isn’t pretty). But it is evident in the way many Christians feel inadequate, not simply because they fall short of God’s glory, but because they look at Paul or Peter’s example in Acts and think their faith must be too small or some such thing, when in fact they are in a process.
So in one case, having the image in mind of being dead to sin can make one less susceptible to temptation. But on the other, expecting the Christian life to identical to that of Jesus or Paul by instant transformation is an expectation that does not match reality.
I think that conversion probably needs to be spoken of in images more akin to what the Christian life actually is:
- The beginning of a life long journey (an exodus?)
- The starting point for the process of naturalization into a new kingdom
- Adoption into a family with little to no knowledge of family customs
- Enrollment in school (discipleship)
Anyway, imagining oneself as one truly is, a person with all the resources available to them that Paul or Peter had is not unwise or unhelpful or untrue (2 Peter 1:3-11). But such imagining must be accompanied by the same thing Paul and Peter did: daily effort. Paul’s apparently instant moral transformation was build upon a lifetime of “exercising to have a clean conscience before both God and man.(Acts 24:16)” This continual state of self-management probably explains Paul’s quick adoption of Christian moral norms. Many people have untrained moral habits upon conversion, so following Christ is a process of learning supernatural and natural virtue all at the same time!