Broken Windows

Someone I’m loosely connected to posted a link to a blog on leadership, specifically a post on self-control. The pared-down version is simply that we need less willpower to maintain self-control when we arrange our lives to need less decision-making exertion – we are more on top of our game when our environments don’t demand that we constantly choose, particularly making difficult choices like, say, turning down that highly attractive doughnut in the break room.

The author of the blog isn’t making any spiritual points at all, and yet I couldn’t help but think that the principle was basically highly applicable to… well, however you want to couch it: spirituality, the Christian life, sanctification, virtuous living, etc.

The reality is that when we’re working to further our relationships with God or battling against sin or whatever, our willpower is pretty darn limited. As I’ve noted before, the theology of try-harder-ism is one doomed to failure. We don’t have it in us to do the right thing, to choose well every time. Even if we claim the power of the Spirit, sometimes we walk away from God or just forget that He’s there and do something foolish. Our wills are busted or at least limited.

And so this blog advises planning your environment so that you aren’t so constantly tempted or put in situations where you’re likely to choose poorly. Not only does this make sense, but in a spiritual sense, people have been doing that for centuries. The Dessert Fathers and Mothers escaped from the city in part to live away from temptation. Monks did the same. The entire city of Geneva was at one point shaped, or at least attempts were made in this direction, to create a Christian environment. I’ve found the same thing is one of the reasons that retreats can be so valuable. It’s easier to focus on things and devote the time to God when you’re not surrounded by opportunities for distraction!

Of course, it’s probably not all that practical for most of us to take up the life of a monk or hermit. That doesn’t change the fact that with some thought, we probably still could shape our environments a bit to give us a bit of a push toward God now and then. The people we’re around, the things we read or watch, the tools of entertainment or work we have nearby – they influence us. Could they be changed or pared down or built up in such a way that would nudge us in a Godward direction?

Of course, one can go too far here! We can push ourselves off a cliff if we’re not careful, deciding that so many things in our lives are pulling us away from God and chopping them off. And then when we don’t have those things, we just end up going a little bonkers and our willpower is sapped dry instantaneously and the absence of what was familiar and comforting drives us to once again do something foolish. To quote Bill Murray, “Baby steps!”

Malcolm Gladwell wrote a piece about fighting crime where he described one technique as the broken windows perspective. The argument was that when the environment was run down with trash and decay such as broken windows, people would be unconsciously tipped to do things they wouldn’t normally do. Fix the broken windows, the argument went, and crime would go down. And it seemed to at least be helpful. The environment affects us.

So what would God say if you spent some time with Him, discussing how to change your environment to draw you closer to Him?

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2 responses

  1. I’ve done just that! Cleaned up my act – so to speak – and become INTENTIONALLY MINDFUL of my surroundings…
    of what’s going on in the home, lives of others… following through on “ought to” and found that I’m far more likely to be with God if I’m active rather than re-active or inactive.

    But I cannot live in a bubble and simply rid my life of modernity.

    Let’s not forget: Will-power (Self-control) is a fruit of the Spirit. Not a byproduct of self, anyways. For example, I can eliminate cable and internet to solve the “wrong things” to be looking at, but lust is the issue… it manifests as boobie-looking…. I’ll only HAVE self-control in the Spirit.

    I don’t smoke anymore. But not because I don’t want to – I do!
    But I want MORE to be a Holy Vessel for God and only Jesus coulda given me that kind of strength.

    I think God is saying to me, something like: Tyler I don’t want you to live without cable and internet so you won’t sin.
    I want you to live with me. Period.
    Now, go watch your cable, and sin no more.

    February 1, 2013 at 4:53 pm

    • Not turning things into an issue of willpower is part of why I tack on the invitation to talk with God about what He thinks about things and not to just dive in and start rearranging your life! But on top of that, what I’m hearing you talk about is rearranging things to help you avoid sin. Yet (unless you’re Wayne Grudem) sanctification is more than just stopping from doing crummy stuff, hence why I mentioned retreat. You said God is inviting you to live with Him; could He be inviting you as well to reshape your environment to make living with Him easier or more natural or habitual?

      February 2, 2013 at 1:58 pm

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