One of the more ridiculous confessions of my life came not long ago at a professional development meeting. As I sat in a classroom taking notes, my pen stopped working. This annoyance had happened before, so I knew the proper technique to shake the pen, scribble in the corner, and move on. Yet it didn’t work. I tried again, and again, and sat amazed at my inability to make the pen function. By now I had lost all connection with the presentation that was the subject and motivation for which I was trying to repair my pen in first place. So with my mind now 100% on my pen I gave it the necessary attention to realize that the problem was simple: I had run out of ink.
But here is the ridiculous confession I made to a colleague after the presentation: at the age of 34, this was the first time in my life that my pen had run out of ink. I proceeded to confess that my obsessive behavior has led me subconsciously all my life to chew on my pens. Consequently, I have always managed to mangle my pens beyond functionality long before succeeding to run out of ink. As I entered my thirties I began to realize this habit was not only silly, but it was costly! So, slowly and with many failures in between, I have deliberately sought ways to save my pens from the uncompromising and unrelenting tyranny of my teeth. And though I cannot say my pens are devoid of all dental indentations, they are in remarkably good shape, such that I have managed to achieve for the first time the otherwise commonplace problem of running out of ink.
As I sat reflecting on the problem later on, it occurred to me that there was something profound in this mundane occasion. First, my situation speaks to the nature of habits. I had spent so long chewing on my pens that it had become second nature, an action I performed unconsciously. In order to break this habit, I was forced to 1)identify the problem; 2)decide to correct the problem; 3)make conscious and repeated decisions not to chew my pens; and 4)repent when I found myself reverting to my past ways. This four-step process is, I realized, the process of repentance outlined in Scripture, and the repeated conscious decisions are the development of virtue.
But I became aware of something else—although much slower and in a much more culturally acceptable way, my pen still ceased to function. The pen, even when used in the proper way, is not eternal. In the same way, we can change our habits and behaviors in culturally acceptable ways that look like virtue, but unless they are directed to an eternal goal they will, like the pen, meet their end. Our efforts, then, must be directed at an eternal ideal, not a temporal one. That ideal is the God-man, Jesus. As we pattern our lives after Jesus, we will identify our problems, decide to correct them towards our ideal, make conscious and repeated decisions towards that end, and find ourselves in need of frequent repentance. If we will put forth this effort, difficult as it will be, at least our lives, unlike my pen, will never run out of ink.
The reader may be interested to know that I have since run out of ink in a second and third pen, and two more are close to empty as well!
On this topic I highly recommend N. T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters (New York: Harper Collins, 2010).