At the Knowing Christ conference last week John Ortberg offered a wonderful metaphor for the process of spiritual formation in which he tells of an experience he had sometime ago.
He was at a "ropes course" where they have you do things 20 and 30 feet in the air, with no visible support other than a few ropes. Prior to getting on the course, they had an orientation in which everyone tried on the harness that is designed to prevent them from getting hurt while they are up on the ropes. It was a good orientation. Everyone understood it well. But when he got up there and tried to move forward, everything in his body told him he was in danger! Apparently, his body did not get the memo. To his own amazement, he was terrified.
This is a perfect example of why education alone cannot change us. No matter how true, or how relevant, information alone will not alter those things that we have formed into our body from life experience. We can internalize all sorts of things that cannot be resolved by either an act of the will or by gathering more data. We can harbor fears, self-hate, disgust for certain groups of people, contemptuous attitudes … the list is endless. And no matter how hard we try, or how much we wish we did not feel that way, these things do not go away.
What's more, willful repentance is often as ineffective as any other act of the will in these areas. We cannot talk ourselves out of things we learned by experience or things we internalized in highly charged moments of life. When we are malformed in some area, we need a lot more than willpower to re-form or renew our mind. Trying to rely on traditional forms of repentance to drive our spiritual life is an exercise in futility. Because our minds are not wired that way. It won't work, any more than you can tell your body to stop shaking when you are on the ropes. That is why Christian formation makes so much difference in the lives of those who learn how to practice the way of Christ.