May 11, 2016

Behavior Modification vs. Repentance

by Eric Davis

Oftentimes problems with the fruit on a tree are not because of problems with the fruit on the tree. Below the soil’s surface, there is usually a sickness present. Things like fungus, poor nutrient content in the soil, insufficient watering, and pests can plague the roots and subsequently damage the tree. So goes the root, so goes the fruit. Neglect the root, neglect the fruit.

Imagine an orchardist who addressed sickly trees by only addressing the fruit. He approaches the sickly lemon tree, puts up his ladder, and inspects the lemons. Some of the lemons are flaccid, some shrunken, and others cracked open and rotten. Then, imagine, that he breaks out a syringe with store-bought lemon juice and injects the emaciated lemons to fill them out a bit. To repair the sickly, split lemons, he breaks out some band-aids and closes up those holes. Finally, he notices some fruitless branches. So, he breaks out his duct-tape and tapes some nice-looking, store-bought lemons to the branches. He steps back and notices that, for the moment, the tree looks fruitful. For the moment.

Often in our lives, we approach personal change and sanctification like that orchardist.

We observe an absence of healthy fruit or a presence of sickly fruit in our thoughts, words, and actions. So, we break out insufficient solutions like the syringe, band-aids, and duct-tape, and get to work. The presence of effort gives a feelings of productivity. “Well, I feel like I’m doing something about my life, so it must be good.” Lots of injecting, patching, and DSC02645taping going on. But too often, the real problem festers beneath. The roots of our heart remain unexposed, unaddressed, and unchanged. The injected fruit wilt, the patched fruit burst, and the taped fruit fall.

“For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks” (Matt. 12:34).

Jesus knows a few things about humanity and the nature of personal change. The source of our thoughts, words, and behavior is not our bad day, lack of sleep, missing our workout, environmental conditions, or other circumstances ultimately. Sure, these things might make things harder. But the origin of what we do is our hearts (cf. Jas 4:1-2). So, if we are going to truly change, it needs to start there. Matthew Henry wrote, “Unless the heart be transformed, the life will never be thoroughly reformed.”

God’s Desire for Our Hearts

When Scripture refers to the heart, it refers to the inner being. It is man’s control center; the center of worship, motivation, desire, and the will.

God’s concern for the heart is no secret:

“But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘…God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart’” (1 Sam. 16:7).

 Watch over your heart with all diligence, for from it flow the springs of life” (Prov. 4:23).

 The good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth what is good; and the evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth what is evil; for his mouth speaks from that which fills his heart” (Luke 6:45).

 “This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far away from Me” (Matt. 15:8).

 And, the greatest thing God wants humanity to do involves the heart: “And He said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind’” (Matt. 22:37). 

God’s concern is the condition of the heart. Most of us would nod an affirming, “Obviously.” But, it’s easy to remain in the spiritual shallows when it comes to approaching the things of God and the process of change; to go no deeper than the fruit-level. But, working out our salvation with fear and trembling involves nothing less than plunging the depths of our control center. We need to take an approach to life that involves more than injecting and patching fruit.


God’s desire for our heart indicates a need, by his grace, to discern and deal our heart. Within the heart can occur things like trickery, deception, and idolatry. It’s not always easy to discern. “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Prov. 20:5). For this reason, the Holy Spirit, received by faith in Christ, is an immense blessing, as he illumines, mortifies, and renews what we otherwise could not.

Even so, our need is to discern the difference between change which addresses the external behavior and that which addresses the internal motivations; the difference between patching fruit, and addressing the root. In other words, we need to approach change in a way that seeks to repent at the heart level, as opposed to merely shuffling fruit at the behavioral level, AKA “behavior modification.”

Differences Between Behavior Modification and Sanctification

The difference between behavior modification and sanctification is one of false and true change. Apart from Holy Spirit-enabled repentance, we can only modify behavior and are unable to reform the heart/worship. The Pharisees were an extreme form of behavior modifiers:

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside they are full of robbery and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee, first clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, so that the outside of it may become clean also. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. So you, too, outwardly appear righteous to men, but inwardly you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matt. 23:25–28).

But we need not be Pharisees to commit the error of fruit-patching. Even Christians can approach change this way. And the consequences of doing so are not insignificant.

For example, even for the Christian, behavior modification can have consequences such as:

  • clean the inside

    Our hearts remain unchanged.

  • We become skilled at adjusting behavior, but not our hearts.
  • We become practiced in surface skills though heart idols remain unthreatened.
  • With adjusted behavior, we can possess external morality pleasing to people, but maintain internal idolatry displeasing to God.
  • We can appear to change, but continue worshiping idols of self, approval, and morality.
  • We risk changing for the approval of men.
  • Loving God with all our hearts is not the motivation for our thinking, doing, and speaking.

However, when we repent by the Holy Spirit, change, though, perhaps, not always looking drastically different on the surface, is so at the heart level. Repentance involves a godly contrition over both the root and fruit of sin, a changing of the heart from the idol to God, with corresponding external renewal (2 Cor. 7:9-11). In repentance:

  • Our hearts are changed.
  • We become skilled at discerning deceit in the heart.
  • We become practiced in identifying and exposing oftentimes hard-to-see idolatry fueling our sin.
  • We will be both externally and internally pleasing to God.
  • Idolatry is exposed and eradicated, whether or not we appear pleasing to people.
  • We increasingly possess internal christlikeness, acceptable to God.
  • We change at the level of worship, which God sees.
  • Loving God is the motivation for our thinking, doing, and speaking.

And there are potential consequences of addressing behavior and not addressing heart-worship through repentance:

  • Christian spirituality is confined to external actions.
  • People approve of my social skills/reform while I remain proud and unchanged at heart.
  • A low and improper view of sanctification. Since my focus is on the externals, once I get those adjusted a bit, I can be deceived into de-emphasizing sanctification.
  • Deceived in thinking that I have mostly arrived in my spiritual walk.
  • Three Tree DiagramSeeing little need for God’s means of grace (e.g. the local church, preaching, teaching, accountability, membership, discipleship, Scripture study, prayer, the one anothers, reproof).
  • False perception of spiritual maturity.
  • Missing out on communion with God, in things like his love by the Spirit in revealing my sin, showing me that underneath all sin is the act/state of idolatry and violation the greatest commandment; communion in confessing sin with broken and comforted assurance to my accepting, loving Father; communion of experiencing renewed heart change; the Spirit’s communion in producing a new humility and joy over the extraordinary mercy of God in sending Christ to propitiate his wrath for, not just one, but every act of idolatry fueling all my sin.

So, discernment is needed in approaching personal change. Am I a fruit-patcher, or a root-hacker? To discern whether we are taking an unbiblical, behavior modification approach or a biblical repentance approach, we could ask ourselves a few questions:

  • What did I discern as the surface, presenting problem?
  • What did I discern as the root, fueling problem?
  • How am I addressing the problem?
  • What am I assuming will cure the problem?
  • By my approach to the problem, what am I saying is the “chief end of man”?
  • What will be the outcome of this approach to the problem?

These questions will helps us get beneath the fruit in our lives. Below our thoughts, words, and actions, we have corresponding, controlling desires. If our controlling desire, for example, is people’s praise, we will punish whatever hinders it and praise whatever helps it. If we worship having a big church, we will pursue whatever accomplishes that, and flee whatever does not. If our idol is respect from our spouse, we will punish when it’s absent, and praise when present. If we worship comfort and ease, we will praise God when we get it, and complain when we don’t. We must learn to deal with the worship and not merely actions.

Example of Behavior Modification vs. Repentance

Consider an individual who is a Christian and in a normal struggle with complaining in the midst of the everyday grind. He has an unthankful attitude, shown in grumbling about how busy and bogged-down he feels throughout the week. Compounding the problem, he feels as if his spouse and employer do not respect him.

Suppose he approaches change by behavior modification. He thinks to himself, “I should be more thankful. Thankfulness produces good results in my life and the Bible commands us to be thankful.” So, he takes the following approach:

  • Makes a list of things for which he is thankful.
  • Listens to more upbeat Christian music that week.
  • Does a fun activity/hobby with friends one afternoon to feel happy.
  • Asks the church music director to play more cheery, less “dry, doctrinal” music.
  • Searches internet for topical sermons on joy and gratitude.
  • Memorizes Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
  • Takes someone to lunch once/week to “get busy serving.”

idolatry072510Now, some of these things are good. However, his approach to change does nothing to address his heart. He is duct-taping nice lemons to a tree with sick roots. He has only addressed the fruit of unthankfulness, leaving the root unchanged. In answering some of the aforementioned questions, he discerns that his root problem is unthankfulness and lack of joy. He assumes a presence of joy will cure it. And he, in effect, supposes that the chief end of man is to feel joyful. He worships the lord his “joyful feelings” with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength. He does all things for the glory of joy. He is in idolatry. Now, he will experience some happy feelings for a time due to the activity of fruit-patching, but if he does not expose and eradicate erroneous worship of the heart, he will only become a more clever and deceived idolater. Like the Pharisee, he risks merely scrubbing the outside of the cup.

Now suppose he approaches his unthankfulness by addressing the heart/worship. Here’s what that could look like:

  • Responds to unthankfulness with prayer and time in the word for discernment of the presenting problem of unthankfulness (i.e. the life situations to which the heart is responding unthankfully).
  • Discerns a lust for comfort, hassle-free circumstances, more sleep, and relaxation—things which are not bad, but should not be gods. They are also things which God has not promised this side of heaven.
  • Confesses idolatry to God; making a god out of ease, comfort, relaxing, and a non-busy schedule. Asks God’s forgiveness.
  • Seeks out individuals who have witnessed the unthankfulness; asks forgiveness.
  • Preaches to self that what would be fair is not an easy schedule, non-busyness, and relaxation, but enduring God’s righteous wrath in hell for eternity.
  • Recalls and rests in Christ’s sacrificial, atoning death for his unthankfulness and fueling idolatry, rejoicing that there is no condemnation in Christ.
  • Makes a thankfulness list.
  • Memorizes Rom 8:28, 32.

Approaching change this way traces the fruit to the corresponding, sickly root. The fruit-making worship is discerned and repented of, with the result being true change.

More could be said about sanctification as it pertains to the heart and repentance. Behavior modification doesn’t require Christ and the Spirit, but repentance does. Through biblical repentance, we experience the grace and love of God in the exposing and eradicating of, not only the external sins, but internal ones. In doing so, God’s grace heals the roots of idolatry to worship and love him afresh. Consequently, we experience fellowship with him from the heart, and the accompanying real, supernatural work of sanctification.

“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Ps. 51:17).

 “’Rend your hearts and not your garments.’ Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:13).

Eric Davis

Posts Twitter

Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
  • Jane Hildebrand

    This was wonderful. So much to take away and ponder. Thank you for helping us grow in our sanctification. So grateful.

    • Eric Davis

      Glad it was helpful Jane. Praise God

  • Creighton Ring

    The analogy in the beginning and the example at the end was especially helpful. Praise God for the clarity of His word and His work in the beauty of truly repentant heart!

    • Eric Davis

      Praise God, indeed, Creighton. Thanks

  • kevin2184

    This was excellent Eric. Really helpful. Thanks so much for posting it.

    • Eric Davis

      Glad it was helpful, Kevin. Hope you are well

  • Pingback: Behavior Modification vs. Repentance | Community Fellowship Church()

  • Di Vo

    Helpful not to minimize our sins and shortcomings but to deroot that bad fruit through a biblical model for heart change to repentance and not penance….. Thanks be to God for clarity on living out the biblical process in true heart change to honor God with our lives.

  • Jason

    Once, while listening to the radio, I heard a speaker challenge his listeners to consider their sin and claimed that in every case they’ll find that they aren’t trusting God’s goodness in that area of their life. It has been true so far in my life.

    That realization was very humbling (my sins were ultimately me trying to one-up God, oh the folly!) and also very helpful in my maturing, because it reminded me to look for a more proper desire and perspective instead of just trying to will away the bad behaviors.

  • Tim Von Hatten

    Very good read, I was in a secular recovery program for 5yrs before realizing it wasn’t lining up with my faith so I switched to Celebrate Recovery, I still have some questions about the gospel centrality of it. My church really engages us in discipleship and leads us to personal repentance. I became a Christian Recovery and I don’t necessarily know which program or even when my heart began to change I just know that it has. Since leaving the homeless shelter after 21yrs of addiction I’ve had new idols pop up like a career, marriage and church membership, however I do feel like Jesus has been and is the only way and hope for me. I really appreciate this article. It’s hard to describe the difference between repentance and behavior modification when confronted by friends in recovery who aren’t believers and I don’t try and pick that fight, but it does come up. Please say prayer for my boldness when sharing the gospel with them as the only way. Thanks again!!

    • Eric Davis

      Hi Tom, thank you for the feedback and for sharing your testimony. Praise God for what he has done in your life! Great to hear.

      A few months back we did a brief review on Celebrate Recovery. If interested, here are the links to those articles:

      And I will pray for you, brother. Press on

      • Tim Von Hatten

        Yes! I read them!! They were both so good!! My pastor actually sent the first one to me. It really affirmed my experience in the CR fellowship and questions I had been asking my church and other people I knew. I figure if Augustine can change without acrostics we can too!! 🙂

        I’m reading Ed T Welch’s A Banquet in the Grave and Paul Tripp’s Instruments in the Hands of the Redeemer. Any brief comments on those two books or authors? Can you think of any other books along those same lines?

        • Eric Davis

          Both of those are great reads, in my opinion. I would also recommend reading Lundsgard’s, “The Enemy Within,” “The Mortification of Sin,” by John Owen, and “An Infinite Journey,” by Andrew Davis.

  • Paul Abeyta

    Thank you for this. Really explained well and clearly.

  • Sola Scriptura

    What an outstanding article. Christian psychobabble is the same as secular psychobabble. My family and I have been through an outrageous amount of “christian” counseling with zero results. As Isaiah said so beautifully, In repentance in rest is our salvation. In quietness and trust is our strength.
    Where I personally found relief from the neuroses that resulted from my sin was in humility and death…and the wise and humble words of Job:

  • Michael Seehusen

    Well said! Thanks for posting this Eric!

  • J

    This article helped me more than you can know.
    But I still have a problem and I don’t really have any idea what to do about it.

    I feel like I have this “idol”: the ideal of getting myself to heaven.

    Is my “Christianity” selfish? I don’t understand how I can consciously tell the difference between loving God and doing everything for Him against “loving” God and doing the things and BELIEVING the things He desires from us **with the self-interested goal of getting myself to heaven.**

    I’ve prayed; I just did, and admitted and explained how I’m feeling right now about this. I feel really ashamed just thinking about this in fact, but again I don’t know how to explain this and it’s bothering me so much. I had to end it on a lost note.

    A little more concisely–I want to make sure this can be understood: I can’t convince myself that I’m not **really** doing things–and BELIEVING things–for **me**. I feel like my Christianity is hypocrisy, and is just me selfishly doing whatever it takes to get to heaven. The prayer, the humility, the love and care I have for my closest friends and family–I don’t know how to be sure that it’s valid. …Does this validity matter?

    • J

      to follow up on this (because I had done some searches but couldn’t find something that described how I feel and of course found a good one after submitting 🙂 ) This post @ HuffPost Religion explains how I’m feeling–it’s a selfish “spiritual investment” or just fear of Hell.

      This writer proposes that it the validity I just asked about does NOT matter and it’s not right to be obsessed with “saved” status in the first place. God will work it out the way He has planned, and meanwhile I’ll do what He commands us not because I want to get to heaven but truly because it’s what He has commanded.

    • Eric Davis

      Hi J –

      Sounds like you are having a struggle which so many have had. If I understood you correctly, this is not something new or unique to you.

      My encouragement would be to marinate your mind in the word of God. It almost sounds like you may be meditating too much on yourself, to the detriment of Christ and his word. So, if I were you, I would start by getting out of myself and doing something like reading through Colossians and 1 John every day (maybe alternating days) for a few weeks to a month. I would take some notes as I go, observing what the passage is teaching about God, who he is, and what he has done. In doing so, I would also take a few minutes or so to respond in prayer to what I read, thanking God for who he is and asking for help to apply what I read. Hope that helps, J. I will pray for you as well.

  • Pingback: Just In Case You Missed It – May 9-14, 2016 – Worldly Saints()

  • Kim Armstrong

    I’ve read and re-read and read again….. so much packed in this post. I shared with my Sunday School parents ….Hope they read this and are impacted as well.
    Thank you for sharing! Very convicting!! I’m examining my fruit…..

  • Pingback: Weekly Web (W)roundup - Porn Addiction Resources()