The Principle of Indirection

About a week and a half ago, I began an eight-week Pepsi fast as part of a spiritual disciplines course I’ve been taking at Spring Arbor. I’ll write more about the reasons for the fast and the impact it has on my life once the eight-week practice has finished (updated to add: written here), but I at least wanted to write a short note today about what I’m discovering about the principle of indirection — namely, that it works!

Richard Foster writes about the principle of indirection in an essay included at the beginning of the Renovare Spiritual Formation Bible (which is a great resource, by the way, that I highly recommend). He says:

“We cannot by direct effort make ourselves into the kind of people who can live fully alive to God. Only God can accomplish this in us … We do not, for example, become humble merely by trying to become humble. Action on our own would make us all the more proud of our humility. No, we instead train with Spiritual Disciplines appropriate to our need … By an act of the will we choose to take up disciplines of the spiritual life that we can do. These disciplines are all actions of body, mind, and spirit that are within our power to do … Then the grace of God steps in, takes this simple offering of ourselves, and creates out of it the kind of person who embodies the goodness of God.”

We do what we can do so that God can cultivate in us what we cannot do ourselves. Yes, that is what I’m learning already through the seemingly simple practice of this Pepsi fast. The simple act of choosing water over soda for a week and a half already is helping me choose things that two weeks ago would have been impossible for me to choose or not even considered by me as a choice I could make.

Kirk and I just returned from a trip out of town, for instance. We returned home in the thick of the election week, as people have been campaigning even more zealously for their candidate and hotly contesting the issues that matter most to them in these last days leading up to voting day. As I settled back into life at home, I found myself getting swept up into a few of these conversations myself, particularly in online discussion threads. Soon, however, I found myself involved in a few conversations to the point where it began affecting my ability to focus on other priorities in my life.

On one of these afternoons while this was going on, I was trying to complete some reading at my desk with the computer screen of my laptop open in front of me. I was utterly distracted with thoughts of political discussions and couldn’t concentrate on my studies at all. My mind kept wandering. I found myself compulsively refreshing my web browser to see if the discussion threads had updated.

Clearly, having the computer screen open in front of me was not proving helpful for what I needed to get done.

And that’s when it suddenly occurred to me: the same kind of self-control I have been learning to exert for the past week and a half of the Pepsi fast, choosing water with meals instead of soda, is the same kind of self-control I could exert to close the computer screen and put the laptop away. Actually doing so felt like a great declaration and triumph.

I’m not sure I would have had the ability to close my computer — or even the consciousness that I needed to do it or could have chosen to do it — without the week and a half of preparation I’ve gained from this new Pepsi fast. As much as I doubted that something small like choosing water instead of Pepsi for eight weeks could produce any change in my actual nature, I now saw the truth of this indirection principle: I am doing what I can do (such as abstaining from something simple, like soda) so that God can cultivate in me what I cannot do for myself (such as create in myself a new nature, one that is self-controlled).