John Wesley ministered in a world filled with addictions. The early 1700’s was called the ”Gin Age” of British history. In London one out every six businesses was a gin shop. Alcohol consumption rose to 100 gallons of liquor for every man, woman and child throughout the nation. At the same time gambling had also risen among the wealthy and the wannabees. Fortunes were made and lost at the tables and on the many lotteries available in those days. After the age of Puritanism, the nation also reacted against its strictures, and sexual vulgarity reached new depths in both public display and private ethics. It was an age that seemed to have lost all inhibitions.
Wesley knew that these bad habits of his age ‘tempered the soul”, just as metals that are heated and cooled will retain the shape in which they are bent. This “tempering” made addictions increasingly difficult to break. He was also aware of the cautionary tale that Jesus tells about the expulsion of an unclean spirit, who unless the house was tenanted by that which was wholesome, would invite seven other foul spirits to occupy the house. (Matt. 12:43-45)
But on the other hand, Wesley knew that the Christian, with the aid of the Holy Spirit, could develop “holy tempers”, “holy habits”, “habits of the heart” that would create “enduring dispositions“, where the bent was towards all things good. He taught that the expulsive power of a new affection was the antidote to the many addictions best catalogued by the seven deadly sins of sloth, lust, anger, gluttony, avarice, envy and pride. Each of these soul-destroying inclinations would only lead to the behavioral addictions that damage societies. The initial expulsion of unclean spirits by the gift of the Holy Spirit, however, would need to be followed by the adoption of “holy disciplines”, where the soul would be tempered in new directions. And in this development of “holy tempers,” health of heart and mind and life would be deepened within the person and extended throughout the human community. That may still be the best antidote for our age as well.
Think it Through
The “Reformed Tradition” has tended towards being pessimistic about the degree of transformation possible in this life, whereas those in the “Wesleyan Tradition” have been optimistic that God the Holy Spirit “can make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.” Where do you stand on this continuum?
Published in Light and Life, March-April, 2007