No, That’s Not The Root Cause

When a computer overheats, you know there’s trouble. When an entire room of computers gets overheated, the word “trouble” doesn’t do it justice. When the computer room at my day job was shut down a few weeks ago, my thoughts wandered back to the very first computer room I worked in as a student in college.

One of my jobs was to change the paper and refill the ink in a recording thermometer alarm that resembled the patent drawing below.

Draper Recording Thermometer, Patent 380,872
Draper Recording Thermometer, Patent 380,872

Much like our actions indicate our spiritual maturity, that thermometer was a trackable, external indicator of something that wasn’t directly measurable. And the behavior of the mechanical arm on that thermometer was very important to those operating the computer room. When heat in the room pushed that arm far enough to touch a sensor, an alarm sounded, calling the operators to intervene.

A Parable

Picture the arm on the thermometer triggering an alarm in the middle of the night. The on-call administrator rushes to the computer room to find the alarms quieted, and the thermometer arm now just barely below the high-temperature sensor.  False alarm? Maybe?

Now, imagine that same alarm three nights in a row, lasting longer each night.

None of us would expect the administrator to rig up a wire or string to hold the arm in place. “Don’t be foolish,” we’d cry. “That’s just masking the symptoms. Get to the root of the problem.”

And we’d be right.

In the same way, we already understand that our external behaviors – fits of anger, flirting with lust, feeding the flesh – aren’t things we can control on our own. We know that they’re simply symptoms of deeper issues – evidence that our sinful nature is still alive and well. We know that there are root problems behind our external behaviors.

So we look a little deeper.

A Foolish Administrator

Now picture that administrator, frustrated with the nightly alarms.  He looks a little deeper inside the thermometer. “Aha!” He exclaims as he shares his findings. He has discovered that the arm of the thermometer is fastened to a rather perplexing metal coil. That coil seems somehow to be sensitive to changes in temperature. When the room gets warm, that coil starts to twist, moving the arm to touch another piece of metal that sets off the alarm.

See? The problem wasn’t that arm. No, that was just the symptom. The real problem was that weak, unstable coil holding the arm. Replace that coil with one that holds its shape, and the alarms will stop.

Silly story, I know. The administrator never found out what was heating the room, and some day the word “trouble” won’t do justice to the computer outage he’s going to face.

But that’s about how deep we often go when looking for the root cause of external sins.

5And beside this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue; and to virtue knowledge;

6And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance patience; and to patience godliness;

7And to godliness brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness charity.

2 Peter 1:5-7

How Deep Does “Root Cause” Go?

Peter outlines a sequence of growth – an addition of one quality after another.  Here’s the sequence:

  1. Faith
  2. Virtue
  3. Knowledge
  4. Temperance
  5. Patience
  6. Godliness
  7. Brotherly Kindness
  8. Charity

The success of each depends on it being added to the quality before it. If I’m struggling with patience, it might be because I haven’t learned temperance. Or it might even be a lack of knowledge. I may not be able to grasp the knowledge I need because I haven’t yet developed virtue – that desire to do right when I do know what it is.

Notice, too, that steps 1-5 are all internal issues. It should be no surprise to see a struggle with ungodly behavior in someone who hasn’t mastered patience. And focusing on patience will simply be an exercise in frustration without temperance.

Take Action

Next time you see behavior you want to fix, don’t stop looking at its immediate “root cause.” Keep digging. Look even deeper.

You’ll have far more success when you focus on the earliest missing step in Peter’s sequence of growth.

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