As the new realities of our world begin to dawn on us, change seems more difficult than ever before. But of all people, Christians should be leading the world in change.
The Apostle Paul knew this would be difficult for us. He wrote in Romans 12:2,
“Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”
For Paul it was not enough to say that you knew Christ. The Christian life was to be marked by transformation, by change. But sometimes it seems that Christians are the most opposed to change. Yet all living things change or they die.
God’s goal for our lives is not simply some sort of a rote prayer and a trip down the aisle. No, God’s desire is to form the very image of His son, Jesus, in you. Maybe some of us have stopped changing, growing, being morphed into the image of Jesus, because we’re already dead on the inside.
The kingdom is supposed to be marked by changed lives and by the fruit of the spirit. But our churches are filled with people who, under the surface, are just as anxious, driven, angry, and ego-fed as anyone outside the church. Why aren’t the people of the kingdom of God changing?
Spiritual transformation is missing in the lives of many Christians, because our failure to become more Christ-like has caused us to settle for something less. At least two common counterfeits are passed off as transformation.
- Settling for the Minimum
Sometimes we mistakenly think the Christian life is primarily about entrance to heaven. We’re content with conversion when God is calling for transformation. Rather than expecting the kingdom of God to revolutionize lives today, we hope it will happen in heaven tomorrow. Somewhere along the line we swapped out the gospel of Jesus—which says we can be transformed into citizens of the kingdom of God, right now, today—for a gospel of heaven’s minimum entrance requirement. “As long as I make it into heaven by the skin of my teeth, I’ll be ok.”
Jesus never said “Now I’m going to tell you what you need to say to get into heaven when you die.” The gospel is so much bigger than that. Jesus’ good news was that we no longer have to live in the guilt, failure, and impotence of our own strength. And if your salvation experience is only something in your past and not something ongoing today, you’re not changing. You’re living as so many do—they’ve recited a rote prayer and joined a church, maybe even been baptized. But as they look at their lives ten years later, their lives don’t look much different from someone who has never claimed Christ.
- Outward Appearance and Boundary Markers
Hosea scorned the Jews of his day for having heads sprinkled with gray hair and not knowing it. (Hosea 7:9). Normally, when we look in the mirror, we’re the first to spot evidence of physical decline and aging, such as gray hair and wrinkles. But just as normally, we’re the last to notice signs of spiritual deterioration. And that’s Hosea’s point. We’re capable of believing we’re doing far better than we really are.
Sometimes we fake spiritual maturity by playing the boundary markers game, and Jesus reserved His harshest criticism for a group of people who made denial into a trademark. This particular group specialized in looking good.
Why were the first-century Pharisees so focused on circumcision, on keeping the dietary laws, and on keeping a huge laundry list of things they could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath? Why would they spend so much time on these relatively minor aspects of the faith? Because all groups want to define who is in the group and who is out. Groups tend to establish “boundary markers” to make this distinction.
Unfortunately, conforming to boundary markers too often substitutes for authentic transformation. We’re like the Pharisees: we reduce sin to manageable categories and expend all our energies in maintaining the standards we set. Once we do this, we measure our spirituality by the dos and don’ts: “I don’t drink alcohol” or “I never miss church on Sunday mornings” or “I only use the approved translation of scripture” (and just which one is that and who approved it?) These are cultural boundaries, but they don’t say anything about how our relationships have improved, or how we’re loving others more deeply than ever before, or laying our lives down for them. Once the barometer of your spiritual health becomes things like social courtesies and looking “godly” on the outside, you have settled for a counterfeit spiritual maturity.
The church I grew up in had its boundary markers. A prideful, resentful, or even angry pastor could have kept his job, but if ever the pastor was caught smoking a cigarette, he would’ve been fired. Not because anyone in the church actually thought smoking was a worse sin than pride or resentment, but because smoking defined who was “in” in the subculture the church, and who was “out.” It was a boundary marker.
Trying, or Training?
So, if those are counterfeits, and if the call on my life is to be changed, how does it happen? What’s the pathway to real transformation for the Christian? It is training.
When Paul writes about being “morphed” or transformed in Romans 12:2, he gives a command, but in passive voice. He doesn’t use active voice, which would be “Transform yourself;” he says “Be transformed.” We can’t make transformation happen ourselves; it is something God does to us. You can’t try to be a Christian. It’s impossible to live the Christian life. What is possible is that Jesus can live His life through you—and that makes all the difference.
1 Cor. 9:25 says “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Why do so many people give up on changing? Because they spend themselves trying to be transformed, when the Bible calls us to train to be transformed.
There is a huge difference between trying to do something versus training to do it. How many of us could run a marathon right now? Even if we tried, really, really hard? But many of us could run a marathon eventually, if instead we trained for it.
Training means arranging life around those activities that enable us to do what we cannot do now, even by extreme effort. Change in our habits, our daily routines, our sin traps, change always involves training, not just trying. And it happens best in community, not in “Lone Ranger Christianity.” That’s why most of us need a training partner when we go to the gym.
Too often in our churches, people hear us talk about what an amazing person Jesus is. They leave thinking, I’ve got to try hard to be like him. And when the trying proves ineffective, they eventually quit or rely on external boundary markers to pretend that they are really transformed. That’s trying to appear to be a Christian, instead of training to live the Christ-like life.
Authentic spiritual transformation begins with training, with discipline. As we train ourselves in godliness, we begin to overcome the limits of sinful patterns. Here’s how it happens:
There are two types of sin: 1. Commission, which is doing what I shouldn’t do, and 2. Omission, not doing what I should do. And there are two types of training: 1. The disciplines of abstinence, and 2. The disciplines of engagement.
As a general rule, if I’m struggling with sins of commission, then the disciplines of abstinence train me. For example, if I struggle with gossip, the discipline of silence trains my mouth not to speak unbridled. So I would want to abstain from talking as much, having an answer for everything, sharing my opinions with everyone all the time. I would ask God to remind me I have two ears and one tongue. I would apprentice under a believer who really seems to have a handle on their tongue. I’d make friends with them, hang with them, and let them speak into my life when they see me gossip.
Likewise, the disciplines of engagement help me overcome my sins of omission. For example, if you are not known as a joyful person, if you are cynical and negative much of the time, then you would practice the discipline of intentional celebration—engaging in activities that celebrate God, life, creation, and other people. So find a joyful person to apprentice under. Let them spur you on in your attitude and language toward joy.
Do you commit the sin of impatience? Christians laugh about this sin more than any other. They say “Well, I just don’t have the gift of patience.” Patience isn’t a gift, it’s a fruit that is borne out of a life committed to Jesus. Impatience isn’t something God winks at. It is sin. Training for you may mean rearranging life around opportunities for the Spirit to increase your patience. Recognize that you are on God’s timetable, not your own, that He is Sovereign Lord over every hour of your day, and your time belongs to Him. Deliberately drive in the slow lane on the freeway. Purposely get in the longer line at the grocery store. Ask a friend to call your hand on it when you are impatient.
Spiritual transformation is a long-term endeavor. It’s like crossing an ocean. Some people try, day after day, to be good, to become spiritually mature. That’s like taking a rowboat across the ocean. It’s exhausting and usually unsuccessful.
Others have given up trying and throw themselves entirely on “relying on God’s grace.” They’re like drifters on a raft. They do nothing but hang on and hope God gets them there. Unfortunately, this won’t get you across the ocean either.
Neither the rowboat or the raft will get you to your destination. A better image is the sailboat, in which if it moves at all, it’s a gift of the wind. We can’t control the wind, but a good sailor discerns where the wind is blowing and trains the sails to catch the breezes that God provides.
Are you like the rowboat, the raft, or the sailboat? We are either changing, more like Jesus today than we were yesterday, or we are not. There is no “staying the same.” Press on, brother. Sail on, sister. Find a training partner, and let the Holy Spirit make beautiful changes in you.