The Bible is full of verses about change. Put off the old and put on the new! Put to death the sin that wages war within you! Speak the truth in love so that everyone may grow up in godliness. Become more like Christ. Pursue the spiritual disciplines, give to the poor, forgive one another, love one another, show hospitality, extend grace and mercy. Stop being so selfish and start giving a rip about other people!
Change is a good and God-glorifying thing. I don’t want to remain as I am. I want to become more and more like Jesus, and I want those around me to become more and more like Jesus. This article is not one of those “just let go and let God,” articles.
But when it comes to change, there are three crucial, biblical truths that I must remember in order to keep my sanity.
ONLY GOD CAN DO THE CHANGING
I often have this strange notion in my head that the key to change is found somewhere within myself. If I memorize enough Bible verses, pursue enough accountability, and pray enough, I’ll automatically become godly. I’ll walk in the triumphant, glorious, victorious life, easily slaying one sin after another, like Aragorn plowing through the Uruk-Hai at Helm’s Deep.
This, of course, is absolute insanity. In John 15:5, Jesus put it bluntly when he said, “…for apart from me you can do nothing.” When Jesus said, “Nothing,” he really meant nothing. Apart from Jesus working mightily within me, I absolutely cannot and will not change. I can’t make myself overcome my sinful worry. Only Jesus can do that. I can memorize Scriptures, pray hard, and ask for accountability, but those things can’t cause my heart to trust God. Only Jesus can cause me to trust God.
Paul puts it this way in Philippians 2:12-13, “…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” I can and should do all the right things, yet God must work the change within me.
The reality that God does the changing brings me great freedom. I don’t have to constantly obsess and punish myself over my failure to obey God. I don’t have to perpetually operate in navel gazing mode. Lately, I’ve been fighting a sometimes winning, sometimes losing battle with worry. I’ve been praying, memorizing, and all the other things the Bible tells me to do to fight worry, but I know that God is the one who is going to have to actually change me. I know that slowly, over time God will do what he needs to do in me. I don’t have to freak out about my lack of total victory over worry.
Knowing that God does the changing also frees me from feeling like I must change other people. It frees me from acting as as a sin spy, constantly snooping out and reporting sins in other’s lives. In the past, I’ve operated under the assumption that if I could speak the truth clearly enough, a person would change. He would see the error of his ways, repent, and instantaneously change. When a person didn’t change, I assumed it was either because I wasn’t clear enough or because he wasn’t repentant enough. Unfortunately, I didn’t consider the fact that unless God himself moved upon that person, he simply would not change.
Only God can change me, and only God can change others. Coming to terms with that truth will help me keep my sanity.
TRUE CHANGE IS REALLY, REALLY SLOW
For some reason, I tend to assume that Christians should be generally trending upwards in godliness at all times, like a stock that is constantly outperforming the market. Again, this is false, Pharisaical insanity. True change is usually very slow, taking place over months and years, not days and weeks.
In Scripture, spiritual growth is often compared to the growth of trees and plants. Psalm 1:3 says that the man who meditates on God’s word is, “…like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.” These verses don’t describe explosive, overnight, constantly upward growth. These verses don’t describe a spiritual experience in which sin is suddenly expunged from the soul, like some sort of spiritual detox. Spiritual growth is slow, and the fruit comes “in season”, not right away.
This truth again frees me from feeling miserable over my perceived slow growth or even lack of growth. As I pursue God, he will cause me to grow. I probably won’t be able to see my growth, just like I can’t observe the growth of a tree. There will be times when my growth will appear to be stunted, just as a tree can appear temporarily stunted. But as I continue to press into God, he will cause the growth.
God will also cause other believers to grow. They probably won’t grow as fast as my impatient heart wants them to grow, but they will grow. I don’t have to be constantly monitoring other believers, ensuring that they are growing. That’s God’s job, and I can let him deal with it.
Knowing that change is slow keeps me sane.
GOD WILL FINISH WHAT HE STARTED
Philippians 1:6 puts it this way: “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” That is such sweet, sanity-giving news. God will do it. He will finish the good work he started in me, and he will finish what he started in my fellow believers. Life is not like a marathon, where finishing depends on how much strength I’ve got. God will be the one who carries me across the finish line.
I may be running when he carries me, or I may just barely be hanging on, but either way, God will make sure that I finish.