It’s easy for me to grow discouraged by how far I have to go. Many days the extent of my sinfulness is out of sight, out of mind. But sometimes I know my sin all too well.
I see it clearly.
I know its destructive power.
And I hate it.
Far too often, the oppressive weight of sin produces despair rather than action, defeat rather than fight. I just want to give up.
It seems like there’s so much that needs to change, so many things I should do, and such a long way between who I am and the man I want to be.
In these moments I not only feel unfit and unclean, but also paralyzed and helpless.
What do you do when you don’t even know where to begin to change?
A few years ago I made the mistake of doing Crossfit. My legs still hate me. As I looked around the gym each morning, I realized just how weak I actually was.
This is not a realization that occurred to me while waiting in line at Bojangles for another Spicy Chicken Biscuit—something I’d done far too often up until that time. But, now I saw clearly that there were many guys. . . and girls, and grandparents who were far stronger than me.
I watched them lift and tried to replicate their actions. Surely, I could squat as much as my trainer’s mother, who was working out beside me. One squat later and I sat on the gym floor with weights strewn about me and a massive hole in my gym shorts.
I learned a valuable lesson that day: You can’t go from where you are to where you want to be overnight.
The same desire for immediate change wreaks havoc on my spiritual life as well. Intuitively I know that I can’t add 200 pounds to my bench press in a week. But, I think I can do the equivalent in my spiritual life. I respond as if I believe my evangelistic intentionality will change overnight, those nagging middle-school sin patterns will disappear and never tempt me again, and my prayer life will automatically take on a Spurgeon-like quality.
I get discouraged when it doesn’t.
I get angry when the change that God is producing seems unnoticeable.
I lose hope that change is possible.
I give up.
My response reveals an impoverished view of gospel. While change may always feel a bit out of reach, God has already brought about true transformation that I long for.
And, as a dagger to my pride—this transformation was produced apart from anything I’ve done. As Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Those whom God saves have a righteousness “which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith” (Phil 3:9).
So, my right standing with God is a gift of grace, not the result of my words (Eph 2:4 –9). Because of Jesus, my sin does not define my identity. God does not shake his head in disappointment at the gulf between who I am and who I should be. He’s pleased with me, even when I’m not pleased with myself.
This reality frees me to respond differently to my sin, even when I know that I have so far to go. I’ve often doubted Jesus words in Matthew 11:30: “My yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
What? It sure doesn’t seem easy and light. It seems like the least burdensome action would be to run headlong into my sin and forget the toil and pain that comes from fighting my sin.
But I know that transformation is best for me. God desires to free me from slavery to sin—to produce victory over sin in my life. He wants to change me. And this is for my good. The gospel message frees me from the overwhelming despair that this process of transformation can easily produce. It reminds me that I am transforming into the person God has already declared me to be. In a real sense, I am becoming what I am.
Freed from the tyranny of how far I have to go, I can take one step in the right direction. Sure, I can’t be the man I wish I was tomorrow, but I’m free to be the man God is making me today. I can trust that any step of obedience, no matter how small or how seemingly insignificant, is an act of worship and a means of transformation.
So, when I read stories of great men of faith who were up at 4am every morning devoting three hours to passionate and persistent prayer, I have a choice.
I can either feel the crushing weight of guilt at the fact that I can muster up 20 minutes of undivided attention to God in prayer, and, as a result end up praying less.
Or, I can be reminded that God loves me, sees me as one clothed in the righteousness of Jesus, and, as a result, take one step towards the man God is calling me to be.
Sure, this step may seem microscopic to most—like getting up five minutes earlier in the morning or writing out my prayers in a journal to keep me focused. But, it’s light and easy step motived by the grace of God. It’s movement. And it’s for my good.
When I’m once again faced with guilt over clear sins that I wish I’d long since outgrown, I can make the same decision. I can either wallow in despair, thinking I’ve somehow blown it one too many times for God to forgive me again. Or, I can face my sin head-on, confess it to God and others, and continue to fight. Change won’t come quickly or easily for most of us, but if we give up it will never come.
So, we put one foot in front of the other. We do the next right thing. We take God at this word. We trust that through it all, he is at work for our good. We believe that he’s far more intent on transforming us than we are on changing ourselves (Rom 8:28–30). We remember that one day we will look back through the rear-view mirror of our lives and see how God was using all of our mess to accomplish something in us we could never produce on our own.
When I don’t know what to do, I trust that God does. He is. He is changing me, even though I often wish the process would hurry up.