August 23, 2013 in Christian Living
Ever noticed that change is hard? I am sure you have never made a promise to yourself to change a habit or action and failed to follow through on it. I am almost certain you have never made a New Year’s Resolution that was broken as soon as it was made. Of course, you and I and every person that has lived has experienced the pain of the failure in changing who or what we are. Change is hard.
But change is also essential. There is no growth without change. There is no salvation without change. There is a goal to our lives that we have not reached. We are called to look and live upward toward a holy God. That means we must change. We must grow. The past and its ways must be left behind. To be everything God is calling us to be, we must succeed in our efforts to change.
But time after time, we fail to change. Whether it is in a simple matter of losing weight or getting in shape or reading more and watching television less or in the eternal matters of our spiritual walk with God, we seem to do less than we promise ourselves. I believe a major reason for that persistent failure is a focus on the wrong motivations. We keep seeking change down the same roads and end up in the same place. In order to succeed in changing our lives we must first change our focus.
How Not to Change
Change is not Intellectual.
Knowing we need to change something is not enough. We know we need to lose weight. We know we should exercise more. So what? If that meant anything at all, we would no longer be in need of those things. We would simply recognize the need and fix it. How many times have you buttoned up pants that used to fit, but now are straining to hold in your expanding form and said, “I need to lose weight”? Did it happen? Intellectually, you admitted to a known fact. But it had no impact on your life.
Consider the man Paul describes in Romans 7. It is man that understands the function of law in his life (Ro. 7:1). It is even a man who admits that the law of God is good for him,
So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. . . . For we know that the law is spiritual . . . (Rom 7:12,14)
He also recognizes his own short-coming before that law, “. . . but I am of the flesh, sold under sin” (Rom 7:14). So just as you and your weight, he recognizes there is a short-coming in his life. There is a “good” that he is failing to meet. Intellectually, he sees it. He knows his need for change. But even with that knowledge and admission, he is no more able to bring his life in line with God’s law than you are able to wear last year’s pants.
Knowing we need to change is not enough.
Change is not a Product of Discipline
Discipline is usually the next step we take after making the intellectual admission that we need to change. We lay out a plan. We research and commit to a diet. We promise ourselves that we will keep to strict exercise program. It all seems so certain to work. There is hope and an abundance of energy in the commitment to the plan. And for the first week, it works. Even though the alarm sounds while it is still dark outside, we slip on our running shoes and head out in the pre-dawn, briskness of morning and run our required two-mile trip around the block.
Funny thing about a New Year’s Resolution like that; they always seem to take place in January. It does not take us long to remember that January is a winter month and it is cold before the sun rises. The beginning of our second week coincides with a winter storm and few inches of snow. That morning run in the wet, cold pools of slush coating the road just has no hope of competing with the warm, comforting embrace of our bed. The choice between snooze and shoes is an easy one – especially as we promise, “I’ll run extra tomorrow.”
The problem is, we just broke the discipline upon which our change was predicated. The inevitable soon follows. More excuses mount and fewer trips out into the darkness are made. All the while we know, “I need to lose weight.” But once discipline – our rules, our laws – are broken, they are forever broken. They can never be as strong as they were before we broke them.
Again, Paul understood that mentality even toward God’s law. Back to Romans 7, he said,
For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me (Rom 7:15-17).
He says, “I agree with the law.” I know that it is good for me. I know that if I follow it, my life will be better. Just as we know the morning run is good for us. But that is never enough. Paul knew it was good, but also knew that he had broken that law. He had failed. His discipline had broken. And once it breaks it lacks the strength to defend against the pressure to resist change and remains as he is. The sin that law was seeking to remove from him, now had rule in his life. Every time he would seek to fight against it, there it was reminding him that his efforts were too late – he was already a sinner. Once we sleep in (and we will sleep in at some point) we admit that discipline is not enough to change us. The baggage of that old self-image is still clinging to us and will keep us snuggly in our comfort zone. Discipline is not enough.
Change is not a Product of Circumstance.
There is a law of diminishing returns to circumstance. It is certainly a truth that if you reward an activity you get more of it and if you punish an activity, you will get less of it. Give a crying baby candy just once and see what happens the next time he wants candy. Conversely, punish that same baby every time he cries for candy and see long that behavior keeps up. Change his circumstances and you change his behavior.
But it has limits. If you punish a child exclusively, he will become desensitized to the punishment. It will no longer work the way it first did. If you praise a child exclusively, he will develop a sense of entitlement and complacency. Mark it down, his behavior will deteriorate under constant praise.
Adults are no different. In our quest to lose weight, a constant barrage of messages warning us of the health risks and reminding us of our failure in this area does not motivate us to try harder. It does something far worse. It robs us of hope. And once we accept that we can never gain a victory over the problem, we learn to accept the consequences. Too much praise and reassurance can place us in the same condition. If we are told long enough that we are fine the way we are, we will eventually believe and lose the urgency needed to go on fighting to change. One path leads us to accept that we can never be more than the broken person we are and the other leads us to believe our broken person is good enough. Both leave us where they found us – unable to change something we admit needs to be changed.
Paul felt the pressure of that negative reminder to his own failures in Romans 7. The constant proclamation of his sinfulness he found in the law left him with one cry, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:24). For him, under the law, he had no hope. He had no way and so no motivation to change. That feeling with something as trivial as a weight issue is debilitating enough, but it is transformed into the deepest of horrors as its hopelessness envelopes our spirituality. Circumstance, either positive or negative, has its limits to sustain change in our lives.
How to Change
Change is Born from Desperation
We will not change until we have to. The clichéd expression of this thought is “being sick and tired of being sick and tired.” It is a good thought, but Jesus’ way of expressing it is better, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mat 5:3).
Who finds solace in God’s kingdom? Those who are desperate spiritually. Jesus statement is descriptive of one who is spiritually destitute. He has no hope of sustaining himself and so is willing to beg and seek help at every turn. Finding God’s kingdom means becoming a man who has to find help.
Most resolutions die right here. We do not truly feel we have to do them. We would like to do them. Losing a few pounds would be good. But we are not desperate. We are not staring immediate and certain death in the face. There is still a part of us that believes we are ok or that the consequences are far off or in doubt. That wiggle room gives us just enough comfort not to do the hard things to change.
The same principle applies spiritually. Ever said or heard someone say, “I am good person”? There is the wiggle room. That person is not destitute and desperate in spirit. That person is not likely to change his spiritual walk significantly. He has no motivation to because with that mindset, he does not have to change. And he won’t.
This where we miss hearing strong teaching about the horrific nature of sin. If you diminish the damning power of sin, you make the depth of man’s helplessness less deep. If he believes he can see a way out of sin without God, he will never become poor in spirit. Our relativistic society is making it harder and harder to find God, because it is systematically tearing down every belief in true right and wrong that it can touch.
If you cannot seem to make a change in the direction and intensity of your walk with God, here would be a good place to start looking for the cause. Ask yourself, “Do I need God?” Do not ask it lightly or answer it quickly. If you can go days without prayer or study of his word, is your answer really, “yes?” Are you truly “poor in spirit?”
Change is Demanded by Identity
How we view ourselves has a powerful impact on how we treat ourselves. A young lady who cannot see the beauty she possesses is tempted to avoid all attempts at appearing attractive. Hiding behind a plain hair-style and frumpy clothing is easier to handle than pain of trying her best and coming up short. The same can be true of those struggling with weight. A poor self-image is hard to overcome. Not believing we are worth having something better paralyzes our efforts to change.
Admittedly, acknowledging our own worth can work against the concept of being “poor in spirit.” But we must understand the distinction. There is a difference in saying, “I am ok by myself,” which leads to pride and away from God; and saying. “I am worthy of more but have failed in my life.” The first says I have worth because of my actions. The second says I have worth in spite of my actions. It is the second view that is true of us.
When understood properly knowing the place of our worth only deepens the sense of desperation we should feel over our sin. Man is the height of God’s creation. He is made in God’s own image (Gen. 1). God crowned him in his glory (Psalm 8). We are the apple of God’s eye (Ps. 17). All of that means that we were created for greatness. Our lives were never meant to be lived in the muck and mire of a meaningless existence. We have been given a divine nature that is meant to soar into the heavens in search of eternal truths. But we have failed. Sin had distracted us from that calling and pulled us into darkness. It is the greatest tragedy of God’s creation.
As a teenager, I forever heard my father say to me, “Remember you are.” It seemed like every time I was leaving to go on date or some other activity away from his presence, I would hear those words. He was not one to give a litany of rules to follow. He simply trusted that I knew what our family had always stood for and that I would not behave in a way to let that name down. He was right (most of the time).
I believe his call to me was a godly one. Read Paul’s words in Colossians 3, “If then you have been raised with Christ . . .” That is statement of identity. Do you know who you are? You are a raised, exalted being. You sit in the heavenly places with Christ and his Father. You are the child of a King. You are King and Priest upon God’s earth (Rev. 5:10).
Do you know your identity? If you do, remember it. How does a king live? Does he accept mediocrity and failure. Would that give honor to his family name and legacy? No, he deserves better. He has authority. He can demand better.
And so Paul calls us to remember that. Colossians 3:1 finishes by saying,
. . . seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God (Col 3:1-3).
Your life has been lifted to the highest plane possible. Start living like it. You are not the lazy man or woman destined to hit the snooze on life and fall back asleep every morning. You are God’s child. You are empowered to change and destined to change, if you never allow the challenges of life to make you forget who you are.
Change is Sustained by Relationships
It is one thing to feel the need to lose weight because society has deemed that you are too fat or even because an arbitrary BMI chart lists you in an obese category. I cannot speak for you, but that has little impact on my thinking. Yet, if you stood before a doctor whose opinions you trust and heard him say that your weight was so detrimental to your health that you had only months to live. Having heard that prognosis, you then reflected on your spouse, your children, or your grand-children. Those thoughts made you realize the consequences of your health problems. Your weight was causing you to forfeit time and memories with them. Would that be somehow different? It would for me.
I do not really care if the world thinks I am too fat or any other thing like that. But I do care about my family. I love them and have obligations to them. I have made promises to my wife and children. I cannot simply allow a problem that is fixable, like weight, prevent me from keeping them.
God made us beings that need others. We need relationships (Gen. 2:18). Those ties keep us from giving up. Even after our intellect and discipline has failed us, we are still tied to others. Those ties go beyond the edict of law. They are constant and powerful. They give us reason to stand up and try again. You may not have many, but you have someone in your life that you cannot imagine disappointing — someone whose friendship and companionship means the world to you.
Change is almost impossible without that tie. Life can grow comfortable in any circumstance. Change just for ourselves, then always loses its motivation over time. But when we are tied to others whom we love, we remove our own comfort from the equation. That motivation never grows old.
You don’t think you have someone like that in your life? Try God. His call is for you to become like him. His example is the shining light for your life. His call on your life is a constant reminder of your need and ability to change who you are. Joseph understood this thought facing the temptation of Potiphar’s wife, “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God” (Gen 39:9).
He could not disappoint his God. Even alone in a foreign land, he knew God was with him. The feeling of that intimate relationship strengthened and sustained his discipline when nothing else could. He knew the accountability that comes with a relationship that is critical to sustaining change.
The thought that Paul begins in Romans 7 concludes in chapter 8. In Christ, he found his answer to his desire to change and gain control over his life. He found relief from the constant barrage of condemnation his spirit found under the law. There is uncontainable joy in his words at the opening of Romans 8, ” There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Paul had found his path to change.
What is interesting about that chapter in which the hope of change is found is that the climax of its call is relational. Paul had seen the desperation of man’s need and found the way out of it. In chapter 7, his failure to change left him as a “wretched man.” In chapter 8, that broken man is forever forgotten under a new call, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Rom 8:37).
He is a conqueror over the challenges facing his life. But how did he change? The answer is in his focus. In chapter 7, he spoke to men who knew law. But at the end of discussion, his confidence is not in the function of law, but in the relationship he has with Christ,
For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39).
There is the answer. Christ never leaves us. Even when we fail intellectually or in our discipline or with our circumstances, he is still calling us to him and believing in us. Even more powerfully than a spouse or friend, his presence gives us motivation to pick ourselves up and try again. He gives us reason to renew our resolve each time it fails.
If you are seeking to change this coming year, be sure your next attempt starts with a focus on your Savior. And every time you fail, find in him the resolve to start again; not only this new year, but also with each new day.