“Change,” beyond being a political slogan largely empty of substance, is the very heartbeat of life itself. Living things grow, move, and change. Whether plant or animal, living things change. Trees grow, form leaves, respond to the moving sun, paint their leaves brilliant colors and discard them, adding a ring to their trunk marking yet another year of life. And so moves your life as a dynamic, constantly changing creature of God. Consider the ways in which you are spiritually changing and the big question: Is that change moving in the best direction?
I shake my head mock disbelief as I view old pictures of myself. Was that scrawny 7-year-old really me? Was I that slim, cool looking 25-year-old with the nice full head of hair? Then I look in the mirror…What happened? Well, you know the routine. I rather enjoy seeing the pictures chronicling the change of my children and grandchildren over the years. It brings back a flood of pleasant feelings and memories. But looking at my own physical progression from youth to old age isn’t quite as inspiring, actually rather depressing.
If you’re past forty, have you mused on having your svelte twenty-something body back but with your present mature mind? Sure. I have, but I wouldn’t for a moment give up the knowledge I’ve accumulated, lessons learned, and the God-given wisdom the years have provided—not even for my athletic body of forty-five years ago. The mental and spiritual changes have been hard fought and positive even if my physical body hasn’t kept pace. How about you?
How about God? Is he a static, unmoving, unchanging God? Not hardly. Scripture testifies to his ever-active involvement in creation, particularly among those sons and daughters made in his image. God’s created cosmos is constantly moving in complex orbits and cycles. The creation we see about us, the sky, the weather, the earth, the seasons, the seas and rivers, are always moving and changing. This dynamic of change is what gives life such value, such interest, such excitement, and provides challenges for us humans to continually adapt and change with it.
Then, 1964, with my lovely bride, JoAn Now
Man—Made to Change
What is fundamental to the relationship between God and man is that both God and man can change. Now when I speak of God changing I do not refer to his righteous character. It will never change for it is who God is. The core of God’s divine nature is love as manifest by the purity of virtues that flow from him. But as God engages his creatures he can and does change specific plans and actions. God invites us to pray and ask things of him—things he would not do if we did not ask. He adapts to how man uses, or misuses, his freedom and with brilliant wisdom continues to move the story along so that his purposes will ultimately be realized.
Man’s character is another matter. It needs changing in all the ways it is unlike God’s holy character. God’s entire encounter with man is based on the premise that man can and must change. Change what? Change his nature and change his ways; change his heart and change his actions—the two operate in tandem.
Spiritual growth means change. Repentance is the entry door to spiritual change and repentance itself is an acknowledgment that change needs to be made. God is holy and righteous and sin is the opposite of all that God is and does. Sin is literally “missing the mark”—the “mark” being God’s divine nature.
Repentance of sin means asking forgiveness for our sins and committing to become like God in heart and mind. When properly understood, repentance is not a stand alone one-time action of being “converted” or “born again,” it is an on-going process of changing into the Image of God. It has a starting place that we could call conversion and associate with baptism, but repentance is a dynamic daily journey of moving away from selfish living toward a life of giving and loving. The Bible uses another word, “overcoming,” to describe this process of change from manifesting works of the flesh, to manifesting the fruits of the spirit of God.
The Universal Covenant
The deal God made with Israel mirrors the deal he offers to make with any individual, or for that matter, would strike with any nation: “I will be your God and you will be my people.” How does that work out? Quite simple.
“I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people” (Heb 8:10; Jer 31:31-34). This was the covenant God made with Israel, and it is also his universal covenant with mankind in general and is specifically entered into with every individual.
“If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands…I will walk among you and be your God, and you will be my people” (Lev 26:3, 12).
“I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty” (2Cor 6:18). When God spoke his covenant he was clear about the terms: “Listen to the terms of this covenant…I said, Obey me and do everything I command you, and you will be my people, and I will be your God” (Jer 11:2, 4).
This universal covenant embodies the two great commandments—love God, love neighbor—which Jesus declared, “All the Law and Prophets hand on these two commandments.” Accepting God as your God implies you will whole-heartedly love and obey Him (the first and greatest commandment); being one of His people implies you will love others as he loves you (the second great commandment).
What could be clearer? You use your freedom to obey God by altering your behaviors and thoughts to conform to his divine way. You change. This great and necessary change doesn’t happen overnight, as we well know from personal experience. Nor does is spontaneously occur without cost or difficulty. But it can and does happen over time.
Time and Change
Time is always moving forward providing active tension, making our relationship with God real and precious. We must “redeem the time,” not in the sense we can get any more of it or buy back squandered time, rather that we can make the absolute most of the time remaining. Your life is time and time is your life. With the business of moving Godward there is no time to waste.
As time moves along we move along in our lives. We are changing constantly both physically and spiritually. Our bodies are moving in various directions in the short term (losing weight, gaining, getting into tone, out of shape, eating well, eating poorly, sleeping too little or too much, etc.), and in the long term, the gradual slide toward decay and death.
Spiritually, the movement should be in the opposite direction of decay and death, instead, happily, toward renewal and life. We want to be constantly growing in spiritual understanding, vigor, and increasingly manifesting the spiritual fruits of joy, patience, love, hospitality, humility, kindness, peace, etc. Right? Don’t we want God to be working us over spiritually to renew us into his image? Of course we do.
This ever-changing process takes time and in that sense time is our friend. Time and change are dynamic symbiotic movements toward the future. Yielding to God will, over time, produces God-like changes in us.
But such Godward movement doesn’t happen accidentally or automatically. It is not the result of one’s passive profession of faith. It’s not generated by church activities, nor doctrinal purity, nor beautiful liturgy or any external religious action, though these have the potential of a positive influence.
Your spiritual metamorphous requires a great power that only God can supply. It is a profound internal change brought about by God and by your deepest desire to be his son or daughter.
Dynamic growth comes forth from loving God with all one’s mind, heart, and soul. “Becoming holy because God is holy” is the logic and reason for our passion for God. It is a hungering and thirsting to have the heart of God. Might these words describe you? Me? We should pause here and find the honest answer.
Ideally, the spiritual development of a Christian should appear on a graph as a line moving upward, Godward. But life, as most of us live it, does not always adhere to the ideal. We go in spits and spurts, take backward steps, stumble, go in circles, and the spiritual growth line graph for our lives might look like an alligator’s mouth, a lot of peaks and valleys. Thankfully, God is merciful and patient with us.
However, as long as that jagged line is moving in an overall upward direction—toward the holy character of God—we can still confidently say we are “growing in grace and knowledge” of God and his way. We are traveling the Way of God, but not always with the speed and focus of which we are capable. Maybe we can change this too.
Take a moment to evaluate your spiritual growth and your present state of maturity as you move Godward. I know how we work to avoid such introspection. Let me hand you a mirror. I have one too. Let us take a long and piercing look into the mirror.
Some Christians deceive themselves about the true state of their spiritual health. They approach their spiritual condition like pop psychologists handle self-esteem. These feel-good purveyors of false self-worth substitute narcissism, excessive self-love, self-admiration, and self-centeredness for real self-worth achieved by real accomplishments—worthy accomplishments that can honestly contribute to positive self-respect.
Professing Christians can likewise self-righteously preen that they are not unbelievers, not pagans, don’t do the bad things sinners do, they lead respectable lives, go to church on Sunday (or Saturday), occasionally read the Bible, and give money to good causes. Plainly, a good person…right? But does this profile offer us a “Christian” generating the spiritual fruits, the character, and the righteous works of Christ? Not necessarily.
Shouldn’t we measure a “Christian” against his namesake? What is a better measure of a Christian than Christ himself? But we must be careful to look to the Jesus of Scripture, not to the remade caricature of Jesus that politics, culture, and some religious sectarians pawn off.
Being Good, Doing Good
Every culture and religion has its standards and pays service to a version of the “Golden Rule” for human conduct. Confucius put it negatively when he advised, “Whatever you wish not to be done to yourself, do not do that thing to another person.” Surely the world would be a better place if only that maxim were practiced.
Jesus expands it by phrasing the rule positively, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Confucius had in view not doing bad things to others, whereas Jesus’ repeat of the Golden Rule encompasses both concepts with the stress upon doing good to your neighbor. In your ever-changing spiritual walk you must ask yourself, “Am I improving in doing good to others—both in quantity and quality?” Answering that question truthfully took me more than a few minutes.
The Golden Rule is simply a restatement of the second great commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love is not passive, not negative, it is a positive action of goodness toward someone that could be called your neighbor. God judges us on what we actually do, not what we say we want to do, or affirm is a good thing to do. Jesus said that his words must be put into practice. He warns that simply hearing and agreeing with his words but not doing them makes one a fool doomed to failure. Serious stuff.
Growing in God-directed change is learning to put into actual practice acts of loving kindness toward those around you and especially those people and causes that could use your help. The Lord’s brother, James, defines pure and faultless religion in terms of doing good deeds. His examples include looking after needy orphans and widows and “keeping oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:26-27).
Peter advises that God’s path of living spiritually comes down to our selfless actions of love and service. He said, “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in it various forms” (1Peter 4:6-10).
Here is change we can believe in; changing from a person dominated by self-interest, to one that, like God, is truly concerned with the needs, welfare, growth and happiness of others. What would be on that list of “God’s graces” that you and I should administer to others?
Every Christian is in some way capable of ministering to others. We each have gifts or abilities with which we can serve others. Your list of “graces” should not be difficult to inventory. Start by asking yourself, “What good things have God and others done for me?” Then, to the best of your ability, go and do likewise. It’s The Golden Rule. Spiritual change Godward can start here.
Ask, in what helpful ways have I been served by others? Then find ways to go and do likewise. Ask, how has God and his word improved my life? Then seek ways to share God’s word and goodness with someone. There are lots of someones out there and one is waiting on you. Ask, am I now more connected to people I can serve than I used to be? Or am I a loner largely cut off from people? Ask, am I more active in supporting the proclamation of the Gospel to a world in need? Spiritual growth requires positive change—not just in our thinking, but in what we do, our works.
Godly self-esteem, self-worth, or perhaps more accurately expressed, self-respect, is something you earn. You earn it through all of your choices and actions, each and every day you add to your sense of positive self-worth, or subtract from it. God wants us to change into someone new and beautiful and be filled with good works. Paul said, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” (2Cor 5:17). That is change from the inside out. Christian confidence and boldness comes forth from real growth, real change, and Godly good works.
Your freedom to change declares you possess a high degree of God-given agency. God accepts that you have responsibility for your own life. You own your own life and you must decide what you want to do to move your life in God’s direction, what you can do to strengthen your spiritual character, your inner self. Growing Godward is an internal process fueled by a passion to “be holy, because I am holy” (1Pet 1:16; Lev 11:44, 45).
Finding True North
In what direction is your moral compass pointing? Is it properly calibrated according to “true north”–the Way of God? That way, as we’ve seen, is simply making God your father and becoming a loving, obedient son or daughter. Jesus said, “I do what pleases him” and often his father responded to Jesus and those with him: “This is my son whom I love, with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.” Here we see the essence of the bond God wants to establish with us—”I will be your God and you will be my people.” But the process of conforming to God’s Way is not without stress.
Life is good, but it is not always easy. The dynamic of change—economic, emotional, mental, family, political, physical—brings fluctuating levels of stress. Not all stress is negative, in fact stress exists in the tension between life and death, success and failure, happiness and misery. We stress our selves to seek life and the best ways to enjoy it. This is positive. A life totally free of stress is probably not much of a life. I would guess it would be more like lying in a casket.
I remember talking to a vineyard owner famous for his Oregon pinot noir wine. After walking about his rocky hillside vineyard I remarked that his soil looked poor, not what I had expected. He acknowledged it was poor but nevertheless was good for making quality wine. He explained that the best wine comes from stressed vines that have been heavily pruned and forced to put down deep roots seeking needed nutrients. These are the vines that produce a superior grade grape though not always in great quantity. Because the vines are stressed they produce a finer, higher quality wine of deeper complexity, richer taste, and consequently of greater value, fetching a higher price.
In his famous “I am the vine, you are the branches, and my Father is the gardener” parable, Jesus said that even the fruitful branches needed pruning to be ever more fruitful. The Father is after quality, precious children ever-changing into his spiritual image, of which there is no better example than Jesus, his firstborn son.
New Good Habits Destroy Old Bad Habits
Counselors have long recommended to people addicted to negative behaviors that the best way to break bad habits is to replace them with good habits. This too is the essence of spiritual growth. We repent of and replace the selfish habits of sin with new habits of righteous living, selfless giving, and good works. God offers us his spirit to empower us to live in newness of life.
Paul pleads for his fellows in the faith to become living sacrifices offering themselves as holy offerings to God. He calls it spiritual worship for truly this is what God wants from us. The highest form of worship before God isn’t waving hands, speaking in “tongues,” or making noise and music at a “worship service.” It is to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind” to conform to the Divine nature (see Romans 12:1-2, 9). Imitation, motivated by love, is the most profound demonstration of our worship of God. It compels us to search for the Way God wants us to think and act; “to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (vs 2).
Renewing the mind works like one of those old elephant jokes: “How do you make an elephant out of a huge rock?” Answer: “Knock off every piece that doesn’t look like an elephant.” Simple in concept, but it requires a skillful hand to sculpt a real-looking elephant out of a chunk of rock. Consider that you want to become like God in all the ways it is humanly possible. This requires major work to be done on you, the raw material, the unsculpted “rock.”
You are the raw “rock” for the analogy, but not an inert piece of stone, rather a living creature similar in image to your creator, except in the area of character. Departing still from the analogy of rock carving, you as a free-thinking being must participate in your own carving—your own reshaping. You are working on yourself. First, the carver must have before him a clear image of what an elephant looks like and keep his eye on that model throughout the work if he expects to do a credible job. In God’s grand scheme of making people into his image, the carver (you) is not left to act alone. The Image (God) itself will assist the carver (you) in the process of becoming like Him. Amazing.
In other words, it is a joint process with you and God working as active partners in the project. God will not force you into his image. You must want to be so shaped and must willingly submit to his skillful shaping process.
The potter and the clay is another analogy used in Scripture. “O Yahweh, you are our Father. We are the clay, you are the potter; we are all the work of your hand” (Isa 64:8). No analogy fits perfectly the process of making you into God’s image, but they do picture the hands-on cooperative effort going on between you and your Maker. They help us visualize the human-divine dynamic—the most important work on earth.
God is using the precious time of our lives to be ever-changing us into His image. Let us be soft clay in our Master’s skilled hands. God’s predestined plan is that we “be conformed to the likeness of his son” who was the perfect “image of the invisible God” (Romans 8:28-29; Col 1:15 ).
As long as you are alive, time and change are pushing you in a direction. With God’s guidance that direction will be toward the Eternal Kingdom. Absolutely nothing that may come in your way can stop you from entering into the Father’s Presence and fellowship (see Romans 8:31, 37-39).
Being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.