When will I ever change?
Patience is the secret! Doctors need patience to perform successful surgeries. Engineers need patience to build complex structures. Teachers need patience to produce distinguished scholars. Parents need patience to raise responsible children. Scientists need patience to explore shrouded mysteries. Spouses need patience to build harmonious families. Christians need patience to develop holy character.
An oft-quoted Bible verse in Christian discipleship programmes is 2 Corinthians 5:17, "If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new!" But the new disciple soon finds out that atleast in his case this Scripture is not experienced. He wonders why. He dares not ask others about it. He struggles within himself, sometimes even for years, without finding a satisfactory explanation. He worries whether he is the lonely struggler. If no one gives him a clear teaching on this subject, he settles down for the status quo and even thinks that such promises in the Bible are applicable only to deluxe editions of Christians. May be, dear reader, you are in such a condition. The total change promised in this text seems to be out of your reach. You are however constantly bothered by the question, When will I ever change? This article is an attempt to answer this question with whatever Biblical insight I could receive.
Spiritual rebirth through faith in Christ does not make us unable to sin. If sinning becomes an impossibility, there was no need for the writers of the New Testament epistles to call the readers not to entertain anger, jealousy, immorality, covetousness and the like. The recipients of these letters were actually believers, called to be saints (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:2; 2 Cor 1:1; Eph 1:1; Phil 1:1; etc.) Think of the condition of the Corinthian Christians! Sinless perfection is not at all promised during our earthly sojourn. On the other hand, the Scriptures emphatically state, "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves," and "We all stumble in many things" (1 Jn 1:8; Js 3:2a).
Apostle Paul confessed, "Evil is present with me" (Rom 7:21). His Epistle to the Romans was the textbook of Protestant Reformation for Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther was ruthlessly opposed for his preaching of salvation by faith. He told his close friends, "I more fear what is within me than what comes from without!" Three centuries later John Wesley (1703-1791) the Father of Methodism penned, "Worst of all my foes, I fear the enemy within!"
What we are given at rebirth is an obedient heart instead of our stony heart, and a new spirit instead of our rebellious spirit (Ezek 36:26). God writes His law in our minds and hearts. This means that He enlightens our conscience so we may choose what is pleasing to Him (Jer 31:33). This is the blessing of the New Covenant (Heb 8:8-10). Enablement to walk in holiness does not mean inability to commit sin.
Change of character is a process. It begins with the crisis experience of rebirth. We must not be slack or passive but be patient. Jesus said, "In your patience possess your souls" (Lk 21:19). We must resist the temptation to give up. Itís always too early to quit. The message of the New Testament is the story of Jesus and a call to become like Him. The word "patience" and its cognates occur in this book over 40 times! It was easier for the Israelites to get out of Egypt than to get Egypt out of them! To develop a distaste for the Egyptian onions and garlic was not easy (Num 11:5). They had to struggle. So also in Christian life we donít grow from babyhood to adulthood overnight. Having tasted the mercy of God and the milk of His Word, we must take conscious and consistent effort to develop a dislike for all malice (1 Pet 2:1-3).
In His encounter with Jacob at Peniel, God told him, "Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel" (Gen 32:28). But the Bible continued to call him Jacob (e.g. Gen 33:1). Our "old nature" is not eradicated from us. We have to live with our "old man" all our life. No one but Paul was frank and honest enough to acknowledge this fact: "I know I am rotten through and through so far as my old sinful nature is concerned. No matter which way I turn, I canít make myself do right. I want to, but I canít... If I am doing what I donít want to do, I am not really the one doing it; the sin within me is doing it" (Rom 7:18-20). He found out that victory over sin is only by "considering" constantly that we are dead to sin, and giving preference to the new man in us to make choices (Rom 6:11). In this lifelong warfare, there need not be but there might be occasions when the new man would lose to the old man. We must not retreat in discouragement. It is concerning the "righteous" it is said, "They may trip seven times, but each time they will rise again" (Prov 24:16).
I am afraid that this teaching might be misunderstood. Apostle Paul who boldly expounded this subject had the same apprehension. He made a daring statement, "Where sin abounded, grace abounded much more!" (Rom 5:20b). Suddenly he realized that he might be grossly misunderstood. Therefore he asked and answered a corrective question: "Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? Certainly not!" (Rom 6:1,2a). Here is no suggestion to excuse sin, but this is a persuasion to embrace and exalt grace.
Many Christians are living under "condemnation" because of repeated failures in their lives. The Bible asserts, "There is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus" (Rom 8:1). The Holy Spirit never "condemns" Godís people. He just "convicts" them. Judas Iscariot accepted "condemnation" and that led to awful destruction. On the other hand, Simon Peter came under "conviction" which led to awesome restoration. Judas betrayed Christ only once whereas Peter denied Him thrice! Peter learnt the all-important lesson that only by patiently trying again and again one can grow in godliness. This he wrote in his second Epistle (2 Pet 1:6). He listed seven virtues for growing in fruitfulness and increasing in effectiveness in Christian life. Patience is mentioned fourth as the central one! Patience is to be added to the first three, and the last three to patience! (vv 5-8).
Because God is patient towards us, especially in our failures, we must persevere in our efforts to live holy. It is the goodness of God, even His tolerance and patience, that motivates us to keep on repenting (Rom 2:4). We fear God because He abundantly forgives (Psa 130:4). Christ is tirelessly interceding for us from the right hand of His Father and thatís why we must resist temptation to sin (1 Jn 2:1). God is the Potter and we are the clay. We are still in the making. He has not finished with us yet. When God Himself is so patient with us in shaping our character, how can we become impatient with ourselves and quit trying? Patience strengthens the spirit, sweetens the temper, stifles anger and subdues pride.
Gifts of the Holy Spirit are "received" whereas His fruits are to be "cultivated." It is by the fruit of the Spirit we overcome the desires of our sinful nature (Gal 5:19-23). Thereís no magic seed which grows and yields fruit in one day! Who has heard of an instant harvest? We are not mushrooms but trees planted by God! Impatience in agriculture is detrimental. Hybrid varieties are manmade and they are inferior to what is supernaturally natural. Our life is like a garden. Each virtue is represented by a tree. Tending the garden requires lot of patience. Regular and unhurried meditation of the Bible is like weeding and watering. We shall be "like trees planted along the riverbank, bearing fruit each season without fail" (Psa 1:2,3). The Bible tells us what we are and what we ought to be. Its truths are deep but not complicated. If only we are sincere enough to follow its simple guidelines, we will experience a daily transformation in our lives. It was in the context of fruitbearing Jesus encouraged His disciples saying, "You are already clean because of the WORD which I have spoken to you" (Jn 15:1-3).
Outward decorations donít take long or last long. We are not Christmas trees with stars and lights! We are called to bring forth real and abiding fruit. This is not possible without taking care of the root. "If the roots of the tree are holy, the branches will be, too" (Rom 11:16b). Our hearts are the root. Vices originate in the heart (Mt 15:19). Thatís why we are admonished to keep a constant vigil over the heart (Prov 4:23). For every failure in life, there is a root cause. Healing and restoration do not come unless "the axe is laid at the root!" The process may be slow and painful, but this is how we can bring about a change in character. According to the Bible, the love of money is at the root of all kinds of evil (1 Tim 6:10a). Unless this monster is dealt with, it will show its ugly head in so many areas of our life. The true sign of Pentecost is the loosening of grip on gold (Acts 2:1,44,45). Very few acquire this blessedness overnight. Scales from our eyes fall off one by one, and then we begin to see the vanity of riches.
Character development begins with small things. Excusing ourselves in minor offences usually leads to major transgressions. Jesus taught, "He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much" (Lk 16:10a). Backsliding or deterioration is usually in stages. Psalmist David has drawn it as a graph for us in Psalm 19:12,13. First itís just "errors," then "secret faults," then "deliberate sins," and finally "great transgression!" Thatís why the call : "Quick! Catch all the LITTLE foxes before they ruin the vineyard, for the grapevines are all in blossom" (SS 2:15). Judas had the habit of taking coins from the common money bag for his pocket expenses (Jn 12:6). We know where it finally led him to. Character is simply habit long continued.
Psychologists differ on whether or not temperaments and traits are genetic. Condemning the sins of Judah, God asked, "Can an Ethiopian change the colour of his skin? Can a leopard take away its spots? Neither can you start doing good, for you always do evil!" (Jer 13:23). Jesus once rebuked the Pharisees, "You brood of snakes! How could evil men like you speak what is good and right?" (Mt 12:34). These analogies speak simply of the extent of ungodliness and the futility of mere human efforts to change hearts. Otherwise how can God hold a person responsible for his behaviour which is not his by choice but his by just inheritance? There was a proverb in the land of Israel, "The parents have eaten sour grapes, but their childrenís mouths pucker at the taste!" But God commanded that this proverb be quoted no longer. He said, "This is My rule: The person who sins will be the one who dies!" (Ezek 18:1-4). Of course children do what they observe their parents do.
Unlearning any learnt behaviour which is not Biblically sanctioned is the individualís responsibility. Thatís why at rebirth we are transplanted with a soft heart which is flexible and pliable. Unlearning no doubt takes longer time, but when we patiently work at it the Holy Spirit helps us strip off sins which easily hinder our progress (Heb 12:1). We are to proceed steadily with patience!
Imitation is a human instinct. "Bad company corrupts good character" (1 Cor 15:33). If we associate with the humble, we will imbibe the spirit of humility (Rom 12:16). Fellowship with saintly Christians will deepen our love for holiness (2 Tim 2:22). Company of those who have a grip on grace will make us graceful in our dealings with people. Even a brief stay with missionaries in remote places will drive away from us murmuring of all sorts. Working with the poorest of the poor fills us with a spirit of gratitude and thankfulness for Godís manifold blessings in our lives (Dan 4:27).
God purposely puts together two individuals of diametrically opposite temperaments, as spouses or hostel roommates or collegues, to shape one another. King Solomon wrote in his wisdom, "As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another" (Prov 27:17). It may be a torturous and excruciating experience. But if we separate "what God has joined together," He will employ even more rigorous methods to transform our character. I wonder whether the deplored death of the 29 year old Iranian conjoined twin sisters, Ladan and Laleh Bijani, in a clinically successful 52 hour surgery on 8th July 2003 in Singapore to get their heads separated from each other, does not have a message to a world which seeks over-independence!
If you are weak in a particular area, fellowshipping with someone strong in it will strengthen you (Rom 15:1). This is why we are put into the Body of Christ. Reading of biographies and autobiographies of saints and soldiers of the Cross is a highly profitable exercise for behavioural change and character development. The devil will whisper in our ears the bad examples in the Bible so we may justify certain wrongs in our lives. To this we must not give room. Our fallen nature will be quick to take refuge under the ungodly acts of godly men and women. The failures of saints recorded in the Bible are simply to warn us against pitfalls. We must not lie like Abraham, lose temper like Moses, lust like David, or fight like Paul with coworkers over small matters! Bishop J.C. Ryle (1816-1900) observed, "Thereís no sin so great that a great saint may not fall into it; and thereís no saint so great that he may not fall into a great sin!" Therefore, beloved, watch out!
Conscience is a matchless gift from God. It is His lamp to search all the inner depths of our hearts (Prov 20:27). It is sometimes called the "spirit of man" (1 Cor 2:11a). A sharp conscience is an inestimable asset for character building. The conscience must be trained to love whatís right with perfect love and hate whatís wrong with perfect hatred. Itís easier to love good than to hate evil. If we choose the easier one and ignore the other, we will become popular with men but wonít please God. If we love good and hate evil equally, we will earn the smile of God as well as the frown of the devil (Heb 1:9). Only when we keep our conscience clear, we will not mix up black and white. "Woe to those who say that evil is good and good is evil; that dark is light and light is dark; that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter" (Isa 5:20). Anselm (1033-1109) an Archbishop of Canterbury was able to testify, "If hell were on one side and sin on the other, I would rather leap into hell than willingly sin against my God!" Such strength in character is gained by perseveringly training up the conscience (Acts 23:1; 24:16).
God sends difficulties and disappointments, and allows defeats and diseases in our lives to serve as a rod of correction. His punishments are not just an expression of anger. He has the end in view, even our transformation (Heb 12:10). Our problem is that we want to have solutions and explanations right now (v 11). We reject Godís voice of silence and turn to wrong sources. The result is further complications. Impatience with the dealings of God wastes our time and energy. A minor sprain becomes a major dislocation (v13b). But "perseverance produces character" (Rom 5:3,4).
In the beginning of Christian life we may only "hear" about the holiness of God. After walking through fires of testing we will actually "see" His holiness. Our repentance will be deepened. Itís no more prayers of repentance at the altar, but tears of repentance in ashes! This was Jobís experience (Job 42:5,6). The Bible calls us to follow the "patience of Job" (Js 5:11). We must study all our lifetime in the School of Suffering and College of Chastisement. God has used sicknesses to break the lifestyle of many an arrogant man and woman. Following a bitter experience with a killer disease, King Hezekiah decided, "I will walk humbly all my years because of this anguish of my soul" (Isa 38:15b).
Any Christian who is serious about changing his carnal nature into spiritual- mindedness ought to study the Sermon on the Mount diligently (Matthew 5-7). This is the Magna Carta of the Kingdom of God. No better sermon has been ever preached to present the Kingdom values. This Sermon is the Highway of Holiness. Its intense practicality is never outdated. Memorizing this Sermon and frequent meditation of the same will load our minds with "whatever is true... honourable... right... pure... lovely... admirable... excellent and praiseworthy" (Phil 4:8). These virtues will then manifest in our words and deeds. Whatever is in our hearts determines what we say or do (Lk 6:45). Jesus lived out the Sermon on the Mount to the minutest detail.
I believe that Paulís thumb rule in any situation was WWJD (What Would Jesus Do?). Whenever there was the slightest deviation he would withdraw himself and say, "We have not so learned Christ!" (Eph 4:20). Sermons from the four Gospels these days are mostly on the miracles of Christ rather than His manner of life. We want to experience His power without following His pattern. This explains the hollowness in our ministries. Holiness is nothing more or less than Christlikeness. The one who occupies himself with the study of the life of Christ is sure to become like Him.
Eventhough we learn from our failures, everytime we yield to temptation we become weaker and weaker. It is by overcoming we grow strong. The first preparation to resist temptation is to be watchful in prayer (Mt 26:41). A "willing spirit" that is not strengthened by prayer cannot prevent the "weak flesh" falling into sin. Two of the seven requests in the Lordís prayer relate to temptation and sin. The first one is to seek forgiveness for our sins; the next one is to seek strength to overcome sin (Mt 6:12,13). Watchfulness in prayer means carrying the spirit of prayer throughout the day by being conscious of the presence of God with us. Our sense of sin is in proportion to our nearness to God (Isa 6:1-5). We must view the sins of omission as seriously as the sins of commission.
In the kind of busy world we live, we at times do not become instantly aware of our failures. Unhurried time before God in self-examination is a must. This is what prompted William Longstaff (1822-1894) to compose the hymnó
Take time to be holy, the world rushes on;
Spend much time in secret with Jesus alone.
By looking to Jesus, like Him thou shalt be;
Thy friends in thy conduct His likeness shall see.
This was the only hymn Mr. Longstaff wrote in his life. Is it not enough?
Most of what we have considered so far speaks of what "we" are to do to change our nature. We will now turn to the other side of the coin. Otherwise we will end up with a religion of works. Of the 39 books of the Old Testament the theme of Holiness is not so bountifully dealt with in any book other than the Book of Leviticus. It is from this Book apostle Peter quoted the curt commandment: "Be holy!" (1 Pet 1:16; Lev 19:2). If God had stopped just with this commandment, we only will have to perish in guilt and condemnation. How can I in a sinful earth with a sinful nature be holy like God who indwells a sinless Heaven and who has not known sin? His expectation is lofty but not logical! Thatís why He sent His Son in flesh and blood to give us a followable pattern for holiness. If God the Father says, "Be holy," God the Son would add, "Be holy, AS I am holy!" Here again we may argue, "Jesus does not have the sinful Adamic nature like us because He was born of the Holy Spirit!" Hereís where God the Holy Spirit comes with an ultimate solution: "I am the Lord who makes you holy" (Lev 20:8). Sing Hallelujah!
Growth in holiness is comparable to the construction of a building. "It is neither by (our) might nor (our) power, but by Godís Spirit!" (Zech 4:6). Progress in holiness is comparable to a race. "It is not of him who desires, nor of him who runs, but of God who shows mercy" (Rom 9:16). Ripening in holiness is comparable to cultivation. "He who plants is not anything, nor he who waters, but God who gives the harvest" (1 Cor 3:6). God is more interested in making us holy than we are in becoming holy! All the three Persons of the Trinitarian Godhead are working together to change us into the image of Jesus the central Person in Godhead. The miracle of miracles happens, which is this: God takes an unholy man from an unholy world, makes him holy, puts him back in the unholy world, and keeps him holy!!! Shout, Glory!
The promises of God are as bright as God Himself! His "exceedingly great and precious promises" are just to make us "partakers of the divine nature" (2 Pet 1:4). As I have pointed out several times in this article, transformation of character is a process which must be patiently worked at. Just like mountaineering, oftentimes we may slide down but we must keep climbing. God is working in us all the time. We are "being transformed" into the very likeness of Jesus "from glory to glory" ó from one state to the other (2 Cor 3:18). After listening to me preach on the theme, Like Jesus, a bank official with eyes full came running and asked me, "Brother, Do you really think a person like me can ever become like Jesus?" I instantly replied, "If an unseemly caterpillar can transform into an attractive butterfly, you surely can become like Jesus!" He is now a growing and glowing Christian because of this faith. With Patriarch Job letís keep confessing, "All the days of my appointed time will I wait, till my change comes" (Job 14:14).
By standing, all believers in Christ are already holy before God. The robe of Christís righteousness is on us. However, by state, we are still filthy and being sanctified. Our standing and state will become one and the same when we would meet Christ face to face. Hereís the assurance for this anticipation: "Whom God predestined, those He also called; whom He called, those He also justified; and whom He justified, those He also glorified!" (Rom 8:30). Towards this eternal purpose, all things in our lives work together for good! (v28).
Therefore, beloved, donít allow men or Satan to condemn you whether you stand or fall (Rom 8:31-34; 14:4). Keep on keeping on! Faithful is He who has called you to be holy; He will also do it! God Himself shall sanctify you completely; and your whole spirit and soul and body will be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess 5:23,24). Therefore, "be patient; take courage; for the coming of the Lord is near!" (Js 5:8).