Start that new diet. Be more thankful. Try something new each month. The resolutions people make this time of year cover a wide spectrum of fun to serious, philosophical to practical, from tweaking minor habits to working toward major life goals. With the turning of the year comes the feeling of a fresh start, and the tradition of New Year’s Resolutions gives people a chance to assess the areas of their lives where they want to see change.
Whether or not you do New Year’s Resolutions, for the Christian, personal change and growth is not optional. Still there are many reasons we may be slow to start pursuing the type of change God calls us to. Sometimes, we aren’t quite convinced of our need to change or we don’t know exactly how we should be changing. Sometimes, we have the desire and direction for change, but we just don’t think it’s possible or we’re afraid to try and fail. In other words, we often stumble at one point or another in answering these questions:
Do I need to change?
How do I need to change?
Can I change?
What if I fail?
Scripture speaks to our objections and fears about change and the Christian pursuit of spiritual growth is wonderfully unique in how these questions are answered. I pray these truths will spur you on toward the change God intends for you in 2017.
1. God calls all Christians to continual change and growth.
The life of a Christian is one marked by radical transformation. God finds us where we are, in darkness and in sin, and through Christ makes us into new creations. The old has gone, the new has come (2 Cor 5:17)! For the Christ-follower, this is just the beginning of a lifelong pursuit of God and godliness.
In 2 Peter, believers are exhorted to make every effort to grow in virtue, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. Why? “For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet 1:8). As Christians, we are not only called to have right knowledge of God, but to conform to Christ’s image and to do so in increasing measure.
I am often challenged and encouraged by Paul’s writing to the Philippians, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Phil 3:12). Even Paul did not have it all down but continued to work and press on ahead! From the new believer to the elderly saint, we are all called to grow in Christlikeness and in our love for the Lord and neighbor. The challenge is that none of us have walked with God so long that we no longer need to change. The comfort is that none of us is alone in this need.
2. We have a clear and precious guide in the Scriptures for how we are to change.
The world is longing for guidance through life and, as often as we claim that we want to be autonomous, we are constantly picking up books, consuming articles, and browsing blogs to show us how to live. We want advice from other people who seem to know what they’re doing and we want to know that we’re heading in the right direction whether in family, career, or just life in general.
The Bible is infinitely more than instructions on how we are supposed to live our lives (praise God!)—but it is not less than that. For the person who has experienced the gospel of Christ, God’s commandments go from being words of condemnation and judgment to solid ground, a lamp to our feet, a precious mirror for our lives. Rather than grope around in the dark, trying to figure out how we should live, we have Scripture as a clear guide.
Instead of just wondering at the symptoms that let us know that something needs to change— why we feel guilty, why there is strife in our relationships, why the joylessness, anxiety and unrest— we can look to the word of God to diagnose the root problems in our hearts. As we read them or listen to them preached, God’s commands shine a light on the areas in our lives that are yet to be conformed to Christ.
3. We are given supernatural power to change.
Even when God has shown us where we need to change, sometimes we’re afraid to start because we know our own hearts and how difficult it is to truly change. Sometimes we don’t even want to feel the conviction of the Holy Spirit in the reading of his Word because we are afraid that God is going to ask something impossible of us.
My husband often reminds our church, “Buddha never promised to help people. He said, ‘Hey, I found this path’ but never, ‘I will help you.’” Far from being like Buddha, a self-help book, or the Pharisees who laid heavy burdens on people but did not lift a finger to help them (Mt. 23:4), God has promised and given help. This is one area where the amazing uniqueness of the Christian faith shines through and completely blows away all other paradigms and models of change. It’s the difference between giving someone a dieting plan for the year versus getting into their brain to replace their cravings and cells to change their metabolism rate.
God has sent us his Spirit— the same Spirit that raised Christ from the dead, and his Spirit lives within us. What greater power is there than that which could lift someone from the depths of the earth to be seated above the heavenly places? Our difficulties in growing and changing are no match for his power. God himself works in us to will and work for his good pleasure (Phil 2:13) and Christ in us is our hope of glory (Col 1:27). His Spirit is able to produce in us the fruit he demands of us – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. God is not a harsh taskmaster and his commands are not burdensome because those who are in him have overcome the world (1 Jn 5:3-4). Though there is a war waging within us and we cry for deliverance from this body of death, he gives victory through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom 7:24-25)!
One of the refrains I often hear as a homeschooling mom is, “It’s too ha-aard!” By the time my daughter declares this, she’s usually stopped trying to sound out that new word or answer that tough math problem. We’re working on changing her first response to difficult schoolwork from “It’s too hard” to a cheerful, confident “I can do it with help!” How much more joyfully and eagerly can we pursue greater obedience to Christ when we know we are promised his Spirit to help us.
4. We don’t have to be afraid to fail.
In our pursuit of Christ we will all invariably feel the tension of the call to obey God’s perfect law and our knowledge that we will not be rid of sin until we see him face to face. Sometimes we are so discouraged from our repeated failures that we don’t see the point in trying again.
Scripture speaks to our fears as John writes, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 Jn 2:1). Here we are given the charge not to sin, to be holy as he is holy. That is why John has just given his hearers the charge to walk in the light and will warn them that if anyone does not obey God’s commandments, he does not know God. But alongside of this call, we are given the comfort of knowing that when we fail, Christ advocates for us. His righteous record is ours, his blood declares us forgiven. In essence, God says to us here, “This is my standard. I know that you won’t meet it but you are still called to it because it is right. And I have made a provision for you when you fail.”
God knows that I will fail in my efforts to change, so what is expected of me is not perfection to be obtained in this lifetime. Rather, even in my faltering attempts, he is pleased with marked progress as I practice obedience (1 Tim 4:15). In my own spiritual journey, there was a point where I was driven to despair at what seemed like the futility of pursuing obedience to Christ. What’s the point when I keep failing and needing to ask for forgiveness? Through a mentor, I learned that Christian growth is not in the attainment of sinlessness in this lifetime, but shown in decreasing turnaround times– quicker repentance and subsequent obedience. Here is where we learn the art of what my mentor called, “Doing the next best thing.” The “best thing” would have been obedience the first time around, but when we have failed, we are called to repent quickly and by faith take the next step to obey.
Often, after a day that has been particularly wrought with disobedience, meltdowns, and the like, my husband will say to our girls, “Tomorrow’s a new day.” This says to them that yes, they didn’t do so well today and the standard for obedience is still there, but there is hope for change yet. For the Christian, we pursue change wholeheartedly with the assurance of knowing that any moment can be January 1—a fresh start in Christ and a chance for renewed commitment to obedience.
Whether baby steps or huge growth lies ahead for the year, may we pursue Christ and the change he intends for us with joy and resolve. Knowing we have a sure guide and great help, we can look forward to saying, come 2018, that though we’re still not yet what we will be, by his power and grace we are no longer what we were.