How God Changes Lives: Part 3

 An indestructible life

Today we will look at a subject many Christians are interested in: how to bring about positive life change and experience the joy and freedom Jesus promised his followers. I have talked with many frustrated Christians who said, “I know the Bible says Jesus sets us free, but I don’t feel free, and I don’t know what I can do to turn that around.”

Ever been there? It is easy to become exasperated with ourselves and our weak attempts to improve our life. Some of us really want to change; we try and try but keep coming up empty. If that sounds familiar, consider this: perhaps the reason you are unable to bring about the positive changes is not because you don’t want to or because you are not trying, but because you are not training. The process for positive life change always involves training. This is true for any area in life, whether we want to grow physically, mentally, relationally, or emotionally. And God says it is especially important to train our spirit. So we are counseled in 1 Timothy 4, “Do not waste time arguing over godless ideas and old wives’ tales. Instead, train yourself to be godly. Physical training is good, but training for godliness is much better, promising benefits in this life and in the life to come.”

Paul describes it as “training for godliness.” I think of it as soul training and spiritual bootcamp. First and foremost, we learn from the words and works of Jesus. We consider the kind of life he led, and not just what he did in the big moments, but also what he did in the quiet times. Jesus’s earliest disciples scrutinized his every move. They saw Jesus regularly devote long periods of time to solitude, fasting, and prayer (Jesus began his public ministry with a forty day regimen of these three spiritual practices). They saw Jesus heal the sick, encourage the downtrodden, give to the poor, and put the well-being of others before his own. The disciples followed Jesus’s example and incorporated these same soul training activities into their lives, and they learned how God could empower them to do things they could not do on their own.

That was then. What about today? If you were to ask the average Christian on the street, “how does God change lives?” you might be surprised at the answers. Think about some specific changes you would like to see in your own life. Some of us want to stop worrying. Others would love to get a handle on their temper. Some would like to become better stewards of their finances. And all of us would like to be better husbands and wives and parents and children and friends.

Think about the specific changes you would like to see in yourself. By now you’ve probably learned they won’t happen automatically. 1 Timothy 4 says spiritual training is a necessity. Why? Because spiritual growth is a lot like excelling in athletics. An athlete may have tremendous talent and all the desire and enthusiasm in the world, but if he doesn’t train, he will fail. And not only must an athlete train, she must train the right way so she can develop the muscles and skills required to win the contest.

The same is true in spiritual development, but while physical conditioning has radically improved because of technological advancements, spiritual training has been virtually unaffected by technology. That’s because tech is a “from the outside in” solution, while spiritual change is always a “from the inside out” process. Spiritual transformation happens in the heart and mind. Technology can help a little (I appreciate having a laptop instead of the bulky scrolls they used back in the day), but by and large, the tools we use are spiritual. Prayer, solitude, contemplation, fasting, service, benevolence, Bible study, worship with other believers–these are the kinds of tools God uses to change us.

My favorite Bible example is Jesus, but since it’s easy to dismiss his righteousness with, “yeah, but he’s God,” we will use another example: a narrow-minded perfectionist named Saul of Tarsus. Here’s a guy we can relate to, a man who grew up in the same kind of world we grew up in–a world ruled by a harsh God who is always ready to punish sinners. Saul was a few years younger than Jesus, and he was studying to become an expert in religious law when the Nazarene came along. And while Jesus wasn’t speaking to Saul of Tarsus in Luke 11, he was talking to men just like him. In fact, Jesus was speaking to Saul’s teachers and mentors, the men Saul looked up to and wanted to be like. Jesus tells them:

“What sorrow awaits you Pharisees! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore justice and the love of God. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things. What sorrow awaits you Pharisees! For you love to sit in the seats of honor in the synagogues and receive respectful greetings as you walk in the marketplaces. Yes, what sorrow awaits you! For you are like hidden graves in a field. People walk over them without knowing the corruption they are stepping on.”
“Teacher,” said an expert in religious law, “you have insulted us, too, in what you just said.”
“Yes,” said Jesus, “what sorrow also awaits you experts in religious law! For you crush people with impossible religious demands, and you never lift a finger to ease the burden. What sorrow awaits you! For you build monuments for the prophets your own ancestors killed long ago…. What sorrow awaits you experts in religious law! For you remove the key to knowledge from the people. You don’t enter the Kingdom yourselves, and you prevent others from entering.”  (Luke 11:42–52)

Jesus’s words don’t paint a pretty picture, but that is the kind of man Saul of Tarsus was: a judgmental perfectionist who enforced rules he thought had been put in place by a stern, humorless God.

Then he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. Then he met Abba, Jesus’s gracious loving Father, a God who was incompatible with the deity Saul grew up believing in. Jesus changed Saul’s understanding about who God is, and that changed everything.

Saul’s story is spread over half the New Testament in order to help us see how much we have in common with him. Yet Saul (renamed Paul) says in 1 Corinthians 11, “Follow my example. as I follow the example of Christ.” He says it this way in Philippians 4: “Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me–put it into practice, and the God of peace will be with you.”

Paul made Jesus’s soul training regimen a part of his daily life, and he was transformed into a new person. He wanted others to experience the freedom he enjoyed, and he said, “follow my example. Learn from me what I learned from Jesus.”

But we hear Paul saying, “follow me as I follow Christ,” and we immediately want to spiritualize his words. Why? Because most of us aren’t ready to put what we learn from Paul into practice. Consider how Paul and other early disciples of Jesus approached life:

  • They did things like trying to stay mindful of God throughout the day by praying and thinking about living in the center of God’s will.
  • They carved time out of their schedule for solitude and silence–one-on-one time with their Creator.
  • They read the Scriptures every day and committed large passages of God’s Word to memory.
  • They met on Sundays and throughout the week with other believers and actively participated in the Lord’s church.
  • They viewed whatever they possessed as God’s property and treated it accordingly.
  • They loved (willed the good of) their neighbors and helped those in need.

And this is the same lifestyle God invites us into today. Jesus invites each of us to walk in his footsteps and learn the soul training activities that will change us from the inside out. Sadly, many refuse the invitation. To their ears, Jesus’s soul training regimen (prayer, solitude, Bible study, fasting, service, mercy, denying self, etc.) sounds like something for saints and super-Christians, not ordinary believers. Even in the church we hear about “the high cost of discipleship.”

Let’s talk about that. What is the cost of becoming a disciple of Jesus? It will only cost us one thing, but it’s something very precious to us: control. Discipleship is learning how to relinquish control of our life to God, but many of us count the cost and decide it is too high. But we forget to consider the cost of non-discipleship. Maturity in Christ has a cost, but the cost of non-discipleship is far greater–even when this life alone is considered. In his book, The Spirit of the Disciplines, Dallas Willard explains the price we pay for our autonomy:

Non-discipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, it costs exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring.

I often hear Christians express a longing for the abundant life Jesus describes in John 10, but they are skeptical of Jesus’s soul training process. They are not convinced that simple things like prayer and solitude can bring about such amazing changes. They ask questions like, “How can serving others help me stop worrying?” or “How can praying for others help me control my temper?” The remedies Jesus prescribes don’t sound very effective. But Jesus’s soul training regimen is similar to a physical training program–we will not experience the benefits until we start doing the workouts. It is not enough to read exercise books and watch videos. We must participate in the training because apprentices learn most effectively by doing.

We are not likely to see dramatic results overnight, but persistence will be rewarded. We will gradually develop into the people we want to be, and in the process we will discover what Hebrews 7 calls “the power of an indestructible life.” That’s the kind of life Jesus offers us–a life of abiding peace that is penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, and power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, the abundant life Jesus said he came to bring.

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