Do you feel like you are in a spiritual rut? Do you wonder why you haven't grown spiritually? Are you covering the same ground in your Christian walk? Do you wonder why though you are learning about Jesus, you are not living like him? Are you saying to yourself, "I've been a Christian for years, but I don't feel any closer to Christ today than I did years ago?"
The Bible talks about life transformation and we hear others tell how their lives have changed. For many of us we desperately want to change. But we see so little of it personally. Why? Perhaps part of the problem is some faulty assumptions.
I. Myths about life change
A. Life change happens at salvation
Comedian Yakov Smirnoff says that when he first came to the United States from Russia, he wasn't prepared for the incredible variety of instant products available in American grocery stores. He says, "On my first shopping trip, I saw powdered milk - you just add water, and you get milk. Then I saw powdered orange juice - you just add water, and you get orange juice. And then I saw baby powder, and I thought to myself, What a country!"
One of the most basic assumptions made about life change is that it happens instantly at salvation. People come to Christ and think that by being a Christian their habits, attitudes, and character will change immediately. Since Christ alters a person's eternal destiny at salvation, so immediate life change is not only assumed; it is expected.
B. Life change continues naturally over time
Here the assumption is that being a Christian will translate automatically into becoming a Christian. Therefore, a five-year-old Christian will have five years' worth of spiritual maturity, a ten-year-old Christian will have ten years' worth of spiritual maturity, and so on. The assumption is that faith cannot help but grow with time, and it is time alone that is required.
C. Life change is achieved largely by an act of the will
The idea is that what doesn't happen naturally over time takes place by trying. The harder we try the more we will grow. If we decide to live a certain way and really focus our internal juices a determined behavior will result.
D. Life change is best accomplished alone
A personal relationship with Christ has become synonymous with a private relationship with Christ. Just get alone with God, have personal devotions, and private retreats and one's life will automatically change.
II. The right formula for life change
A better way exists. The correct way. The apostle Paul outlines it in Philippians 2:13-14. Paul explains that the Christian life is not a series of ups and downs. It is a process of ins and outs. God works in us while we work out. It is a partnership involving God, the individual believer, teachers, and fellow believers. It is a process where God works in, we work out, teachers work with, and believers work together. It can be stated in a sentence: Life change begins with God, is about training (not trying), requires teaching, and is a team effort.
A. Life change begins with God (v. 13)
God has a role in the life change process. We partner with God. God is always at work in us. "For we are His creation - created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them" (Eph. 2:10). God works in us before he can work through us. Our English word energy comes from the word translated work in verse 13. It is God's divine energy at work in us and through us.
When we give our life to Christ, our eternal destiny is altered, there is a radical reorientation of priorities, there is a new life purpose, and there is the indwelling Holy Spirit. Rather than instant liberation from every bad habit or character flaw we've ever possessed, however, what takes place is more like the landing of an army on a beach and the routing out of the enemy as the army makes its way inland. At salvation God establishes a beachhead. Total occupation will come in time as the other parts of the formula are implemented.
Here's another way of looking at it. The event of salvation is best seen as the beginning of a journey as God begins his work in us that will lead to life change. Just as there was a process that led up to our conversion, so is there a process that moves us toward life change.
As God begins his work in us, he uses three tools in the process.
1. God uses the Bible to bring about life change
Through his Word he teaches us how to live.
A converted cannibal in the South Sea islands was sitting by a large pot reading his Bible when an anthropologist wearing a pith helmet approached him and asked, "What are you doing?"
The native replied, "I'm reading the Bible."
The anthropologist scoffed and said, "Don't you know that modern, civilized man had rejected that book? It's nothing but a pack of lies. You shouldn't waste your time reading it."
The cannibal looked him over from head to toe and slowly replied, "Sir, if it weren't for this book, you'd be in that pot." The Word of God had changed his life, and his appetite.
If you are serious about changing your life, you're going to have to live according to the Bible. You will need to read it, study it, memorize it, meditate on it, and apply it.
2. God uses the Holy Spirit to change us
The Holy Spirit provides the power, the conviction, and the direction for life change. The Holy Spirit acts like an internal warning system when we begin to make wrong steps and like an applauding crowd when we take the right steps toward becoming like Jesus.
God's number purpose in life is to make us like Jesus Christ. The Spirit of God uses the Word of God to make the child of God more like the Son of God.
3. God uses circumstances to change us
The circumstances are the problems, pressures, heartaches, difficulties, and stress of life. Suffering gets our attention. C. S. Lewis said that God whispers to us in our pleasure, but shouts to us in our pain. The painful circumstances - whether we bring them on ourselves, or other people cause them, or the Devil incites them - are used by God to help us grow in likeness to his son.
B. Life change is about training not trying (v. 12)
Notice that Paul doesn't say, "Work for your salvation." To work for something means to earn it, to deserve it, to merit it. The Bible clearly teaches that salvation is not something we have to work for. It is a free gift of God's grace. So Paul is not implying that we devise our own plan of salvation or that we work into a right relationship with God by our own efforts.
The verb "work out" carries the meaning of "work to full completion," such as working out a problem in mathematics. In Paul's day it was also used for "working a mine," that is, getting out of the mine all the valuable ore possible. The word was also used for "working a field" so as to get the greatest harvest possible. Today, we use the word to describe to physical exercise so as to get in the best possible shape. So, when Paul says, "Work out your salvation," he is talking about a "spiritual workout" or "spiritual training."
Life change is not about trying; it's about training. Merely trying to experience life change can never bring about life change. I can try very hard to bench press three hundred pounds, but that isn't what will enable me to do it. I will only be able to bench press three hundred pounds by training to bench press three hundred pounds.
Training requires discipline. To truly live a Christ-like life, we have to order our lives around those activities, disciplines, and practices that were modeled by Christ. The disciplines or prayer, solitude, worship, giving, tithing, serving, and others are essential to accomplish the life change that we desire.
C. Life change requires teaching (v. 12)
Change rarely happens in a vacuum. Often we need the advice and wisdom of others. For Christian growth, God's plan includes the counsel and guidance of teachers. Paul was a teacher to the Philippians. He had modeled for them and instructed them in the Christ-like life. He was the teacher; they were the students. He was faithful to his calling; they were obedient to his instructions.
Optimal growth occurs when we fall under someone who knows something we don't or has experience in an area we don't and is willing to share this knowledge with us. That is the role of the teacher and the learner. Openness to the thought and insight and direction of a teacher is a sure sign of maturity. The quality of teachableness is necessary for life change. John Wooden, the great basketball coach, said, "It's what you learn after you know it all that counts." One of the great tragedies of the people of God, both biblically and historically, has been their instance on not following their appointed, installed, and ordained leaders.
The responsibility of the teacher is to prepare and to present the truth; the learner's responsibility to accept and to apply the truth. The teacher is responsible to the learner, but the teacher is not responsible for the learner.
D. Life change is a team effort (v. 12)
Whenever you see therefore, you must ask what is it there for? Therefore is a hinge word. God expressed his therefore in verse 9. The therefore in verse 12 is our therefore. And it makes sense doesn't it? Understanding what God has done for us through the death and resurrection of Jesus, we, therefore, engage in spiritual growth and vitality in gratitude for that sacrifice.
And we engage in spiritual growth in relationship with other believers. Just as we have a relationship with Christ, we are to have a relationship with like-minded believers who are pursing this intimate relationship with Christ seeking to become more and more like him.
E. Life change is highly relational
Take Alcoholics Anonymous for example. This group has a startling record for authentic life change. Lives devastated and controlled by the abuse of alcohol discover radical transformation through AA's program. Many would say that the secret is the buddy system. If a member feels an urge to drink, that person is supposed to call someone who will support his or her effort not to do it. Every aspect of Alcoholics Anonymous is saturated with the relational element. Participants meet weekly as a group for sharing and support, there are small groups, and individual meetings. AA capitalizes on the important relational component of true transformation.
Business people and athletes talk about the power of a team. In life, we all need support - and when we get it; it brings about the change we are desperate for. Spiritual growth was never intended to be a solo event. It was always intended to be a team sport. In the context of relationships with other believers, we receive accountability, challenge, encouragement, and personal support. That is why Sunday School and Bible study classes are so critical to our spiritual growth and development. Life change happens best in the context of relationships.
Life change is a partnership. God has a part; we have a part; teachers have a part; and fellow believers have a part. God works in; we work out; teachers work with; and the believers work together.
Let me ask the questions I began with again. Do you feel like you are in a spiritual rut? Do you wonder why you haven't grown spiritually? Are you covering the same ground in your Christian walk? Do you wonder why though you are learning about Jesus, you are not living like him? Are you saying to yourself, "I've been a Christian for years, but I don't feel any closer to him today than I did years ago?"
If you are struggling with spiritual growth and little life change is occurring, then where is the breakdown? Are you in partnership with God? Are you allowing God to use his tools of the Bible, the Holy Spirit, and circumstances? Are you in training? Are you engaged in a spiritual work out by employing spiritual disciplines? Are you submitting to teachers for instruction and guidance? Are you engaged with other believers to hold you accountable, challenge, encourage, and support your life change?