This article is based on Tim Chester’s book You Can Change: God’s Transforming Power for Our Sinful Behavior and Negative Emotions (Crossway, 2010).
Lose weight. Learn a new language. Remain calm with the kids. Go to the gym. Watch less television. Read the classics. Spend more time in prayer.
What’s your new year’s resolution going to be?
There’s nothing wrong with resolutions. A young Jonathan Edwards famously made a list of 70.
Most of our resolutions are aimed at changing certain things about ourselves. Here are 10 questions to ask of resolutions (whatever time of year they’re made) to ensure we’re being gospel-centered in our approach to change.
1. How would you like to change?
We all have things about ourselves we’d like to change. God, too, has a big agenda for change in our lives. We were created in his image to reflect his glory. When we rejected him, though, that image was broken. Enter Jesus—the true image of God who perfectly reflects God’s glory.
God wants us to become like Jesus—to be “glory-reflectors”—so he recreates us in his image. Seeing God’s glory in Jesus by faith leads to reflecting God’s glory like Jesus. Go back to your New Year’s resolution. Do you need to rethink it to bring it into line with God’s agenda for your life?
2. Why would you like to change?
Here are three possible reasons:
- to prove ourselves to God (so he will bless us or save us)
- to prove ourselves to other people (so people will like us)
- to prove ourselves to ourselves (so we think well about ourselves).
None of these reasons for change really works because they put “me” at the center of my change project, and that’s pretty much what sin is.
“Proving ourselves” is another way of describing what Scripture calls “justifying ourselves.” But the good news is that since God has justified us through Jesus, we don’t need to prove ourselves. God adopts us as his children, and this new identity forms both the motive and the basis for change. The reason Christians should want to change is to enjoy the freedom from sin God gives us through Jesus.
3. How are you going to change?
Like me, you may have tried many times to change in the past—only to fail again. What were we doing wrong? We often try to change ourselves through spiritual disciplines, codes of conduct, or religious activity. But we may need to repent of our proud, self-reliant attempts at righteousness. None of this makes us like Jesus. Only heart change leads to lasting change because sinful behavior flows from sinful hearts.
Genuine, lasting change is God’s work. The Father is intimately involved in our lives so that our circumstances train us in godliness. The Son has set us free from both the penalty and power of sin so that we now live under the reign of grace. The Spirit gives us a new attitude toward sin and a new power to change. Change is in the DNA of those who’ve been born of God, and we’re changed through faith.
4. When do you struggle?
The triune God cares deeply about our struggles. The Father sees them, the Son experienced them, the Spirit is with us in them. And one day, God will bring all our struggles to an end.
In the meantime, our struggles expose our hearts. Identifying when you struggle may give you a clue as to why you struggle. While circumstances often trigger our sin, they don’t cause it. The root cause is always the sinful desires of our hearts. We sin because we believe lies about God instead of believing his Word, and we sin because we worship idols instead of worshiping him.
5. What truths do you need to turn to?
Behind every sin and negative emotion is a lie. Of course, not many of us think of ourselves as someone who believes lies. But every time we don’t trust God’s Word, we’re believing something else—a lie.
The gap between what we believe in theory and what we believe in practice creates our problems. We need to preach these truths about God to our hearts:
- God is great, so we don’t have to be in control.
- God is glorious, so we don’t have to fear others.
- God is good, so we don’t have to look elsewhere.
- God is gracious, so we don’t have to prove ourselves.
We sin because we think sin offers more than God. But the reality is that only God truly satisfies forever.
6. What desires do you need to turn from?
We sin because we crave something more than God. The Bible speaks of “the sinful desires of our hearts.” Whenever a desire controls your heart, it has become an idol. Sometimes we desire bad things. More often we desire a good thing, but it has become more important to us than God.
When that desire is threatened or thwarted, we react with anger, bitterness, aggression, or withdrawal. We need to turn from our sinful desires to worship, and that is genuine repentance. Repentance comes by faith because faith believes God is bigger and better than anything sin offers.
7. What stops you from changing?
The main reason we don’t change is pride. Pride leads us to excuse, minimize, or hide our flaws. But taking responsibility for our sin leads to repentance, which in turn leads to forgiveness and freedom.
Another reason we don’t change is we don’t really want to. Sure, we’d like to avoid the consequences or shame of our sin, but we continue to love the sin itself. We need to keep coming back to the cross, which humbles us and reveals the wonderful love of God.
8. What strategies do you need to put in place to reinforce faith and repentance?
Though we can’t change ourselves through laws and disciplines, there are strategies we can and should adopt to reinforce faith and repentance. We should avoid anything that provokes or reinforces our sinful desires (what Galatians 6 calls “sowing to the flesh”).
Instead, we should strengthen our desire for God through the means of grace: reading/meditating/memorizing the Bible, prayer, community, worship, service, suffering, and fixating on the hope of eternity (what Galatians 6 calls “sowing to the Spirit”).
9. How can we support one another in change?
God has given us the Christian community to help us change, and we reinforce faith by reminding one another of the truth. We reinforce repentance by holding one another accountable. To combat the deceitfulness of sin, we need to do this daily by sharing our lives together, and we need to be communities of grace in which we can be open with one another (Heb. 3:12–13).
10. Are you ready for a lifetime of daily change?
God has given us new desires, but our old ones linger on. The Christian life is a battle, and the battlefield is our hearts. Faith and repentance are not one-off events, but daily disciplines practiced over a lifetime. Change may demand a lifetime of daily struggle, but it is worth it. Christ is worth it.
There is always hope. Since change is possible, there’s no reason to plateau. And since change is certain, we will reap an eternal harvest. Until then, we are always righteous sinners—always in need of change and always accepted by God.