The new year is often a time to take stock of our lives. As we look back over 2020 and look forward to the year to come, most of us will be acutely aware that there are some habits in our lives that we want to keep and other things that we’d love to change. After all, the past twelve months have brought us all a heady mix of things to celebrate and things that have left us reeling, maybe even close to despair.
Some of us desire change on an international, national, or local front. Others of us yearn for change that’s closer to home: a restored relationship, an improvement in health or an opportunity to seek a better job. But, as Christians, it’s likely that we will also be keen to see deep personal change. A life of following Jesus is a life marked by progressive sanctification, and it’s normal to be both excited about that process and acutely aware of areas in our lives where we still have much growing to do.
That’s why, at the start of a new year, many of us will be investing in new books to read, considering new programs to begin, making plans to reinvigorate our prayer life or even making lists of things we’d like to work on in 2021.
Not All Change is Positive Change
But, as we each ponder the ways in which we could do with becoming more like Christ in the coming year, it’s worth asking ourselves what kind of change we’re expecting to see. Because there are some kinds of change that, while alluring, ultimately bear no real fruit.
When we settle for quick behavioral change.
We may not articulate it as such but many of us have a lot of sympathy with the frustrated child who shouted, “God, I want to be patient—make me patient NOW!” Humans, especially humans in the twenty-first century don’t like waiting for things. Deep down, many of us yearn for the kind of change that takes little time but looks good, on the surface at least. Sometimes we can find a technique or a tool that helps us be kinder, more generous, or less jealous for a little while, but attempts at fast change that rely on tools alone are generally based on our own willpower, not grace, and soon they lose steam. Lots of us try the kind of human rules condemned in Colossians 2:20–23 (“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch”) but soon discover that there isn’t a rule in the world that can keep our sinful hearts at bay.
When we try to change everything at once.
Many of us don’t want to change some things in our lives; we want to change everything. We have zero tolerance for our frailty, we expect ourselves to get everything right immediately, and we find ourselves overwhelmed with frustration or guilt when we miss achieving our own high standards. Of course, God is at work in every aspect of our lives so we should be expecting increasing fruitfulness in a wide variety of areas. But, as Philippians 1:6 reminds, full perfection comes in the next life, not this life. The here and now is messy and it will be until Jesus returns or calls us home.
When we only want pain-free change.
This kind of change doesn’t have a cost and is therefore a myth. It can be tempting to want to become more loving without having the inconvenience of anyone irritating us, conquer that addiction without exercising self-control, or develop trust in the Lord without having to face difficulty. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to just wake up one morning to have all our irritability and anxiety ebbed away? But the Christian call is to engage in spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6)—to fight every day as we pick up our cross and follow a Savior who suffered so much for us.
Pursuing the Right Kind of Change
If none of these approaches to change are viable, what should we be aiming for instead?
We aim for Christ-centered, fruitful change.
This is the biblical path to tread. It’s the kind of change which is rooted in transformed worship of our Lord, accompanied by increased love for people around us. Growth in beautiful Christlikeness is not just about behavior change. Far from a quick fix, it’s a commitment to following Jesus through a lifetime of repentance and faith, rooting out the desires in our heart that fuel so much of what we say and do, seeking the Lord’s comfort for painful past experiences, and, fueled by God’s Word and prayer, actively engaging in the daily process of taking off our old selves, and putting on our new (Ephesians 4:22–24) confident that the Lord is conforming us ever more into the people he would have us become.
Think about patience, for example. Pursuing quick behavioral change would involve seeking a technique to help us bite our tongues (maybe counting to ten). Trying to change everything all at once would require employing an uncompromising drive to force ourselves to react to frustration perfectly in all circumstances (followed inevitably by a massive sense of failure and guilt when we mess up). Seeking after pain-free change would involve asking God to make us patient and then sitting back and wondering why we’re still as irritable as we were before!
Biblical Change is Beautiful
Fruitful change, however, involves looking at our hearts to understand why our tempers flare as they do and seeking the Lord’s care and sustaining hand as we struggle with the pressures of a world that incessantly provokes. In this process we ask God to change us but, at the same time, we are proactive to catch our irritable words, repent of them quickly, and seek the forgiveness of others. We also ask those around to graciously hold us accountable for persevering in the process of change, and we saturate our hearts and minds with Scripture that helps us live out our identity in Christ and our high calling as children of the living God.
Biblical change doesn’t happen quickly. It doesn’t result in perfection now. It often hurts. But the results? The results are beautiful. The results are like Christ. And that’s why true fruitfulness is worth pursuing in 2021.
Real Change and Real Change for Students
Real Change and Real Change for Students, are based on the CCEF model of change from David Powlison’s course, Dynamics of Biblical Change. The easy-to-use six lesson format and included leader’s guide encourages participant’s toward an honest discussion of their own struggles while providing an understanding of how a relationship with Christ brings change.