We all have some things in our lives that we would like to see changed—maybe it’s taking off a few pounds, or breaking up some old habit. That’s why New Year’s resolutions are so popular. They hold the promise of change, but it turns out that New Year’s resolutions are pretty short lived. They start out strong, but like the squint after leaving an afternoon matinee, they wear off.
According to fourth century theologian St. Augustine humans can “will away” all we want, but it will not produce consistent change because sin has broken the effectiveness of our wills. For Augustine, this is the worm that has curled its way into the apple of the human condition. And it means that human will power alone doesn’t have the punch needed for real transformation. This is why Paul cries, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Rom. 7:24). He was talking about the whole dilemma of wanting to do right but always ending up doing wrong, a concept we all get too well.
It turns out that transformation in the Christian sense (versus the kind of change some accomplish by sheer will power) is not accomplished as we redouble our effort, but is experienced as we embrace what the Spirit is doing in us. The New Testament claims that “goodness” is a fruit of the Holy Spirit that is communicated to us through simple faith. As we trust Christ and endeavor to pursue his active presence in our lives, we end up mysteriously participating in God’s goodness, which is his Divine nature. Just like you can pick up bad stuff from hanging with wrong friends, you can pick up good traits from chumming with God through stuff like prayer, silence, study, becoming part of a great church community, etc. When we do this, his graciousness to us makes us gracious to others; his kindness to us makes us kind; his comfort to us makes us comfort each other, and so on. The result is transformation.
This means that we need something other than a strong will to live rightly. The only successful therapy for the transformed life is divine grace. Grace is God’s favor or “help” for our lives. Grace is what makes change possible to us. Grace is the idea that God gets in the mix of the average person’s world and makes things different. That’s what grace does. It changes things. It changes people.
The task at hand is to figure out how a person with your unique personality and mind-set can best tap into grace. For me grace is most easily accessed as I sit in silence and pray written prayers (e.g. Book of Common Prayer). As I pray and meditate in silence, grace dawns inside me. My wife, Gail, taps into grace as she sings and worships. Others touch God’s grace most by getting together with other believers, by retreating into times of solitude, by taking hikes into nature, or by one of the other many spiritual practices modeled in scripture and church history—and there are a bunch of them: study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, submission, solitude, silence, fasting, sacrifice, and so on. Once you find the pathways that help you tap into grace, you can practice those in order to stay under its influence. The trick is to find the “spout” where grace comes out for you, and hang there.
A changed life is the real import of the gospel. The gospel was designed to rewrite a person’s life. The more our lives are rewritten, the greater our influence will be on others around us. Our connection with the person of God never just takes place in our hearts or personal space, it influences situations, community, family, friendships, civic work—everything. True faith is always pushed out from the domain of just thought. Our faith plunges us into real life with courage to face all the suffering and contradictions that occur there, while we remain steady in our devotion. It is this kind of living that causes us to influence the world.
Few things capture us like people-stories. We are fascinated by real life and ordinary people—perhaps because we recognize that each of our lives is jammed with similar struggles and ironies, and stories of transformation strike us; they give us hope. The hard truth is that people in our culture are not interested in what we believe; they are only interested in the beliefs that have actually changed us. They want to know if our beliefs actually alter the way in which we live. Do they modify our story?
This is how the typical mom with three kids still in diapers can influence the world. This is how the high-school student, who is still trying to discover who she is and where she fits in the world, can influence others for Jesus. This is how the retired person struggling with health issues or caring for an elderly parent changes the world.
The apostle Peter claimed that when we live our lives in a way that shows we have “set apart Christ as Lord” in our hearts, we will create a question in the minds of others. Peter contends that the role of the believer is to “always be prepared to give an answer” to the emerging questions from those who observe our lives. Somehow, as we intentionally “set apart Christ as Lord” in our hearts, we start looking different; our story changes. We become marked with “bright spots” (joy, peace, kindness, patience, hope, and so on). These bright spots create a question inside those who live in our proximity. When the question comes, Peter says we are to answer. I suggest that answering the question our lives create is the secret to changing the world around us.
Let me say this as clearly as I can: You can change. What IS does not have to stay that way. Things really can be different in 2014. An Old Testament prophet once told the people: “The LORD has much more for you than this.” (2 Chron. 25:9)
What if that is true?