Change is a funny thing. It is hard for most people. We like predictability, really. Too many sudden alterations in the landscape can make us uneasy, make us feel unsafe.
But that’s not true of our desire to see ourselves change. Almost everyone has something they’d like changed, internal or external to them. And we are really good at pointing out how other people should change.
We bring our expectations of change into our Christian living. We desire to be stronger, to improve, to be better. We see the amazing example of Jesus, we hear the commands of the Bible, and we expect to see change. We logically think there really should, over time, be a difference, a movement toward the instructions given, especially in the New Testament.
Take, for example, simple commands like “rejoice always” or “be anxious for nothing” (Philippians 4:4-6). We read and agree that we should rejoice, and we should not be anxious. But we also see that we are not fulfilling those commands. So we begin to plan out how to accomplish these commands given by God.
Our impulse is, naturally, to progress toward the fulfillment of the command. We know we don’t rejoice always, but we think it is reasonable to expect to rejoice more this week than last week. We do fall into anxiety, but are encouraged if it is not as often this year as last. To get closer to the goal, which is actual personal obedience to the command, is the measurable. The delta between us and perfection should be decreasing, and this is the change that we begin to measure. Change in the Christian life becomes a measure of how we are moving toward completion of the commands we find.
We often get discouraged when looking at others. They seem closer to fulfilling these commands than we are. We take comfort that what is needed, what is measured by God, isn’t actually accomplishing, but showing signs of improving. So if we start from a very low place, our movement towards more behavioral obedience might be more remarkable, really, than someone who already rejoices a lot and just improves a smidge.
Regardless of how far we get, this becomes for many people the objective of the Christian life. This kind of change.
You probably can tell by now that I’m troubled by this approach.
My discomfort is not in the beauty of the command. I long to love like Jesus loved. I see the beauty and goodness of rejoicing always. I see the practical beneficial effects on my life that being anxious for nothing would bring. Oh, how much time I’ve wasted in worry!
Here’s my difficulty, and it is twofold. First, this approach takes the command and lowers it. What we measure is not whether we are obedient, but how close to obedience we come. Does it matter if I rejoice thirty percent of the time, or fifty percent of the time, if the command is to rejoice always? In fact, we are quick to take heart when we appear to be improving, but we actually are never obedient to the given command. We never actually do what the Bible is commanding, and yet we act (and even think?) like we are doing it.
That’s a problem, but there’s a more fundamental difficulty. Our focus is on our behavioral change, and that’s not what has changed in us. I mean, all well and good that some change happens behaviorally, but I’m thinking it is neither promised nor foundational.
The change we need is the change that has already happened to us who believe. My hope has changed. Where I was self-oriented, self-righteous, self-justifying, self-hoping, wanting to see myself be the hero, now I trust Jesus. I trust in his work, his blood, his death, his righteousness, his life for me. This is the change the Bible actually accounts to us.
“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, you also will appear with him in glory” (Colossians 3:3-4). That’s a statement of something that has already changed, without further measurement.
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). This refers to a fundamental change, I think. This change has happened, rather than being something I work toward. The work is to trust that it is true.
What has changed is that, by faith, I have died. I don’t live a life of measured self-improvement or progress, personally, toward some partial obedience. I trust in the perfect righteousness of Christ and his obedience that I partake in by faith. I live in him. I have his righteousness, his holiness, and have been promised his resurrection. Putting my trust in this promise is a huge, monumental, fundamental, seismic change. It is out of this change, this death to life, that my perspective shifts, my viewpoint is forever altered.
Death to life has occurred, says Paul, and while it is true I will certainly (and gladly) see the effects of it here, they are in reality spotty and intermittent. The commands of the Bible continue to push us not to our own behavioral perfecting but towards seeing our own failure, towards dependence on the only one who ever really did obey to the standard required. The one we live in union with. Jesus.
There is a reason why faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. I see my small improvements, here and there, behavioral alterations that may or may not spring from faith. But I don’t see the major change, which is death to life, resurrection accomplished, by the power of Jesus Christ alone. Assuredly, convincingly ours, not seen but trusted in. May we walk by faith in the assurance of change.