Why are so many Christians missing out on authentic, supernatural, spiritual transformation? Why is there such a gap between the picture we are given in Scripture and the picture of so many Christians’ lives? Why does transformation seem so difficult and beyond reach?
Jesus met a man who had been paralyzed for thirty-eight years (John 5:1–15). The man had been lying near the pool of Bethesda, where the waters were thought to have healing power whenever they were stirred by an angel. Many blind, paralyzed, and sick people positioned themselves at the pool’s edge so they could be the first one in when the water moved. But this man had a problem. He said he couldn’t get to the water first because he had no one to help him. He had managed to put himself in proximity of a major transformation but not close enough to actually experience it. So he remained paralyzed, unable to do anything about his condition, with change just out of reach.
Does that sound familiar? That’s not a bad description of the dilemma many people face, longing for the idea of change but perhaps reluctant or even paralyzed to take the steps that would actually create it. Jesus, who had looked into the hearts of so many other people and pointed out their true thoughts and motivations, clearly understood this man’s predicament. He knew the problem, and He knew how to fix it. But He asked the lame man a penetrating question: “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6). And the man never really gave Him a straight answer. He responded only with an excuse for why change wasn’t possible.
Jesus’ question seems obvious on the surface. Anybody seeing a paralyzed man at the edge of a pool known for healing would assume he wanted to get well. But the human desire for change is rarely that simple. Change means leaving some familiar things behind, and many people are afraid to do that. That’s one reason so many people feel stuck in dysfunctional relationships and avoid dealing with the dysfunction, or why employees discontent in their work don’t go to the trouble to seek a new position and instead remain where they are. It’s what they know. The benefit of change is that it allows for a new way of life. The problem with change is that it demands a new way of life. It isn’t an easy fix.
We also have to battle our own physiology. Our brains are wired for habits. That is very helpful most of the time; it means we don’t have to relearn everything we know and do every single day. But it also means that developing new ways of thinking and doing things can be very difficult. Neurologists tell us that established neural pathways work to overcome new, developing pathways, and the only way the new ones can become established is through strong conviction and persistence in renewing our minds. That’s why time and consistency are so important in our change processes. Far too many people give up before the new becomes a part of their lives.
Motivation and neurology aside, I think there are at least three primary reasons Christians fail to change as thoroughly as Scripture promises: spiritual ignorance, spiritual isolation, and spiritual myopia.
Many Christians simply don’t know who they are. They don’t understand their identity in Christ, the new nature they have been given, the foundation of grace God has provided, and the Spirit who lives within them. As a result, they revert to old-nature strategies: try hard, do good, fail, and try again. Those strategies come early in life; most of us have been trained from an early age in a punishment-and-reward system. We experience negative consequences for bad behavior, but we are given incentives and rewards for good behavior. So it’s only natural that we would apply the same psychology of behavior to our relationship with God.
But that’s not the kind of relationship God has given us. Jesus already took the punishment for our sins, united us with Him in resurrected life, and made us His coheirs so we can receive the rewards He deserves. That’s part of what it means to be “in Christ.” He exchanged His life for ours, taking our sin upon Himself and giving us His own righteousness. He paid the price for us, and we enter into the life He has given. When we act as if our relationship with God is based on our behavior, we are stepping out of that grace and reverting to old ways. We have to know who we are in Him and live from the new righteousness He has provided.
The biblical word for being made right with God is justification. That’s what happens the moment we receive Christ. We are justified. God takes all the sin and guilt in the debt column of our lives and marks it “paid in full.” This isn’t just a wave of a wand or an arbitrarily canceled debt. It is based on what Jesus did on the cross. He took the penalty of our sins upon Himself, and when we receive Him by faith, that sacrifice applies to our relationship with God. Everything is paid for. Not only that, the righteousness of Jesus was deposited into our account, so God sees us as holy and pure in Him. That’s our legal standing before God (Acts 13:39; Rom. 3:24, 28). We can’t add to that standing or take away from it. It’s ours—a gift of grace.
The biblical word for living out that justification— demonstrating the righteousness that has already been given to us—is sanctification. It simply means being “set apart” to God. In one sense, we have already been sanctified—set apart and made holy. But in a practical sense, it’s an ongoing and lifelong process by which God changes our heart and life from the inside out to conform our character to the image of His Son (Rom. 8:29; 1 Thess. 5:23). Like being given a new wardrobe that doesn’t fit us now, we are given sanctification and then spend our lives growing into it.
But that’s where the problems arise. Many Christians don’t know how to grow into it. How do we make use of the grace God has given? Why do we keep sinning if God already forgave us and cleanses us? How do we live as new creations in our old, sin-saturated environment? If we don’t know the answers to those questions, we will revert to the try hard, do good for a while, fail, then try again cycle. Eventually that turns into trying hard and faking it—or just giving up.
For the first two years of my Christian life, I lived in two worlds. On Thursday nights, I would sing praises to God in the living room of a bricklayer who led our campus ministry. On Friday nights, I would barhop with my basketball teammates all over town. I was miserable, plagued by a never-ending cycle of failure, guilt, depression, repentance, resolutions to never do that again, another try, and back to failure again. I had tasted the reality and freedom of my new life in Christ. Living out that reality was another matter. God brought some great people and some biblical teaching into my life that broke this vicious cycle. Unfortunately, many Christians are still stuck in it.
The pattern of “trying hard, doing good” for a time, and then failing can be terribly disheartening. I’ve heard the same laments again and again from numerous Christians:
“I try to read my Bible every day, but I miss sometimes and get off track.”
“I try to conquer my lusts, but they keep coming back.”
“I try to pray, but I’m not getting answers, and I lose heart.”
“I try to be patient, but I keep losing my temper.”
The variations are limitless, but the dynamics are always the same. This is willpower Christianity, and no matter how long it succeeds, one failure makes the whole effort feel as if it is “unsuccessful.” A 90-percent success rate isn’t enough if frequent or even occasional failures seem to put us back at square one.
About a year and a half into my Christian life, I was so frustrated with my failures that I actually tried to quit. I got stuck in that dilemma between “something’s wrong with me” and “the gospel isn’t working.” I didn’t realize it was a lack of knowledge about God, His Word, and the sanctification process. I needed to learn how to tap into God’s grace and power. I believe millions of believers across our country are living in that kind of defeat because they don’t know what God teaches us about how holy transformation works in everyday life.
The process of sanctification requires us to walk by faith, and walking by faith necessarily involves responding to the alerts and prompts of Scripture. When God’s Word shines light on a problem in us, it opens up a conversation with Him. We ask Him what it looks like to trust Him in a particular situation, relationship, or problem and read and listen for His answers. But it is important not to focus only on the issue itself. Focusing on our sin and struggles intensifies them. We need to turn our focus instead to whichever of God’s promises apply to the temptation or struggle we’re going through. Then we walk with Him by faith through that situation. As we apply these promises as our source of strength to address these issues, we are walking by faith. That’s the core of Christian living, and we are changed in the process.
You can’t live this life of faith by just reading the Bible a little bit here and there. As I’ve counseled hundreds of believers over the years—many with significant financial, relational, and moral problems—I generally ask them about their intake of God’s Word. The answer is almost always the same: little or no personal devotion or study. Life-change demands that you make every effort to work the truth of God’s Word into your heart. That should be one of your life goals as a believer: to master the contents and truths of the Bible. I know it’s a big book. But if you’re like many people, you are well versed in the nightly news, sports stats, the latest in movies and music, or whatever your special interests happen to be. You probably already know how to be a zealous student of your culture and your times. So why not take some of that energy and attention and apply it to something that matters for eternity?
If Bible reading feels like an item on a to-do list that reminds us how far we’re falling short, it becomes a chore that interrupts our downtime. No wonder it’s so easy to neglect it. But as we learn to make it a conversation with the God of the universe that deepens and directs us, it can become the highlight of our day. And if we supplement that conversation with some study helps, commentaries, and devotionals, it becomes all the richer. Over time, we begin to notice some significant changes in our perspectives, attitudes, and choices.
Immersing yourself in Scripture and choosing to believe what God says about you will radically reorient your thinking. Sadly, too many Christians are trying to overcome their sin by targeting and focusing on their sin. But that’s still a preoccupation with sin, isn’t it? When you keep kicking yourself for your sins, you reinforce them by giving them so much attention. If you see yourself as a helpless sinner, you’ll continue to live that vision out. But God says to consider yourself dead to sin and alive to God (Rom. 6). He says you are a new creation (2 Cor. 5:17). He replaces your shame with honor, your ashes with beauty, and your mourning with praise (Isa. 61:3). He says He removes your sins as far as the east is from the west (Ps. 103:12) and has canceled out your debts (Col. 2:14). He has given you the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). It can feel really irresponsible not to fixate on your sin—as if you’re failing to police yourself—but doing so lines up with what God says and gives Him and you an opportunity to fill your mind with something else. It’s the only way to break the cycle.
That’s what immersing ourselves in biblical truth can do for us. It doesn’t happen overnight, and there are still some practical steps to take. But spiritual ignorance is not bliss. God wants better for you.
Ingram, Chip. 2021. Yes! You Really Can Change: What to Do When You’re Spiritually Stuck. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
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