A second reason many Christians don’t change is spiritual isolation—a failure to be deeply engaged in Christ-centered, honest relationships. By God’s design, transformation normally happens in the context of community. There are very few exceptions. We experience change when we participate in regular, loving, accountable relationships centered on God’s Word.
This requires faith, courage, and discernment. Not all Christian communities are mature enough to handle transparency and the flaws of their members without making judgments and creating false hierarchies of spirituality. Authenticity can be risky because grace is sometimes lacking in Christian relationships. But when you find brothers and sisters in Christ who are filled with grace, patience, and humility, and who understand the importance of mutual accountability, I encourage you to take a step of faith to open up and grow together. God uses the gifts, knowledge, and experience of other believers to help us learn to trust Him. We overcome the issues in our lives because God gives grace through His Word, His Spirit, and His people. When we realize we are totally accepted—by God and other believers—we live out our faith by grace, the same way we were saved.
Creating the right environment for safe, authentic relationships is central to helping others mature spiritually. Parents can set up their children for life transformation by regular conversations and warm interactions that flow from reading Scripture together and modeling the importance of God’s Word. These times can be brief, relational, and even lighthearted at times; you don’t have to fill them with information or be able to answer all their questions. Bible storybooks, family devotionals, and private conversations can become treasured memories and have lifelong impact. Family is the most important small group God ever designed.
Most spiritual isolation is caused by a subtle form of pride—not the flagrant pride of an arrogant person but the kind of pride that elevates personal agendas and priorities above God’s stated purposes for our lives. When my work, my time, my goals squeeze God’s Word and authentic spiritual relationships out of my schedule, I end up with shallow relationships, isolated from the transforming grace we receive when we serve and give of ourselves sacrificially. I know I’ve lived that life and, as a pastor for more than three decades, counseled countless others who have done the same. The pursuit of happiness through possessions, lifestyle, status, or independence leaves us pretty unhappy. We miss out on God’s means for transformation.
The world is filled with driven, talented people who have done that—who have reached the pinnacle of success and find themselves lonely, isolated, and depressed. They have missed out on meaningful relationships on their way to getting everything they thought they wanted, only to find out they really wanted meaningful relationships. Even if they accepted Christ and go to church, they usually haven’t changed much. They haven’t been able to enjoy the miracle of being a new creation.
It isn’t just a good idea to have a few close friends with whom you can really share your heart. Biblical, Christ-centered relationships are essential components of the Christian life. This is where most of our transformation occurs. The people who are too busy for those kinds of relationships end up being the “average” American Christian whose life doesn’t look much different from a nonbeliever’s. They may be saved, but they aren’t really experiencing their salvation. And they aren’t becoming more and more like Jesus because they aren’t walking with people who can model Christlikeness for them, hold them accountable, and help them grow.
The people who have had the greatest impact on me are those who have loved me enough to speak truth to me, even when it hurt. I’ll never forget an early morning meeting at McDonald’s with my mentor. He opened his Bible and read Proverbs 27:5–6—“Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” Then, with tears in his eyes, he pointed out a pattern of pride and arrogance that I was totally unaware of. It hurt deeply. I didn’t like it. I mentally fought against it as it came out of his mouth, but the Holy Spirit spoke through him, and it was a major turning point in my life.
It isn’t easy to hear a friend tell you that you’re being arrogant or insensitive or too hard on your wife or kids. But that’s love. That kind of accountability has spared me untold heartache. And it only happens in deep, honest, vulnerable relationships that take time and effort to develop.
Being in some kind of growth group—a small group that studies the Bible and prays together, a ministry team, or an accountability group—is perhaps the most important thing you can do for your spiritual transformation. And it’s the example Jesus gave us. He came to transform the world, and He didn’t set up a classroom, write a book, develop a seminar, create an online course, or advertise a program. He started a small group of men and lived with them for three years. Others followed, many learned, but the core group that spent all their time with Him were transformed the most during those years. He lived with them, modeled life for them, shared God’s Word with them, and walked with them through their doubts, questions, spiritual successes, and worst failures.
That’s how I learned what the Christian life looks like. After college, I lived with the family of the man who discipled me. I learned about marriage by watching him interact with his wife. I saw how he parented his children. I noticed how he served people. I watched him stop and help someone change a tire on a rainy day when the leaders of a Christian conference we had just attended all drove on by. He didn’t just teach me truth; he exemplified it. It’s often said that truth and faith are “more caught than taught,” and it’s true. We change in the context of relationships with people who teach, model, and live truth together. As one mentor told me, “Show me your friends, and I’ll show you your future.”
Ingram, Chip. 2021. Yes! You Really Can Change: What to Do When You’re Spiritually Stuck. Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
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