When our first child entered our lives, we wondered about her growth. Was it normal for her to sleep so much? What about her smile? When would she learn to turn over on her own? So we bought a book called The First Twelve Months. It gave us a month-by-month description of a baby’s growth and development, discussed many of our concerns, and offered some helpful warnings. All of it helped us understand what to expect and what we could do to encourage our daughter’s growth.
Christian growth follows certain patterns too. When a person chooses to live with God, there is a consequence. God chooses to transform her life. Knowledge grows. Faith increases. The fruits of the Spirit become evident. For all the differences between people, there is a similarity in the work that the Spirit does in our lives.
A New Set of Clothes
Paul explains the process of transformation with the image of getting dressed and undressed. We take off the old nature and put on the new nature. The old nature is all that rebels against God and holiness. The new nature is the image of Christ. When we grow, we put aside all that does not fit with Christ and nurture all that does belong to Christ.
This image is helpful. What we wear projects an image to those who see us. Do we want to look efficient and neat? The clothing of a business executive will help. Do we want to look more studious? Perhaps a more crumpled professorial look will do. Do we want to look caring? Softer lines and pleasant colors. Do we want to be our own person? Something unique and a bit out of place will be perfect. An image is attached to our clothes, and with that image come certain behaviors.
These stereotypes become part of the way we imagine ourselves and our world. Political leaders and television stars hire image consultants for this very reason.
Putting Out the Garbage
The old clothes we wear, says Paul, are filled with sins. The following list is found in Scripture:
Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. . .you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices. . . . Colossians 3:5-9
In the history of the church, we have the list of seven deadly sins. The Heidelberg Catechism gives us a rundown as it explains the Ten Commandments, and other lists are available to further guide our thinking. These lists of sins are guides that help focus our attention. Recognizing that sin inevitably destroys, we begin to rid ourselves of such behaviors and attitudes.
The old clothes of sin must go if Christians wish to grow. Overcoming sin and sinful desire is a several-step process that is a fundamental part of the Christian life:
Identify the sin. How and when does it show up?
Pray for forgiveness and the Spirit’s power to overcome sin.
Change your lifestyle so that the triggers of temptation are not as visible. For example, trips to the mall can encourage our desire for new things; restricting trips to the mall to those times when we have a particular need limits opportunities that encourage unhealthy desire.
Find others who will stand with you in your fight.Support groups and prayer groups can be helpful.
Getting All Dressed Up
As we shed our old clothes, we deliberately put on Christ. The following list from Paul is helpful:
Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love. . . .Colossians 3:12-14
These virtues are the likeness of Christ. Virtues are expressed in deeds. I do not forgive in general; I forgive this particular sin and this person. I grow in service by choosing to do particular deeds.
At first, choosing to do these particular deeds may seem artificial. The deeds themselves do not save us or even create growth. Yet they can be the occasions the Spirit uses to transform our hearts. By being deliberate in our good choices, we seek to promote the transformation of our lives.
As we put on these new Christlike clothes, the following steps may be helpful:
With prayer, identify an area for growth.
List some deeds associated with this area of growth. For example, generosity could be associated with deeds such as giving to the church, making an anonymous special gift to a certain person, or becoming involved with an anti-poverty mission. Loving your enemies could be associated with deeds such as inviting a person whom you dislike over for dinner.
Choose one or two particular deeds. Pray for the Spirit’s renewing power to bless your activity and transform your life.
Find others who will help you keep your commitments. Support groups, prayer partners, and organized activities can help by providing some accountability.
Even Good Changes Are Difficult
The process is not difficult to understand, but it can be very difficult to carry out. The old clothes, however sinful, are familiar. We know how to act and react. The habits are ingrained in our living. Putting these to death involves a loss of the familiar. We wonder why we must change. Anger and irritability and sadness rise in our hearts—even when we know the change is for our own good. And making the change is difficult. Habits of life and body take time to change.
Establishing good habits is just as difficult. I know that exercising is good for me, but making it a habit in my life is more difficult. This past January I joined a fitness club when a special on membership fees coincided with a doctor’s admonition. I soon learned that the club was able to offer its low rates for one simple reason: many who joined in the post-New Year’s rush quit within six to eight weeks. Their resolutions faded. The habits of their lives crowded out their resolve to become healthier people.
Choosing to develop a good habit and become a more Christlike person is difficult too. It takes time, energy, and commitment. Receiving support and encouragement as we grow helps us overcome the resistance we will inevitably feel.
As we put off and put on, we lean on God’s grace. Every night as we go to bed, we can receive forgiveness for all our failures. The guilt does not have to stick to us and weigh us down. Every morning the Spirit comes to provide new strength. The supply is endless, and God never gets tired of giving us our daily dose of renewing grace. While the transformation is not automatic, it is certain: God will do it.
Exercise: List three activities you see maturing Christians doing. What do your clothes say about you?
Exercise: Use five adjectives to describe yourself. To what extent do they reflect your vision of the Christian life?
Exercise: Consider anger. Name three changes in behavior that could help a person deal with anger.
Exercise: Consider patience. What three activities could help a person develop the habit of patience?
Exercise: Recall a time when you wished to change a habit. What made this change particularly difficult for you?