by Joe Leavell
As noted in a previous blog post, I occasionally suffer from migraine headaches that are pretty brutal. Do I know where they come from? Yep. When I hunch over a desk, a computer, or a book for a long time it causes strain on my upper neck that will trigger eye spasms and my entire skull becoming a cramped mass of pain.
Strangely enough, I still find myself instinctively slumping forward every day. Why? If I intellectually know how to sit better and know how to keep myself from headaches, why wouldn’t I just automatically break the habit of slouching, start sitting straight, shoulders back, and do what my doctor, chiropractor, and my own mother have been telling me to do for years? The fact is, intellectual knowledge alone will never change me or stop my migraines. Knowing is a starting point, but it’s never enough.
Information is Not our Problem
We know sin is destructive. We know it causes us pain and that God is displeased. So we seek information. We read books, go to friends, pastors, read blogs (like this one), and may even seek counseling. We’re trying to find some fresh bit of missing data that will motivate us to change. We place enormous pressure on counselors and pastors to have that one witty story, that one motivational talk, that one magic formula that will change us.
When those methods are ultimately unsuccessful, it is easy to posture ourselves as victims, blaming our continued sinning on others, including God, since everyone else failed to give us sufficient motivation. Just like my neck posture cannot be fixed by information alone, your pastor or counselor will never be able to intellectualize you into changing. You need something more.
More Than a Formula
The reality is that God does not simply go after our sinful habits on an intellectual level. While He graciously warns us of the consequences, He never gives us a formula that says, “Three easy steps to motivate you to change from darkness to light.”
Frankly, God is not interested in merely stopping our sinful habits. Why? Because we would simply exchange one sinful habit with another. God is interested in something more. He is looking for heart change. His primarily desires for us is to glorify Him by seeing and experiencing powerful freedom that is only found in the Gospel of Christ.
This is why the Apostle Paul, who, as a Pharisee had a vast education, did not rely on intellectual reasoning. He didn’t rely on the latest book from a famous author, or some new material that promised change. He didn’t rely on flowery words or witty stories, but rather he says unapologetically,
“I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”
The context makes clear that Paul did not have some vendetta against information or wisdom. Rather, it’s that he understood that change only comes through the simple Gospel of Jesus Christ. Believers change then, not because we’re told to, “sit up straight” but because we have been “made straight” through Christ. Believers have been gifted with a new identity through Christ’s sacrifice that frees us from our sin in a way that expresses, “You have been made straight through Christ…walk with the Spirit in celebration of that reality.”
Change is the Fruit, not the Plant
While correct knowledge and wisdom is important, and even commanded by God (see Proverbs and 2 Peter 3:18), seeking information as your sole source of change is the wrong path. You do not have the power to change, nor do you even really want to in your own self. If you could change yourself, or if a pastor, a book, or anything else could change you, Jesus would never have had to die in the first place. Galatians 5:16 expresses how believers can be free from their sinful habits. It explains, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” That’s it. It’s about whether or not we’re walking with God’s Spirit.
You see changing our sinful habits is not about replacing bad habits with good habits or about knowing the right answers intellectually. That’s not enough. Change is centered on walking with the Spirit in our new identity that He has given us as believers in Christ who have been made right with God through Christ. So, as you walk in the power of God’s love for you, you will begin to be a person whose nature is a reflection of that love to others. As you dwell in the joy of the salvation that we have been given you will become a person who is expressive of joy. As you walk with the Prince of Peace, you will become characterized as a person of peace. Galatians calls this kind of change as “the fruit of the Spirit”, not the fruit of enlightenment.
So it doesn’t matter if you are struggling with pornography, anger, bitterness and resentment, or any number of other sinful habits. You do not find true freedom from those things from simple willpower or knowledge. It is when you submit your heart to God’s Spirit and walk with Him that you will begin to take off the works of darkness and put on the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 13:14). As you celebrate Him and grow in your wonder of Him, alone and in community with other believers, you will find the old sinful characteristics losing their appeal, and new godly character beginning to take shape. God’s fruit will ripen and you will begin to notice your spiritual posture beginning to change, and even, shall we say, to straighten.