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How do people change?

June 8, 2010 by Eric Stillman 0 comments

This past Sunday, I preached about the gospel and personal growth, and how the deeper our belief in the good news of Jesus Christ’s death for our sins is, and the more we look to Him for our hope, peace, love, significance, and life, the more we have the power to overcome the challenges we face. During the sermon, I briefly mentioned my lifelong struggle with time management and prioritizing. I’ve tried every different system under the sun, put up motivational quotes and sticky note reminders, sought out accountability, installed deadlines – all with limited progress. Why is this the case? Do I just need to find a doctor who will prescribe me with a pill? Have I just not found the right system?

Or does the gospel shed some light on what is really going on?

Let me use my issue as a case study in how the gospel helps us get at the root of the issue instead of just modifying behaviors. The Bible tells us in Romans 1 about what happened when we rejected God, and in 1:25, we read : “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator– who is forever praised.” Instead of worshiping and serving God and looking to Him for our life and significance, we have turned to created things and treated those as our God, our source of life and salvation and significance. The Biblical word for this is Idolatry, and it is summarized by the first two commandments in Exodus 20 – Don’t have any other gods beside the one true God, and do not make an idol out of anything in this world. Wherever we are experiencing behavioral or attitude challenges, if we scratch beneath the surface we will find an idol – something besides God that we are looking to for our life, salvation, and significance. There is some idol that we must have, that we are afraid to lose, and that causes us intense anxiety, anger, fear, or depression when it is threatened. And when we look beneath the idol, we will find that there is something about God, something about the gospel, that deep down we do not truly believe. And therein lies the key to truly overcoming our issues.

So what is my idol? What am I looking to for my life, my salvation, my significance?

In the case of how I spend my time, my idol seems to be comfort. In my heart, deeper than my faith in God, is the belief that salvation and “life to the full” is found in a life of relaxation and doing nothing stressful. My heart believes that if I could just keep all problems and threats at arms length or out of my mind, I would find true joy, peace, and salvation. This means that when faced with a to-do list, no matter how I’ve structured it and no matter what motivational quotes I’ve posted around the room, unless I am vigilant I will instinctively go for the things on my list that are the easiest or bring me the most happiness, and stay as far away as possible from the things that threaten my comfort.

Here’s the problem – like every idol, the idol of comfort fails to deliver on what it has promised. Keeping stress and difficult things away does not lead to a relaxing life of comfort. It may give moments of comfort and peace, but there is only so long I can keep the stress and challenges away before they must be dealt with, and by the time I have to deal with them, they are ten times worse than they would have been if they had been dealt with up front! And so this idol, promising a life of comfort, in the end brings precisely the opposite – a life of more stress and discomfort.

Cue the blessed words of Paul in Romans 7:

I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do– this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God– through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Romans 7:15-25)

As I said, beneath the idol of comfort is a disbelief of the gospel at the heart level. I do not believe that the path to true peace and joy must pass through struggle and discomfort. I do not believe that I will find true peace by walking with God wherever He leads instead of going my own way. I have taken my eyes off Jesus instead of heeding Hebrew 12:1-3:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

So how can I change? I may find some help in behavioral changes – new strategies, systems, accountability partners, deadlines, etc. But true change will only happen when the idol of comfort is rooted up. And the idol of comfort will only be rooted up when I truly believe that true peace is found in Jesus, no matter where he takes me. Until my heart is captivated by the Savior who endured the “discomfort” (greatest understatement ever) of the cross for the joy set before Him, I will continue to avoid discomfort. Until I believe that “If God is for me, who can be against me?” I will continue to avoid situations where I feel that people are against me. Until the greatest desire of my heart is to know Him and follow Him, believing that by His side is the safest place to be, I will continue to struggle with time management.

In the end, therefore, the answer is not in finding the right strategy or system, even though those are important helps in the process. The deeper solution is found in learning to love God with all my heart, soul, strength, and mind, so that following Him will always be the first, second, and last thing on my to-do list, wherever He leads.

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