I was recently having a conversation with someone who sincerely wanted to make changes in their life, but did not want to allow their desire to degenerate into self-improvement. This was someone who did not want to take their life out of God’s hands. But the bi-product was that they became paralyzed to “do” anything about their struggle (or at least when they did, the result was guilt and a sense they had rebelled against God).
The odd thing was that the conversation did not feel extreme (like it can when talking to someone who struggles with hand washing in an OCD fashion). The individual was very functional and socially pleasant. But the background music of guilt was playing constantly (condemned if I don’t change for sinning; condemned if I do change for doing it in the flesh). This individual recognized that the gospel is the only escape for this trap, but they taught the gospel to dance to their old music.
Spirit-Dependence and Personal Determination
What followed was an interesting discussion of how self-control (an intentional, personal mastery of one’s desires and actions) can be the fruit of the Spirit (something that emanates from God and not self). This tension captured the dilemma of my friend well. Their immediate response was, “Yes! That’s it. That’s what I can’t figure out. How does that work?”
Honestly, we didn’t come up with a neat formula for the ratio of determination to dependence in Gospel-change. If we did, I would probably be writing a book instead of a blog post. What we did gain was the peace of knowing that Scripture recognizes the tension in which we live. God wasn’t laughing at us because we couldn’t solve the riddle that would be “obvious” when we learned the answer.
Five Reflections On Gospel-Change
This is how far we got.
- Apart from the gospel, our “self” actively resists being controlled.
- It is the gospel that gives us eyes to see that submission to God is our greatest freedom.
- We understand the value of and our need for the gospel better as we struggle to live it out.
- We are free to learn and grow (implying failure) because of the gospel.
- It takes something larger than self to sustain the motivation for self-control.
These points were helpful for my friend on their side of this issue (feeling guilty about effort). While the same points could apply to someone who was struggling on the other sides of this issue (neglecting effort because of “faith” or feeling abandoned by God until change was complete), the tone and entry points of the conversation would be different.
Join the Conversation
I would invite you to ask yourself two questions.
- Which of the five points do you disagree with, not understand, or feel resistant towards?
- How does that impact your ability to actively pursue change in a way that is dependent upon the gospel?