Monday, October 26, 2009

how we change (9) what will you choose?

You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Eph 4:22-24)
I've turned navel-gazing into an art form. A questionnaire about my idols? A thought-chart to identify my false beliefs? A journal, a pen, and an anxious heart? Give them to me, and I'm your woman.

I'll think, read, write, examine my heart, repent, analyse, pray, list, reflect, dissect, introspect, with the best of them.

In some ways, then, books like Tim Chester's You Can Change feed right into my tendency to self-absorption and my drive to perfect myself (although this isn't Chester's fault: he takes care to guard against these things).* He issues a gold-edged invitation to identify the lies and idols of my heart, and I'm the first on the RSVP list.

Don't get me wrong: every day I'm grateful for books like Chester's as I argue with my thoughts, battle my emotions and fight my besetting sins. It's important to deal with sin not just at the surface level, but at the deeper level of what I believe and what I worship.

But I've come to see that sometimes I need to stop praying and thinking and start acting. It's not just about "attitudes", it's also about "putting off" and "putting on" (Eph 4:22-24). Every day - every moment! - I stare sin in the face and have to choose to behave differently. That, I'm not so good at.

Which is why, in case you're like me, and in imitation of Elyse Fitzpatrick's Idols of the Heart, I've added a third step to Chester's two main steps for change:

1. thoughts- turning from lies to trust God's truth (faith)
2. desires - turning from idols to worship God alone (repentance)
3. will - choosing to act in love and obedience (repentance)

You'll notice that 3. is actually an extension of 2, which is why Chester deals with them together. As Elyse Fitzpatrick points out, our wills don't work independently - they follow our thoughts and desires. You can't abandon idols in your heart and not in your life. But I need help with changing my behaviour, so I like the way Elyse Fitzpatrick takes several chapters to talk about the nitty-gritty of practical change.

Perhaps it's a woman's thing. I've noticed we're much keener than the guys on thought-diaries and questionnaires and the details of daily life. This is both a disadvantage (navel-gazing, anyone?) and an advantage (we don't leave things at the level of theory).

Change begins in the heart, but it doesn't end there. Let me give you some examples:

  • the woman who's been praying for years that God will improve a difficult relationship and transform her emotions. One day she realises it's time not just to pray, but to love. As she does, her attitudes and feelings begin to change.
  • the woman who's terrified of crowded rooms. She avoids church and prays for God to take away her fear. But she knows she has to do the hard thing. She starts small - with a Bible study group - and works up to bigger church meetings. It's not easy, but her fears lessen with time.
  • the woman who knows she should offer hospitality to her neighbours, but who's ashamed of her shabby house. She prays about her her idolatry - her need to impress people. She repents of her lovelessness. But she has to take another step: to pick up the phone and ask the neighbours over. When she does, her fears are shown to be the small things they always were.

I don't change my behaviour through a set of disciplines (though it will take self-discipline!) or in the strength of my will-power (though I do need to make a choice). God's Spirit is the great heart-changer. When I "put off" the old self and "put on" the new, I'm only doing what God has already done in me. I "work out" my salvation because God is powerfully "working in" me to "will and to act". I obey because I'm confident God has given me everything I need to be godly. **

But changing my behaviour isn't easy or automatic. It's violent, energetic and purposeful. I can play with sin, feed it, cuddle up to it. Or I can put off sin - kill it, gouge it out, throw it off - and put on obedience.**

Every moment, I can choose to resist the first intrusion of sin: the impure look, the self-pitying thought, the unkind word, the selfish act. This isn't legalism: it's a response to grace, which teaches me to say "no" (Tit 2:11-12).

Faith gets stronger as it expresses itself in love. As I stop giving in to my fears, I learn to trust God more. As I refuse to serve my idols, they become less important to me. Every time I say "no", "no" gets a little easier. I call this the faith that comes from obedience.***

If you want some help making practical changes in your behaviour, why not read Elyse Fitzpatrick's Idols of the Heart? Her practical exercises gave me a blueprint to use with any and every issue, especially when I get stuck. Because sometimes it's time not just to think, but to act.

For reflection:
What attitudes and actions do you need to "put off"? What attitudes and actions do you need to "put on"? Are there small steps that would help you with the bigger ones? Or is it time just to say "no" - or "yes"! - in confidence that God is powerfully at work in you?

* And Nicole's too, apparently!

** see Ezek 36:24-27; Eph 4:22-24, Rom 6; Phil 2:12-13;2 Pet 1:3, Eph 1:18-21, 3:20-21, Col 1:28-29). See Mt 5:29, Rom 8:13, Col 3:5, Rom 13:12, Eph 4:22, 25, Heb 12:1, Col 3:8-9, Jam 1:21, 1 Pet 2:1, Eph 4:24, Col 3:10, 1 Thess 5:8, Rom 13:14, Col 3:12, Rev 19:8.

*** If you want to explore this further, have a look at Stuart's series on this topic, where you'll find useful insights from someone working within The Crowded House church, founded by Tim Chester:
The chicken of belief and the egg of behaviour, It's a heart issue, Hypercardiodynia: taking the 'heart issue' too far (Part 1), Hypercardiodynia: taking the heart issue too far (Part 2), and Back to the heart. HT Nicole

images are by gaspi your guide and kingary and TheAlieness and brioso at flickr

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