Many of us assert that we want to grow spiritually. We tell God and others that we desire to be more Christ-like and chances are, we believe what we are saying. Yet I have found that in more than a few cases, people are not as desirous of spiritual growth as they claim. The reason for this can be found in one word: change.
The fact of the matter is, many of us want to change and to grow, so long as it does not involve any pain, sacrifice, or drastic changes in our lives. We want to become more Christ-like, so long as we are not inconvenienced in any way. In some amazing way, myself included, we are experts at mental gymnastics. We are somehow able to twist things in our minds in such a way that, in the final analysis, we convince ourselves that we can hold on to outworn, unproductive, and self-destructive beliefs and behaviors and still increasingly become like Christ.
We are, in a very real sense, cognitive contortionists.
Have you ever seen a real contortionist? When I lived in China I saw several performances by Chinese acrobats, who are among the world’s best at this amazing art. In most programs, at least one contortionist was featured and these folks could twist their bodies into positions that most of us couldn’t even imagine, must less achieve.
What this artist/athletes do with their bodies, we believers sometimes do with our thoughts. Just as they can twist their bodies into shapes that would make a pretzel jealous, we Christians can manipulate our thoughts around in such a way that seems to make the implausible sound reasonable. And one of the ways this occurs most often is with our thoughts about spiritual growth and change. We say we want the prize but deep down, we are less than willing to do what it takes to obtain our goals. Great contortionists that we are, we then manipulate our thoughts in such a clever way that we come to believe that we really do want to make the necessary changes.
The fact is, change is difficult for most of us. New behaviors, new ways of looking at life, and new ways of relating to others are all uncomfortable, especially until we get used to them. As a result, we often resist taking that big first step toward making positive changes, simply because our status quo is at least familiar.
In many ways, this is like a dilemma I once faced involving something as seemingly unrelated to spiritual themes as an old softball glove.
From the time I was five years old I have been an avid baseball fan. I played the sport throughout my school years and, once I became an adult, played competitive softball for many years.
I normally played middle infield, either second base or shortstop. For many years I used the same softball glove. In fact, I used it so long that the strings kept breaking, all the padding was gone out of the pocket and the leather was cracked in several strategic places. Nevertheless I refused to buy a new glove, in spite of the frequent protestations of my teammates.
The reason was simple. I was comfortable with this old glove. It molded to my hand perfectly over the years and it felt reassuring to put in on before I took the field. All too often, however, I would catch a hard line drive right in the pocket and my hand would sting, then remain numb for several minutes. Still, I wanted no part of a new glove.
A new glove, as anyone who has played the sport knows, is a real pain for awhile. It feels funny, awkward and stiff. It is easy to make errors with a new glove, at least until it is broken in properly. No, my old glove was find thank you very much.
One day our third baseman wasn’t able to make the game and I played the so-called “hot corner.” Things went okay for the first two innings. Then, in the third inning the batter hit a hard liner right at me. I responded quickly and raised my glove, only to have the ball break right through the ancient webbing an hit me square in the forehead, knocking me out cold
Two days later I bought a new glove.
My experience with my old softball glove is not unlike my experience with the behaviors that flow from my old self. No matter how much I try to take off the old and put on the new, the old keeps rearing its head and biting me. I suspect that I am not alone in this predicament.
Many of my old behaviors, like my old softball glove, may hurt me time and time again. But, they are comfortable in the sense that they are familiar and predictable. My old self resists change and it is here that we are vulnerable to our habitual responses to life, however unhealthy and painful they may be.
It is like the old adage, “Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t know.”
God, however, does not operate by our rules. He has his own set of principles and by any measure, they are much better than ours. Yes, his way of growth involves frequent change but in the end, those very changes are the agents of our transformation. And, if you really think about it, spiritual growth implies change. To grow is to change.
When the Master walked the earth, he consistently put this principle of growth through change before those who would dare to be his disciple or follower. He consistently challenged people to leave behind old, outworn behaviors and paths of life and embrace the new, the radical, and the unknown.
Jesus was a mold-breaker and to follow Jesus required a person to break his or her most cherished molds.
It is no different for us today.
Jesus walked by Simon and Andrew and called out to them. He did not say, “Stay right where you are, do what you have always done, and I will come back and make you better fishermen.”
No, he called these two mariner brothers to take up the mantle of a great challenge – a challenge that eventually changed the entire world.
“Follow me,” said the Master. “And I will make you fishers of men.”
To the rich young ruler, Jesus issued another challenge. He did not say, “Go and make even more money and set an example as a great businessman.” No, the rich young man received one of Christ’s sacrificial callings:
“Go and sell all that you have and give it to the poor. Come and follow me.”
Such a demand was far beyond the young man’s willingness or capability. Yet please, don’t miss what Jesus asked of the young man. In one word, again – he demanded change.
For the poor woman lying in the dirt, about to be stoned to death for her sin, Christ again called for change. After shaming the Pharisees with their arms full of stones, the Master’s last words to the woman were words requiring change:
“Go and sin no more.”
In exploring the pages of scripture, few characters were required to make more drastic changes that Saul, later to be known as Paul the Apostle. Raised in the bosom of the Hebrew faith, Saul was a Hebrew and then some. On a mission to wipe out the fledgling Christian community in Damascus, Saul encountered the great mold-breaker. Temporarily blinded, Saul’s life was turned completely upside down. It would have been completely expected had Jesus sent Saul into Damascus and, after restoring his sight, instructing Saul to stop persecuting the Christians. That would have been a significant change for Saul but, in light of the events on that road to Damascus, Saul most likely would have obeyed.
Jesus, the mold-breaker, had something more shattering in mind.
Saul became Paul, and after a period of training and pruning, became the greatest Apostle the Christian faith has every known, not to mention its greatest evangelist. On top of that, he authored much of the New Testament under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Paul’s transformation was radical to say the least. This great figure of the Christian faith changed and that change opened him up to great suffering – shipwrecks, snake bites, people trying to kill him, trials, incarceration many times over, and eventually death. Christ demanded Paul’s status quo be disrupted in a major way and it was. And Paul’s obedience to Christ’s calling on his life is a testament of true devotion and complete discipleship.
So for me, my friend, and for you, the call on our lives is no different. The circumstances of God’s call on my life may involve one type of change and the call on your life may require another. One thing we can be sure of, however, is that both your calling and mine will involve one common element – change.
Next time you feel God calling you to some area of service or sacrifice, think of these great biblical characters – people like Abraham, David, Peter, Andrew, the other disciples, the woman caught in adultery, and especially Paul. Change and suffering are an integral part of the spiritual journey for those of us with the audacity to call ourselves Christians. Change involves suffering but in many ways my friends, that suffering is redemptive.
Life is always better when we embrace Christ’s change.
© L.D. Turner 2009/ All Rights Reserved