I have yet to meet a Christian who truly wanted to sin. They might say they want to sin, but if you dig a little deeper they would confess that any perceived desire they feel to sin is actually a torment to them. It’s a source of guilt and shame, especially if they give in to those temptations.
What these Christians need to hear is that, while God does call us to live transformed lives, He’s actually made it a lot easier than we maybe realize.
Here are the five steps God leads us through to have the transformed lives we desire:
Step One: Believe the Gospel
It should go without saying that we’ll never have transformed lives until God enters the picture. The good news (no pun intended) is that all Christians have already taken this step or they wouldn’t be Christians. We believe Jesus died for our sins and rose again to give us life everlasting with Him.
Step Two: Get Adopted
This actually happens at the exact same moment as Step One. One is the result of the other, or maybe better put, it’s simply a different way of defining our salvation. Taking Jesus as our Savior by faith also means taking God as our Father. You can’t have one without the other. So, dear Christian, congratulations on already completing the first two steps toward your transformed life!
Step Three: Receive Discipline
Hebrews 12:7 promises us that being a child of God means He will discipline you, which doesn’t often make us think happy thoughts.
However, it’s helpful for us to consider the means and purpose of God’s discipline. Deuteronomy 8:3-5 explains, “And [God] humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD…Know then in your heart that, as a man disciplines his son, the LORD your God disciplines you.”
God’s method of discipline was not sickness, death, destruction, or disaster; it was the daily practice by which He proved His word is trustworthy, giving manna just as He promised. Though every household was bankrupt of food at night, He met their need the following morning every day for forty years. The purpose of this was to teach them to trust His words, which included obeying His commands, but also included the promise that He would deliver a land filled with hostile giants and a multitude of strong nations into their hands. Without faith in His words, Israel would never enter the Promised Land.
That was why God, as a good father, trained them through discipline to live by His words instead of by their circumstances. God’s discipline in our lives will be equally gentle and accomplish the same purpose, establishing trust and faith that His words are true so that we will believe and live by them.
Step Four: Become Free
Jesus prays in John 17:17, “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” He also said, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32).
This is the exact process we are talking about—living in His words so that we know the truth, which then sets us free. It’s interesting that God’s words result in two things: 1) Us being set apart completely unto Him and 2) Us becoming free. Isn’t it wonderful to see the very thing that brings us closer to Him also sets us free from the things that would control us and cause us to sin?
Step Five: Be Transformed
It’s no wonder then that Romans 12:2 says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds.” Perhaps it’s easier for us to read this verse and apply it backwards—trying to be transformed in our actions first so that we can think differently about ourselves and earn a closer relationship with God—but that’s not what it says. We can try to transform our lives all we want, but there’s only one way it’s going to happen—by renewing our minds.
That means to make our minds new, to think in a new way. But how are we going to do that? By now the answer is clear. We learn to think a new way by listening to the truth of what God says to us. We regularly bathe in His view of us and become increasingly cleansed from who the world, our past, or any other voice says we are or ought to be. The result of this is that we no longer resemble the world around us, but instead live the transformed lives we always desired but could never attain through our own efforts.
Trying harder won’t stop your sin, but thinking in a way that agrees with God’s words will. This isn’t crazy. It’s biblical.
Transformation really isn’t as hard as we thought it was. That was a lie we believed, but God’s words today can wash away that lie so our new life can truly begin.
Nothing damaged my trust in God as my father more than this mystery. I simply could not reconcile the idea of Him as a good father with the reality that he sent His Son to suffer and die when He could have come instead. After all, if God the Son can become incarnate for the sake of dying in our place, why couldn’t God the Father? And if He could, then why didn’t He? Was He unwilling? Was He selfish? More to the point, how can I trust Him in my life if He calls me His son, yet treated His Only Begotten in that way?
Intellectually, I knew that God is incapable of that kind of—there’s no other word for it—betrayal. But I lacked the key that would cause it all to make sense. I kept this question on a spiritual back burner of sorts, waiting until God brought clarity to the issue. When He did, it completely changed the way I think about Him.
Here’s some background for the thinking that led to this mystery: I had been taught that God’s purpose for mankind was to bring Himself glory. I was told that in anyone else, this would be disingenuous and self-seeking, but because God is truly worthy, there is no moral dilemma when we say this about Him. His worthiness makes it okay for Him to make all things about Himself.
I know. It doesn’t sound right to you and it never did to me either. Maybe it technically makes sense, but it doesn’t sound right. But that’s what I was taught, and by some very brilliant minds in Bible college. Here’s the problem with that theory and where it began to unravel for me:
God is love (1 John 4:16), and love is not self-seeking (1 Corinthians 13:5). If God is love then His very being is defined by unselfishness. He cannot seek His own benefit or He betrays the nature of His very existence!
Moreover, Ezekiel 28:12-17 says, “‘Thus says the Lord GOD… “You were an anointed guardian cherub. I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God…Your heart was proud because of your beauty; you corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor”‘” (Ezekiel 28:11-17). God is addressing Lucifer in this passage, lamenting over him, actually. What stood out to me here is the very last thing He says: “You corrupted your wisdom for the sake of your splendor.” In other words, when Lucifer’s wisdom sought the benefit of others, it was pure, but when he turned his wisdom to seek his own benefit, it became corrupted. It may sound reasonable at first to say, “God can do things that look selfish to our finite human minds and it’s okay because He’s worthy,” but then I find that this kind of self-seeking is Satan’s very nature. I cannot possibly say that God can act like Satan and it’s okay because He’s worthy and Satan’s not.
This much helped reassure my confidence that God is not selfish or malevolent, but it didn’t help me understand why a good father, the best Father, would send His Son to die instead of going Himself. That answer came from Philippians 2:5-11, which says:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
These verses wrap the whole thing together, showing the perfect nature of God in the humility, sacrifice, and love of Jesus Christ. Yet because of His humility, God the Father exalted Him so that Jesus is exalted above everyone else. Jesus didn’t exalt Himself. His Father exalted Him, and there—right there—is where God gave me my answer.
God the Father knew that whoever went to save the Earth would also receive the greatest name and become the most exalted over everyone else. God the Father knew He could do that horrible task, and that He could receive the exaltation that would come with it. But that would have been self-seeking, so that’s not what He did. Instead, He set aside His rights to be the most highly exalted for the sake of letting His Son surpass Him. He asked His Son, Jesus, to suffer and die for us, not to spare Himself the pain, but so that His Son would be more highly exalted than He was.
That is the nature of a father, which is why this is the way God the Father is glorified. Look at the last line of the passage; God the Father is glorified when all creation is worshiping the Son. God the Father was nowhere to be seen through all those verses until the very end! He is far from center stage, yet while the spotlight is on the Son, the Father is glorified.
I finally had the answer to the mystery. This answer proved to me, once and for all, I also had a Father I could trust.
How would you like to know beyond a shadow of a doubt, at all times that you are loved? How would you like to really believe that? What would it be like if you could constantly live in the confidence that you are loved?
What if, even more than that, you could continually be filled with love? What if it was possible for every interaction that you ever have to be motivated and empowered by love?
If you’re like me, you want this. In fact, I believe that this is the core of every human longing and desire. We want to love and to be loved. No, we need to love and to be loved. Unfortunately, most of us don’t really believe we are loved, even when we know it’s true.
John, the disciple known as the one Jesus loved, helps us with this, saying, “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us…We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:15-19)
Starting from the beginning, we have a clear promise: If you confess Jesus as the Son of God, God abides in you. Now, my family abides in our home, but my three-year-old son is still learning this. We will be out and about for whatever reason and he’ll ask, “Where are we going?” Eventually the answer is, “We’re going home.”
“I don’t want to go home,” he says.
“We have to go home,” we say; “It’s where we live.” That’s the point. We abide where we live. We never truly leave that place. We always come back to where we abide. If you have confessed Jesus, God abides in you; you are His home. What’s more, He is your home. You live inside of Him.
The implications of this are powerful because of what John says next. “So we have come to know and believe the love God has for us” (4:16). See that he said know and believe. See also that he said, “So.” In other words, this is how we come to both know and believe God’s love for us—God lives in us and we live in God, not because we did anything to earn it or win His favor, but simply because we made a confession. That single confession has permanently changed our address. We now live in God.
John further helps us understand this amazing transformation, saying, “God is love. And whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him” (4:16). Listen, God is love, and you abide in Him by confessing Jesus as the Son of God. So when you begin to abide in God, the reality of that statement is that you are beginning to abide in love and love begins to abide in you.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Okay, now let’s meditate on it more: You live inside of love. You are surrounded by it. You can’t leave it and it can’t leave you. Everyone who looks at you has to look through love to see you. Everyone you see, you see them through love. Every word you hear or speak has to pass through love before it is received. Every thought you think is birthed in the presence of love. And all this reality came simply because you confessed Jesus.
Finally, “By this is love perfected with us” (4:17)
Love: Perfected. With. Us.
Did you ever think that you could be included in such a small phrase with perfected love? Yet it’s that simple. Drink deeply the reality that you live in God and God lives in you, which is the same thing as saying that you live in love and love lives in you. It doesn’t matter how little this feels real, because it’s the guaranteed reality of your life as soon as you confess Jesus as the Son of God.
Then, and only then, do we love. “We love because He first loved us” (4:19). We do not love because it’s right, or because of obligation, or because it’s moral, or nice, or because rules and laws told us so. We love because we are loved. Period. The only genuine love we can give is overflow love.
You are in love and love is in you. May you enjoy life today and every day in this reality until you both know and believe it, until then love is perfected with you. It’s completely possible, and it starts by just believing it.
If truth be told, I scan Facebook a lot. Like everyone else on Facebook, I see all the debates raging back and forth—homosexual marriage, abortion, gun rights, political debates, and more—and in all the stuff that gets slung back and forth, I don’t know if there’s a single person who stops to recognize that the way their message will be received is in large part determined by the culture to which their audience belongs. Most likely, culture never entered their mind when they shared that meme or wrote that post because they assumed that the people who would read it share the same culture. Well, they are wrong.
So to help all of us out, here is an admittedly oversimplified definition of culture. Don’t let it sound boring to you, either, because the good stuff comes only when you understand this foundation; and trust me, it is good stuff. Okay, so here are four layers of culture based on what we would observe, in order, if we were to go into a different culture:
- Behavior—what is done?
- Values—what is good or best?
- Beliefs—what is true?
- Worldview—what is real?*
Each layer of culture is driven by the one below it, but to help us see how that works, let me give some examples so we don’t get lost in anthropological mumbo jumbo. We’ll consider a devout Hindu and someone whose culture has been influenced by the Christian worldview, walking through how they answer each question associated with the layers going in reverse order from what’s written above.
- What is real? Hindu: Karma is real. What you did in a previous life determines what you’re getting now. Christian-influenced: God is the creator of all things, including you and me as unique individuals.
- What is true? Hindu: You deserve your low status. Christian-influenced: God died to save sinners and adopt us as His sons.
- What is good or best? Hindu: That I treat you as your born position deserves so that we both gain good Karma for our next life. Christian-influenced: I treat you as God treated me, regardless of position or status.
- What is done? Hindu: Oppression or reverence, as position deserves. Christian-influenced: Equal and loving treatment for all mankind.
Or consider a more western-culture version:
- What is real? Atheist: Only what can be scientifically proven. Christian: God and His created universe.
- What is true? Atheist: People are only highly evolved animals. Christian: Humans are created in the image of God.
- What is good or best? Atheist: Potentially anything, whatever leads to the greatest expedient practical benefit. Christian: God’s will is the highest good.
- What is done? Atheist: Anything—abortion, euthanasia, divorce, promiscuity, etc. There’s no ultimate consequence for your choices, so choose to live however you want. Christian: Following the example of Jesus.
What this shows us is that most of what we debate about is behavior, or perhaps the values behind them, but few of us recognize that disagreement at a deeper level of culture creates a gap that cannot be bridged by arguing at a shallower layer of culture.
What’s more, getting someone to agree with you about behavior is terribly superficial if their conversion didn’t touch what they believe to be real. For example, a Hindu might “believe in Jesus,” but in reality only be taking Him to be one more god among all the others that they worship because their worldview didn’t receive Him as the only God. Or, frighteningly, we might convince an atheist that an unborn child is a vital human life, but if they hold fully true to their worldview, that still does not produce morality or ethics because you cannot scientifically establish absolute rights or wrongs; that belongs purely to the realm of philosophy and religion, which science cannot explain. They could still logically reason within their worldview that it’s better for both you and that baby for it to die because it would detrimentally effect “quality of life” for both you and it. In fact, this is the entire argument behind eugenics, which tries to control human population by “trimming off” what it perceives as negative to society through means of abortion, euthanasia, and in extreme cases like Hitler, genocide.
But while I can (and want to) get on a soapbox because of my horror at such practices, that does nothing if I only reach people at the level of their behavior, values, or even their belief system. What really has to change is peoples’ worldview, and our own as well, so how do we do this?
Well, because our worldview defines what we believe to be real, experience is the powerful dictator of this layer of culture. It’s very hard for us to deny the reality of what we experience. For this reason, when someone experiences God through His intervention in their lives—a healing, miraculous provision, a supernatural sense of His love or presence, etc.—they immediately realize that all they saw before was blindness compared to the reality that just opened before them.
Also, Hebrews 4:12-13 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Certainly, if God’s word pierces between soul and spirit, then it gets as deep as our worldview. I believe that God sends out His word and it always bears fruit (Isaiah 55:10-11). I also believe that God sometimes takes His word—His scriptures—and makes something stand out to us in a particular moment for a particular reason. When we are able to “hear” what God is saying to a person in a given moment and say it to them, it opens them up like nothing else and paves the way for them to enter a new reality.
Once someone’s reality changes, so does their belief system, and then so do their values, and then so do their actions. But when we only aim at actions, we never change their reality. It’s like cutting the head off a dandelion, but not getting the roots.
But I said that we also need to do this in our own lives. Why? Because there are two different kinds of belief systems—operating and theoretical. Operating belief systems are what you truly believe that then influences your values and actions. Theoretical belief systems are like rote creeds that you can recite, but it doesn’t affect how you live.** For example, every Christian will tell you that they believe God loves them, yet, from my experience, the vast majority of them actually believe that they are broken, rejected, unloved, despised, ugly, unwanted, and so on. The former is only a theoretical belief system that has little to no power in their life, while the latter is the operating belief system that leads to genuine actions.
However, if we experience an aspect of God’s nature—His love, healing, provision, protection, etc.—then His reality becomes our reality and our theoretical belief displaces the former operating one. Now, suddenly, we truly believe that God loves us. We say that it went from head knowledge to heart knowledge and we experience freedom from doubt and confidence to minister that reality to others who need it.
Thankfully, God is the ultimate reality, which means that we have every reason for hope both for ourselves and for everyone around us. For as we pursue not just a soapbox regarding how people live, but instead pursue God’s reality within which we live, we can get under the surface issues to people’s hearts, as well as our own, and see God transform us all into everything He created us to be.
* Loyd E. Kwast, “Understanding Culture,” in Perspectives Exposure: Discovering God’s Heart for All Nations and Our Part in His Plan, ed. Meg Crossman (Seattle, WA: YWAM Publishing, 2003), 87-89.
** Loyd E. Kwast, “Understanding Culture,” in Perspectives Exposure: Discovering God’s Heart for All Nations and Our Part in His Plan, ed. Meg Crossman (Seattle, WA: YWAM Publishing, 2003), 88.
It’s right up there with Jeremiah 29:11 as the top verse quoted in times of transition. I received it on cards when I graduated high school. I’ve quoted it when I needed the encouragement. Heck, I can even sing this verse to you because of a childrens’ Bible-memory tape I listened to over and over as I grew up. Do you know what verse I’m talking about?
It’s Joshua 1:9. Say it with me if you know it: “‘Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go.'”
The Lord gives this pep talk to Joshua upon breaking the news to him that Moses is dead and he is now the one in charge of approximately two million people. I always thought that promotion was plenty enough context for Joshua to need such words of encouragement from Almighty God, but recently I learned something new that made this more powerful than ever.
What I realized, or perhaps the Lord showed me, is that this would have been the first time in forty years that Joshua would have needed told that God was with him. His reality throughout the entire journey through the wilderness was one in which God continually manifested Himself visibly before the entire congregation of the people. Exodus 40:34-38 tells us the story:
Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. Throughout all their journeys, whenever the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out. But if the cloud was not taken up, then they did not set out till the day that it was taken up. For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in it by night, in the sight of all the house of Israel throughout all their journeys.
Every morning for forty years, Joshua would rise from his bed, exit his tent, and see a pillar of cloud rising from the Tabernacle. Every evening, he would see a pillar of fire rising from the Tabernacle. Every time the pillar lifted up from the Tabernacle, the people packed and followed. Every time the pillar settled down again, so did the people. The pillar was constant, ever-present. It provided continual reassurance that every single person was exactly where God wanted them and that He was with them in that place.
But now, for the first time in forty years, Israel—and their leader, Joshua—could not visibly see God’s presence with them, leading them in the way to go. With as much trouble as Moses had in leading the people even with God manifestly among them, Joshua would have to take over without this visual help. Certainly, at a time like that, Joshua needed to hear that God was with him.
This transition in Joshua’s life gives us plenty to learn from, but there is one more that we must see that is subtler, but far more significant. It is that, in the wilderness, God moved and then the people moved. God settled and then the people settled. To put it more in the language of the key verses here, “The people of the LORD God were with Him wherever He went.” Now listen to what God said to Joshua, “Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (emphasis added).
Can you imagine this situation for Joshua? In the midst of all the other transitions that he is enduring, he is now told that instead of him following God, God will follow him. This is a huge shift. It means that instead of being a servant who only had to follow, he now has to step up and lead. It means a new freedom within which he has to think for himself, make history-altering decisions, and be aggressive to go after whatever lies in front of him. It means embracing strategy, creativity, and ingenuity in a way that was far beyond the level required in the wilderness. He had to do things he had never done before, think in ways he had never thought before, and act in a manner that had never been permitted before. This is no small task!
Believe it or not, each of us goes through the same transition that Joshua experienced, beginning with a training phase that in some way resembles these four elements: 1) Listening to what God desires from and in our lives, 2) Learning to trust and follow God during difficult times, 3) Cultivating relationship with God by meeting with Him in the intimate places of our soul, and 4) Learning from spiritual fathers and mothers in our lives (even if that means learning from God’s example in our lives). Joshua was trained in these in the wilderness, and they will lead us to the same place they led him—a place where we can have confidence despite the risks we’re called to take.
So what risks are you called to take? Has God been talking to you about a new job or career? Maybe He’s been leaning on your heart to engage your neighborhood to show them His love. Perhaps He’s calling you to a new level in your marriage and parenting. It really doesn’t matter what the risk is that He’s calling you to take, His preparation looks the same. Which may mean that you’re also still in the preparation stage of life, though if that’s you, consider that Joshua still led battles in the wilderness and that his character was tested by his ability to serve.
The bottom line is that, whether because of a pillar of cloud and fire or whether God simply gives us His promise, we know that He’s with us. As G.I. Joe always said, “Knowing is half the battle.” The other half is to step out in faith to do the work required for the job, knowing that wherever I go, the Lord my God will go with me.