Thinking About Change
I'm reading Paul Tripp's Instruments in the Redeemer's Hands again, this time in Chapter 13 as he talks about pursuing “change” in peoples lives. I am struck by the fact that most of the time, we conceive of change as a short term endeavor – we're interested in the bottom line, in the here and now. And this tends to be true both for the people giving advice and those who are coming to them for help. As we experience pressure in our lives, we look for ways to ease the pain, to “fix” things. We tend to have a very now-centered view of things – both in how we understand the problems and also in how we look for solutions.
Yet this kind of attitude is strikingly different from the way Paul views the world. In speaking to the Corinthians (and believe me, they had plenty of issues that needed fixing), Paul says “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him. But I am afraid that just as Eve was deceived by the serpents cunning, you minds may somehow be led astray from your sincere and pure devotion to Christ.” (2 Cor 11:1-3).
For Paul, one's conversion is like an engagement – we are promised to Christ, and the wedding comes at the end of time when he returns. And his desire for us is that we live our present lives with this final destiny in view – that we live in such a way now so as to be pure and holy then.
Tripp's point here is that “Paul understands the Christian life eschatologically. This means that today is preparation for tomorrow, and tomorrow is preparation for something else yet to come.” (p240). I think this is really important. The 'now' certainly matters, but it's not ultimate. As believers, we have a beautiful future to look forward to, and yet it's not disconnected from the now.
Now here's where things get interesting. Paul is not simply saying, “So buck up and try harder” (as if change is only going to happen if we do something about it ourselves). On the contrary, Paul sees God actively working in the here and now to create the change in us, that he himself might present us spotless. We see the same kind of imagery in Ephesians: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her... that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27).
So Christ himself is the one working in us to purify us, and the way he does it is through difficulty and hardship in the here and now. As Paul tells the Corinthians, “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Cor 4:17-18).
What all this means is that all the stuff that is happening NOW is actually preparing us for a marriage to Christ THEN. This is why Paul can say that “all things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28-29). It also explains why God often does not simply “remove” the thorns in our flesh, the trials and tribulations which seem to be the problems in our lives. God allows them to remain, because they expose our sin, they drive us to Christ, they force us to rely on his grace, they are preparing us for what is to come. They are not the problem in and of themselves, so much as the means by which we will be purified.
So how does all this connect back to change? Well, as Tripp says, “Your whole life is premarital counseling... Everything you face today is premarital preparation – living now with then in view” (p241). We need to understand this if we ever hope to change.
First, because it helps us know what needs to change – not the situation (at least not first and foremost), not others, but us. We ourselves are the ones who need work. Miss that reality, and all our effort will be wasted on trying to manipulate our environment and those around us.
Second, we need to recognize that change is a process, it's a long haul. So we shouldn't expect everything to happen at once. As someone once said, God is content to work change in individuals over the course of decades, and in the church over the course of centuries. Change takes time.
All this means we can't quit too soon (either thinking all the necessary change has already occurred, or giving up because we think it will never occur). We're in this thing for a long haul, and yet God is faithful, and this alone is our true source of hope: God will finish what he has started. Our task is to humbly submit and seek him, working out our salvation in him because he is the one who is working in us (Phil 2:12-13).