Posted by: Philip Rushton | January 3, 2016

How Change Happens: Thoughts For A New Year

January is often met with an ambitious agenda. Seeing the New Year as an opportunity for a fresh start, we set goals and make resolutions. Yet, we are often haunted by a not so successful track record of making changes in our life. By now we have discovered that our will-power is limited.

One of the themes that have emerged from my study in spiritual formation this year is that change happens indirectly. We cannot simply try and change a bad habit by direct effort. No, change requires a much deeper process.

The Apostle Paul prefers the word “training” over “trying.” In 1 Corinthians 9:25, Paul draws on a metaphor from athletics to describe our journey of discipleship. He writes:

“Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.”

If I wanted to run a marathon this year I couldn’t just go out and try and do it. But I could train for it. I could find a coach or a mentor, learn about how to get in shape, find friends who would keep me accountable and run with me, and begin to follow a running schedule that would slowly work me up to 26.2 miles. In the same way, spiritual growth happens indirectly. I can’t simply just try and be a good person. But I could train for it! I could immerse myself in the scriptures, find people to keep me accountable, and incorporate some intentional practices in my life that would get me in touch with God.

Of course, there is something different about spiritual growth than physical growth. The good news we read about in scripture is that God meet us in this journey and he equips and guides us. So the pursuit of growth is not solely up to me. Our role, however, is to find ways to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.

Before we start training, however, we need a vision.  In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul talks about the motivation athletes have to go through rigorous training. They want to get a crown. He then suggests that we too should rediscover the vision of what we stand to gain by following Christ. Without a vision we will struggle to continue on with our training.  We need a vision that is big enough to sustain us through the difficulties we face along the way.

Jesus speaks of this in the parable of the field and the pearl (Matthew 13). He says, “the kingdom of the heavens is like where something of extreme value is concealed in a field. Someone discovers it and quickly covers it up again. Overflowing with joyous excitement he pulls together everything he has, sells it all, and buys the field.” In this parable the person is willing to make huge sacrifices to buy the field because he knows there is something significant to be gained.

If we are honest, I think we sometimes lose the vision of what we stand to gain by giving our lives to the pursuit of discipleship. Dallas Willard writes, “One of the things that has most obstructed the path of discipleship in our Christian culture today is this idea that it will be a terribly difficult thing that will certainly ruin your life!” If this is the case then there will be little commitment to pursue God fully.

Before we set out to change, then, we need to recover the vision of what life with God is really about. In one of our sessions on the Divine Conspiracy this fall we spent time making a list of what we stand to gain by following Christ. It was quite a list! We named things like peace, purpose, communion with God, community, freedom, integrity, love, direction and so on.

Willard suggests that instead of talking about the “cost of discipleship,” we should talk about the “cost of non-discipleship.” He writes, “nondiscipleship costs abiding peace, a life penetrated throughout by love, faith that sees everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good, hopefulness that stands firm in the most discouraging of circumstances, power to do what is right and withstand the forces of evil. In short, non-disicpleship costs you exactly that abundance of life Jesus said he came to bring (John 10:10).”

It is only when we have recovered this vision of what life with God means that we can move on to the discipleship process. Once we have regained a vision we are then motivated to make an intention to follow Jesus, and to then employ a method that helps us grow closer to him.

Perhaps, then, as we approach a new year, we might not jump straight to making goals and resolutions about our spiritual life. Perhaps we might begin this year be rediscovering a vision of what life with God is really all about. Andy Stanley writes that “vision leaks, it doesn’t have a natural adhesive.” In other words, we need to recover a vision of God regularly because we lose sight of God easily. As we approach a new year, perhaps you might reflect on this question – “what do I stand to gain by giving my life fully to Jesus?”

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