How to Grow in Grace: Step Six

In my book Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, I discuss a common error when considering the change process. Parts of this post come from an excerpt taken from pages 113-117.

The More You Know?

We tend to think that if we just know the right things, change will happen. It’s the approach taken by the public service commercials on American TV. The commercial briefly describes the social problem (teenage pregnancy, obesity, heart disease, etc.) and then provides some helpful advice to address the problem. The commercial always ends with this statement: “The more you know.” In other words, right thinking will lead to right behavior.

Many professing Christians approach the Christian life in the same way. If you struggle with worry, anxiety, fear, anger or addictions (you pick your problem), the best way to change is through awareness and information. Therefore, “the more you know…” And knowledge is important. If this weren’t true, then writing and reading this blog would be useless! Change won’t come if we don’t think rightly.

Change and God’s Grace

Over the past several weeks, we have been reflecting on the change process and the Christian life. So far we have covered these five perspectives:

  1. Look to Christ
  2. Look for Evidence of the Spirit’s Work in Your Life
  3. Rightly Pay Attention to Your Circumstances
  4. Identify Unproductive Coping Strategies and Ungodly Responses
  5. Ask the “Why?” and “What?” Questions

The reason we focused on the “Why?” and “What?” questions in the previous blog was two-fold. First, you need to know what is driving your behavior. Without this, you will continue to struggle with the surface issue and never address the deeper problem. Second, until you identify the core motivational driver, you don’t know how Jesus can meet you and transform you by his love and grace.

Just as change will not come if we don’t think rightly, thinking rightly doesn’t automatically produce change. I know how I ought to treat my wife; but sometimes, I don’t treat her in the way I know I should. I know what the speed limit on the freeway is; that knowledge alone does not mean I will change my driving habits. So, there must be another dynamic in addition to right thinking.

Step Six: Remember Change is All About Relationship

What exactly is that additional dynamic? What will enable you to take the information that you have gathered and utilize it in such a way that change begins to happen in your life? If you don’t answer that question, you will be left with a view of change that is simply cognitive/behavioral; that is, right thinking leads to right living. That is a very popular approach in both secular and Christian circles. And Paul seems to agree! He says in Romans 12:2:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

So renewing your mind leads to transformation, right? Not quite—because when Paul talks about the mind, he’s talking not just about our intellectual capacity, but our inner person. He is describing the part of someone that makes them tick; the central core of who a person is and what they live for. This is what we discussed in the previous blog. He is talking about the seat of affections. For Paul, if you are not changed at the core of who you are, change in your behavior will not follow. Real change begins at the level of what we honor, treasure, adore or functionally worship on a daily basis.

This is how commentator William Hendricksen states it in his explanation of this phrase:

Paul does not say, ‘Substitute one outward fashion for another.’ That would be no solution, for the trouble with those who allow themselves to be fashioned after the pattern of this present (evil) age is deep-seated. What is needed is ‘transformation,’ inner change, the renewing of the mind, that is, not only of the organ of thinking and reasoning but of the inner disposition; better still, of the heart, the inner being.

John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, says this about the process of change:

We have given the first place to the doctrine in which our religion is contained, since our salvation begins with it. But, it must enter our hearts and pass along to our daily living, and so transform us into itself that it may not be unfruitful for us … [The gospel’s] efficacy ought to penetrate the inmost affections of the heart, take its seat in the soul and affect the whole man a hundred times more deeply than the cold exhortations of the philosophers!

In other words, change must happen at a deeper level than just thinking and behaving.

The Relationship Issue

What does this look like practically? It is more than talking to yourself and trying to convince yourself to change. It involves more than telling yourself to not worry because it is wrong. It is more than thinking positive thoughts (even biblical ones). It is even more than reminding yourself of who you are in Christ! It involves talking to and relating to Christ in the midst of your anxieties, worries and fears. Since God is personal, change that he accomplishes in you will be the result of you relating to him personally as you struggle.

1 Peter 5:7 captures this truth in the simplest of ways in the context of struggles with anxiety: “Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.” It is simple, but profound. Here is what Peter says to those of us who worry and live anxious lives in 1 Peter 5:6-11:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you.
Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.
And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power for ever and ever. Amen.

Do you see what Peter is saying? He is encouraging you to relate to God in the very midst of your struggle with worry, or whatever struggle you may be facing. Talk to God, he says, throw your worries and burdens on him. Know that he is more than a concept or a thought, he is a person. He cares for you!

Here is the right way to approach change: right relating to God based upon right thinking about God will lead to right living before God. This does not mean it will be easy as you face your worries, nor does it mean that it will happen automatically or quickly. Rather, it will happen progressively over time. But it will happen. When you are struggling, you must talk to and relate to God. There is no other way to experience lasting, abiding change, for this is the only way to change our hearts.

Copyright © 2017 Timothy S. Lane

How to Grow in Grace

Over the coming weeks, I will continue to add "steps" that are practical ways of thinking about the process of growth in grace. If you want to be alerted each time the next post goes live, you can sign up to receive e-news here:

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Tim Lane

Dr. Timothy S. Lane is the President of the Institute for Pastoral Care and has a counseling practice in Fayetteville, GA. He is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), having been ordained in 1991 and a member of Metro-Atlanta Presbytery. Tim has authored Living Without Worry: How to Replace Anxiety with Peace, and co-authored How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making. He has written several mini-books including PTSD, Forgiving Others, Sex Before Marriage, Family Feuds, Conflict, and Freedom From Guilt.

He has experience in both campus ministry (University of Georgia, 1984-1987) and pastoral ministry where he served as a pastor in Clemson, SC from 1991 until 2001. Beginning in 2001 until 2013, he served as a counselor and faculty at CCEF in Philadelphia, PA (Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation). Beginning in 2007, he served as its Executive Director until 2013.

In 2014, Tim and his family re-located to his home state, Georgia, where he formed the non profit ministry the Institute for Pastoral Care. His primary desire and commitment is to help pastors and leaders create or improve their ability to care for the people who attend their churches.  For more information about this aspect of Tim's work, please visit the section of this site for the Institute for Pastoral Care. He continues to write, speak and travel both nationally and internationally. Tim is adjunct professor of practical theology at several seminaries where he teaches about pastoral care in the local church.