The Key to Change

Union with Christ

Union with Christ

Ready to Turn Right

Over the past few blogs, we've looked back to what Christ has done for us and how his Spirit is at work in us. We've looked around us at our circumstances. We've looked down the left fork—our negative responses and the desires that drive them. So how do we go about actually taking the right fork—choosing moment by moment to do the right thing? That's where we are headed beginning in this blog and the ones to follow.

The More You Know?

So how does ongoing change happen? We tend to think that if we just know the right things, change will follow. 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. We might call this a cognitive-behavioral approach. Research shows that very few people actually follow the advice that is given.

Many professing Christians approach the Christian life in the same way. The thinking is that if you struggle with worry, lust, gossip, greed, anger or addictions (you pick your problem), the best way to change is through awareness and information. “The more you know…”

It’s true that knowledge is important. If that weren’t true, then writing and reading this blog would be useless! Change won’t come if we don’t think rightly. But there is so much more to it than facts. After all, 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. There must be another dynamic in addition to right thinking.

It's All About Relationship

Union with Christ

Union with Christ

At first sight, it might seem that Paul agrees with the cognitive-behavioral approach. He says in Romans 12 v 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. If we were neuroscientists, we might say that Paul is speaking about the linkage between the rational brain and the emotional brain. But actually, Paul’s talking about something spiritual here—any biological change is enabled by God’s grace anyway! He is describing the part of someone that makes them tick; the central core of who a person is and what they live for. 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 and worship on a daily basis.

This is how commentator William Hendricksen states what Paul means in these verses:

Paul does not say, ‘Substitute one outward fashion for another.’ … 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.

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

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, or get angry, or look at pornography 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 anxiety, anger and addiction, or whatever your battle is. Since God is personal, change will be the result of you relating to him personally as you struggle. Because when you relate to Jesus in this way, gratitude and joy for his grace begin to work their way down deep into your soul. This is what drives true change! Relating to Jesus in this way could be called Christian meditation. It can be done alone in a quiet place or right in the middle of a hectic day—essentially, this word describes what it means to enter into a relationship and converse with a personal, loving, gracious God.

So 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 to overcome your struggles, nor does it mean that change will happen automatically or quickly. Rather, it will happen gradually over time. But it will happen.

In chapter 7 of Unstuck: A Nine-Step Journey to Change that Lasts, I consider how the various ways that our union with Christ is described can be used as a means of connecting with God in practical ways while facing temptation and suffering.

Comment

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 a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. 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.

Does Gospel = Jesus?

Much is being said about “Gospel-centered” ministry. This is a good problem, by the way! I could not think of a better substitute for other problems brewing in our churches on a weekly basis. Still, definition is needed.

My concern is that the term “gospel-centered” can almost objectify what is ultimately intended to describe a relationship. Even the word “grace” can serve in a similar way. Each word is accurate, but a relationship with the person of Christ is inadvertently eclipsed.

Why is this so important? If you are not careful, you can make the Christian life about what you believe rather than in whom you believe.  In other words, rather than focusing on the Blesser, you focus on the blessings.  It’s a subtle shift. This can impact the way we think about the change process.

One may "meditate" on their justification, adoption or their regeneration (or any of the other blessings that are ours in Christ). These are wonderful realities to reflect upon but not apart from talking to and interacting with the One who has made these blessings possible. Without knowing it, Christian growth is driven by right thinking and not right relating. While right thinking and doctrine is important, right relating is foundational. Right thinking may leave you in your own mind while right relating takes you outside of yourself.

My standard definition of change goes something like this: A thoroughly Christian understanding of change is not less than behavioral but more; it is not less than cognitive, it is more; it is covenantal. The word “covenant” means relationship. Christian change has at its center, not a discipline or some secret knowledge or technique but a Person, Jesus.

In his helpful book, The Work of Christ, Robert Letham says, 

As far as we are concerned, union with Christ begins to be a reality when we trust in Christ for salvation….Union with Christ is, in fact, the foundation of all the blessings of salvation. Justification, sanctification, adoption and glorification are all received through our being united to Christ (p.80)

I think that sums it up. Union with Christ is key. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, repetitively uses the word "in." We are in Christ. What a strong way of describing how intimate this relationship is.

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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 a counseling organization  in Philadelphia, PA. 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.