This is probably a question everyone asks sooner or later. “Are we all just stuck with being who we are, warts and all, or is change possible?”
You know how it goes. Maybe you make New Year’s resolutions and break them the first week. Those of us with a few years on us start to see patterns in our lives where we have missed the mark pretty consistently in some area or the other and wonder if those patterns can be remade into something new and better.
We watched a movie a couple weeks ago: “16 Blocks” (with Bruce Willis) and this seemed to be the central question the film was asking. In fact, Bruce states quite emphatically early on in the movie that people don’t change. He plays a bad cop living with guilt of the choices he’s made and self medicating himself with booze. And yet, when faced with the choice of looking the other way as his fellow bad cops execute a witness, something snaps in his mind and he finally takes a stand. It seems there are some lines he is not willing to cross. And although his ex-partner insists that there are no such lines, most of us have them, I think. We may draw them in different places then someone else, but we like to believe that when push comes to shove, we’ll do the right thing. We believe there is some standard of right and wrong. And as C.S. Lewis said, when you’re arguing what that standard is, very rarely does the other guy say “To hell with your standard.” Instead, he tries to convince you that his standard is the correct one.
But, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself. When we fail to live up to our own standard, what do we typically do? We determine to do better next time. The Apostle Paul talked about this “What I do not want to do, that I do.” There is some debate whether Paul was talking about himself as an unregenerate individual in that verse, or even in some sense identifying with the Israelites and how they had strayed away from God so many times. But, the most direct reading of the verse is Paul talking about himself, as a believer, still struggling with doing what was right.
We’ve probably all met people who just don’t seem to care one way or another. Perhaps they have really reached a point where they are so hardened that they have no conscience, but I think in most cases, it’s some kind of defense mechanism against what they know to be right, but can’t seem to live up to. Like the person who you invite to church, and they say:
“Surely, I’d be struck by lightning if I walked through those doors.”
As if God is done with them, as if they’ve sinned so bad He can’t forgive them. Can that person change? Or are the fates just set against them? Are they just a cautionary tale for others? Worse, did God put them here for that purpose? Actually, some Christians seem to believe exactly that, although they might not say it out loud. To put it more pointedly, are some people pre-chosen for ultimate destruction and there’s nothing they can do about it?
John Calvin thought so, following Augustine’s lead. There are a couple of extreme views on this. On one side you have Pelagius, who supposedly believed man could avoid sin by the strength of his will and live a holy life. On the other side was Augustine, who, at least in arguing against Pelagius, seemed to end up saying that some are fated to be sinners and others saints from birth, while also maintaining that even the saints need grace, and can not avoid sinning by willing themselves not to. (The last part few Protestants or Catholics would argue against today.)
Keep in mind that when this argument was going on, Protestant churches did not exist, and also included in this whole controversy was whether or not infant baptism was needed. Anyway, some, such as John Wesley, thought that Pelagius, who ended up being branded a heretic, got a bad rap, and his teachings were just misunderstood by some in the church. But, regardless, my first question is: Did you ever meet anyone who could live up to Pelagius’ ideal of a sinless human being? Me either, although I met some who seem to believe they are sinless. And second, does God just zap some people with faith and make them “saints” and refuse to zap others, so they are condemned to hell from birth? If either of these are true, why does scripture encourage us to have faith and increase our faith, and why does God get upset with people sinning if He fated them to do it?
Ok, so I’m a theology geek, but I’m going somewhere here. How does this all tie in to our question: If you want to truly change, is it possible? And how?
Sure, sheer force of will can do a lot. Some decide to work out everyday and actually stick with it. (Probably because they find they actually start to enjoy it, but regardless…) Some do stick to their diets and lost weight. I decided to quit drinking Mountain Dew cold turkey and so far, so good. (Hey, I like to aim high!) It’s only been a couple weeks though.
But, but, an honest reading of scripture will not lead you to rely on your own will power. Good grief, no, that’s a recipe for failure. In fact, what God keeps saying is to give up your will and seek His. This obviously isn’t God zapping you with faith, or you gritting your teeth and trying harder, rather, it’s surrender. It’s admitting you need to lean on Him for everything.
Any improvement in any relationship takes effort, though. Which brings us to prayer. I’ve been trying to be more deliberate about praying. More specific. No hurried grocery list of requests presented to God as if He were a genie looking to fulfill my every wish. It seems that real prayers start with praise, and giving ourselves back to Him, and getting in line with what He wants, before we ever get to the asking.
The picture on my computer screen is currently my parents wedding photo. It’s a strange thing to see your parents as young lovers looking forward to a life together. It brings to mind just how quickly life goes by and how often it doesn’t turn out as we expected or wanted. My parent’s generation definitely had something that I think this generation too often lacks. I know, I know, it’s tempting to look back at the good old days as if things were perfect then. Well, they weren’t. And really, people were not less sinful. But, in general, it seems to me that they had guts. Guts that we often lack. I don’t know how to say it plainer or better than that.
When you have a tough job in front of you, whether it’s raising kids of baling hay, or just going to work at the same place everyday, you have a choice. You can whine and complain all the way or you can face it with grit and determination and humor. The big thing now seems to be authenticity. The kids, and to me twenty somethings are kids, don’t want to be fakers. They don’t want to say one thing and do another. They want to live what they believe. No more going to a job you hate just to put food on the table. They want to change the world and bring social justice and well, be real.
And that’s good. Well, to a point. Because in real life, what you’ll find is that in every job, even if you love it, there is something you hate. And authenticity can also be used as an excuse. “I don’t feel like working today.” Well, guess what, we all had those days too, but it never did pay any bills to be a slacker. So, we slogged through a lot of days we would just as soon forget. I know this is starting to sound like I’m putting down the younger generation. And that’s not where I’m going, although there is a problem with the work ethic of many. There are also many young people who are getting it done and choosing to enjoy their work.
How about this one: “I don’t feel like praying today.” That might be totally authentic. But, I think God would say that not feeling like praying is a first rate reason to pray more. The less you pray, the less you’ll feel like praying and the reverse is also true, the more you pray, the more you will want to.
But I keep forgetting about that person who isn’t so sure prayer works anyway, or that God even gives a rip about them. After all, if He cares, why doesn’t he fix this mess of a world that He made? (If you even believe He made it.) It’s hard to believe by looking around you, I’ll admit that, but that war has already been won. The fix has already come with the cross. But the battles are not over. Because God has decided to work through His people, instead of just zapping all the sinners, it’s going to be one bloody battle after another until all His enemies are under His feet. There are two opposite and equally wrong notions out there. One is a kind of deist view of God where He sits back and just lets everything happen without raising a hand, as He lets the world destroy itself. A lot of end times theology gets bogged down here. A kind of helpless shrug: “Oh, well, it’s all going to hell in a hand basket, but God will remake it all in the end, so we’ll just sit in our bunker and wait for the second coming.” The other extreme is God ordaining all our sin as well as all the good and just moving all the pieces on the chess board. This leads to the same shrug: “Whatever will be will be, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”
Reality is a lot more complicated than that. We are told that prayer really does change things.
“When a righteous person prays, that prayer carries great power. Elijah was a man with passions like ours, and he prayed and prayed that it might not rain-and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. Then he prayed again, the sky gave rain, and the earth produced it’s fruit.” (James 5:16-18 Kingdom New Testament)
We are told in Ephesians that we are in a war and need to put our armor on and the “shield of faith so we can extinguish the firey darts of the evil one.”
How do you put on your armor if not by prayer? All this might sound overly dramatic, especially if you aren’t a believer, but isn’t it what we intuitively know the world to be? Most of us don’t have to be told that our nature contains both light and darkness, that we are capable of great good or great evil. It’s obvious to anyone who pays attention to their own conflicting desires.
So, what made Elijah so special, that his prayers could change the weather? According to James, nothing. He was just a man like us. He sure wasn’t perfect. He was passionate for God at times and passionate about saving his own skin at other times. He had great faith and he doubted. Sound like anyone you know? But when he was all in, when he was on fire, his prayers changed things. (And brought literal fire from heaven.) Again, according to James, your prayers, like his, have great power. Do you believe that? Really? Do you think your prayers could change the weather? The world? How about your own heart? Probably not, if they are only mumbled lists of the stuff you’d like God to give you.
The trouble with talking like this is that some of you are going: “Who does this guy think he is?” Or “I know this guy, and he ain’t nothing special, certainly no spiritual giant.” That’s ok, and you are totally correct. In fact, it’s actually much worse then that, and I mostly write this stuff for myself and then, with great fear and trembling, post it on the ‘net, because there is one chance in a million that it might actually help someone.
Fortunately, Jesus gives us an example of how we should pray. I don’t think the idea here was to just repeat the “Lord’s Prayer” over and over, but to give an idea of the shape our prayers are supposed to take.
“Our Father, in heaven, hallowed be your name.”
Praise comes first, thanking God for who he is, putting ourselves in the proper place. He’s Holy and perfect, we aren’t.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”
His kingdom hasn’t fully come yet, it hasn’t taken over everything, there is still a bloody battle raging. I want your kingdom, God, send your kingdom, defeat the kingdoms raised against you…” His will isn’t being done everywhere, obviously, so we pray for it to advance, and we align ourselves with His will. It’s hard to go wrong if you pray for things you know He wants to accomplish. What would this world look like if His will was always done here?
“Give us our daily bread.”
We’re finally asking for something we need, but notice it’s what we need, not everything we want, necessities, not extravagance. Now, I don’t think it’s always wrong to pray for stuff, but everything in moderation….
“Forgive us our sins.”
Wait, you mean believers sin? Ok, I’m not going there, but apparently Jesus expected them to sin now and then, like every day, and need forgiveness. Seems like it couldn’t hurt to pray for forgiveness, even if we think we haven’t done anything wrong.
“As we forgive those who sin against us.”
Do we? If we don’t, how can He forgive us?
“Deliver us from the evil one.”
He’s real. This is a real battle, we have to pray for deliverance. And get specific about it. Deliver me from…pride, fear, lust, whatever it happens to be. Make us Victors over evil, Jesus.
“Yours is the kingdom.”
Again, invoking His kingdom over your little domain, and over the big stuff, too, whether it’s your cancer, your cold or your children.
“And the power and the glory, forever, Amen.”
Transform this world with your power, God, with your Glory, advance your kingdom, bring more people into your fold, break the power of darkness and send the demons back to hell. And when we pray in Jesus’ name, it’s not just a neat ribbon to tie things up. His name is where the power is, because of the cross, His name is what shuts up the enemy.
Like I said before, the trouble with writing “religious” posts is that someone might think that I think I’m some spiritual guru. But, it’s not like that. We are all on a journey that is taking us closer to truth and to God or further away from Him and His truth. You might be way farther down that road then me, but that’s not the question here. It’s not so much where you are on the journey. But if you’re on the right road.
And getting on the right road isn’t near as difficult as some make it out to be. Jesus said that if you seek you’ll find, if you knock the door will be opened to you. Only it’s not going to happen if you’re running in the wrong direction as fast as you can. If I had said at the beginning of the post, that, yes ,people can change and change can last, and prayer is the way there, it might have sounded a bit like a nice motivational poster, but I hope I’ve explained enough that it’s more then that when I say it here at the end.
You can’t earn change, you can’t really get there by the sheer strength of your will, and most of us have tried that. But you can accept the change that comes with constant communication with the Change Maker.