It’s Not A Self-Improvement Project

When contemplating change, I have found it is important to change for the right reasons. When talking with a person the other day, I learned she recently stopped eating sweets until Easter. She said that she thought it was the “Christian” thing to do. She thought God would bless her for her efforts, and that her life would be better as a result.

I have found that a significant number of Christians approach progressive sanctification as a self-improvement project. While there is certainly nothing wrong with giving up sweets, I do believe it is important to examine the motivations for our actions.

The second part of Romans 12:2 says, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good, acceptable, and perfect. The actions that bring great glory to God proceed from a heart that is transformed. In the first part of the verse, the Christian is instructed to be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Many of us embark upon growth and change as a self-improvement project. A personal episode of Fixer-Upper. A little tweak here, a major adjustment there, and we feel we are better and more spiritual. This is not what Paul was talking about at all. The word transformation means to be changed into another form, to become something that is unrecognizable in the former sense. (Blue Letter Bible, n.d.)

I know the metaphor of the caterpillar to butterfly is not original, but stay with me because it best illustrates the point. When a caterpillar is in the cocoon, it isn’t attaching wings and antennae to its form. It isn’t painting designs on the wings or having an insect form of body sculpting to look like something different; the caterpillar is being literally transformed into something entirely different than what it was. The caterpillar disintegrates and dissolves into a soupy ooze that will become the beautiful butterfly that emerges from the chrysalis. It dies and re-emerges as something else.

In our sanctification process, we must cease to be who we once were in every way. We must be unrecognizable as our former selves. Often, Christians are distressed because friends and family make comments about how they’ve changed since regeneration. They are told things like, “You are not who you used to be” or “I don’t know you anymore”. This is a good thing, when the person is revealing the changes God has wrought in the heart.

These changes are costly and hard. They mean (in some cases) walking away from everything and everyone a person has ever known in their life for the sake of following Christ. They mean radical change and complete and total transformation.

Luke 9:23-24 ties into this beautifully. Jesus is talking about the true cost of being His disciple and says,

And He was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it. (NASB)

Jesus is speaking of death as the cost of discipleship. Death is necessary to truly follow Him. There are a number of other theological considerations here, but I want to focus on what relates to the topic of this article. You see, you and I cannot look at Christianity as an add-on that will make us better or nicer people, we have to see it for what it is and what it requires. For us to become reconciled with God Jesus’ death was necessary. For us to become like Christ, our death is necessary. We must, as the caterpillar does, enter into a death to self. We must willingly disintegrate and dissolve and become someone entirely different than who we were before Christ. We cannot settle for half-measures, we must go the whole tour and willingly kill off those things about us that are not a part of our new life in Christ.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these, the wrath of God is coming. In these, you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self [with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.

Interesting, the word renewed in this passage means to be changed into a new kind of life as opposed to the former corrupt state. (Blue Letter Bible, n.d.) Sounds a bit like metamorphosis, doesn’t it?

How are you doing, fellow Christian? Have you entered into the kind of death to self that is yielding true fruit of change? Can you see the imprints of heart change on your life? If you are like me, they are visible in some areas, but not as many as you would like. There is only one way to the life and freedom we have in Christ, only one way to experience the richness of His grace; and that is to die to yourself so that you will live. This is the good, acceptable, and perfect will of God.