For most of my journey as a Christ-follower, I have repeatedly asked the questions, “How does God change a man?” and “Am I changing?” Consequently, I am—at best—a student of what happens to someone in the Presence of God. No experts here—so I pen these words with a continual readiness to be corrected and better informed. However, there are ways of applying the good news of Jesus that reduce it to a manmade religion of self-effort and human accomplishment.
“For from within, out of the heart of men, proceed evil thoughts, adulteries, fornications, murders, thefts, covetousness, wickedness, deceit, lewdness, an evil eye, blasphemy, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within and defile a man.” – Mark 7:21-23
In Mark 7, Jesus warned against a preaching ministry that relied solely on words: words aimed at chiding a congregation to achieve an external set of standards of behavior. Such a ministry is functionally bankrupt from the outset, since the locus of true change lies within us (Mark 7:21-23; cf. 1 Thessalonians 1:5). Preachers must preach the truth with words, but they must aim at directing hearts to the Presence of God (Mark 7:6).
Why? The thoughts that lead to actions flow from the heart. Powerful emotions that lead to sinful acts begin as sinful desires and attractions of the heart. Pride and deception live in the heart. Unless the heart is engaged and transformed, you will not change. Jesus does not simply want to change your behavior: He wants to change your heart.
How do you change a heart?
Many spiritual disciplines and practices come to mind. They can be excellent tools for transformation, but they cannot replace the Author of transformation. By themselves, the disciplines can rapidly devolve into a body of strict, lifeless habits. Using discipline, you can control your behavior and silence the internal “voices” – but you cannot change the root impulses and “messaging” of the heart. Many religions embrace various forms of discipline, but the hearts of the practitioners remain unchanged.
I believe that a community of Christian believers can be a major force in spiritual transformation. True believers want to be with others who love God, seeking to follow Him with their whole life. But involvement in a vibrant community of practicing disciples is not enough…
I am an advocate for Scripture memory and meditation. God speaks to my heart through His Word, challenging me, correcting me, and guiding me into ways of living that please Him. It’s a non-optional and essential ingredient in the process of transformation, but it’s not enough…
I can contribute to the change, and I can cooperate with the Author of change, but I can’t cause my heart to change. The Author of change is Jesus, Who comes and dwells in the heart when someone accepts His invitation to abandon self-rule (a form of rebellion against God), to accept responsibility for personal sin, and to surrender life governance to Him. The result becomes “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). The Spirit of Christ indwells a person for the purpose of salvation… not just from a future hell of separation from God, but also from the present “hell” of being dominated by a dark and unruly heart.
“If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” But this He spoke concerning the Spirit…” – John 7:37-39
Jesus said that when someone yields directional control of life to Him (“believes in Me”), then “out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:38). The “flow” of new life is produced by the presence of the Spirit of God within the heart (John 7:39). The transformation of my heart begins as I accept and trust the biblical revelation of Jesus, but it is accomplished as the Holy Spirit indwells and recreates my heart (Psalm 51:10-11). My only hope for change lies in a moment-by-moment dependence on the Spirit (Galatians 5:16) combined with a Spirit-initiated, Spirit-sustained renewal of the desires and inclination of my heart (Philippians 2:12-13).
However, Jesus limits this process of heart transformation to those who are “thirsty” for change (John 7:37) and those who are weary with the “self-made” approach to doing life (Matthew 11:28-30). So let me pause here a moment before I wrap this up [selah]:
- Am I thirsty?
- Do I really want to change?
- Am I ready to abandon my efforts “to make it” and to be “successful” in the eyes of others (or even in my own eyes)?
- Am I ready to accept His “yoke” and enter into a learning relationship with a living Jesus who is self-described as “gentle and lowly in heart” – knowing that He is going to make my heart like His heart?
What are the implications here for ministry?
“If a son asks for bread from any father among you, will he give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent instead of a fish? Or if he asks for an egg, will he offer him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!” – Luke 11:10-13
In Luke 11:10-13, Jesus makes it clear that the Father is ready to release His Spirit into the life of the man or woman who “asks” (or “thirsts” in John 7). I need to ask… I need to thirst… I need to want His Spirit to transform my heart. I need to engage Him with “fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12)—the Holy Spirit is a Person who can be “grieved” and “quenched” (Ephesians 4:30, 1 Thessalonians 5:19). Change is not automatic, but requires my cooperation with and sensitivity to the Spirit.
Jesus ridicules the notion that earthly fathers would give their children stones, serpents, or scorpions. The father’s heart should be tender towards the child who is crying and hurting. Our churches are populated with individual pastors and members who are crying out for change. They are longing for God to come and transform their churches, their communities, and their lives. They are asking and they are thirsty. They want more than the external activity and programming of the average church… they don’t long for a building or relocation program (“stones”?), a lengthy “how to be a success” sermon series (“serpents”?), or an ecclesiastical power struggle (“scorpions”?).
They want the “real deal”—they want Him—a life in the Spirit.