The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
July 24, 2016
Kathleen Norris, an insightful writer about the spiritual life, confesses, “I have become like the child I once knew who emerged one morning from a noisy, chaotic Sunday School to inform the adults who had heard the commotion and come to investigate, ‘We’re bad, and we don’t know how to stop.’”
In fifth grade I didn’t know how to stop being bad. It seemed that every day I had to stay after school because of my behavior – even though every morning I’d resolve to stay out of trouble. Yet, I’d keep finding myself talking out of turn, passing notes, or just generally messing around – and ending up serving hard time in detention again.
As an adult, I still sometimes find myself not knowing how to stop being less of a Christian than I could. I want to stop crowding out the Holy Spirit by trying too hard and trusting God too little, to stop failing to give people my full attention when I am in a rush, and to stop succumbing to discouragement when the going at church gets tough. Often, it’s a struggle to see progress.
The Lord doesn’t want any of us to feel frustrated and defeated like that. The Lord wants us to experience His strength at work in us and to watch it make our behavior better than we ever could by ourselves.
But the Almighty can’t do for us what He wants unless we give Him the freedom to move in our lives. We can keep Him under wraps and prevent Him from working His wonders, just as I can keep an Alka-Seltzer from having any effect by keeping it under wraps. If, however, I choose to set it free by taking off the wraps, I let loose a force that puts new life, bubbling energy and powerful healing into what was once just tap water.
Some of us are satisfied with our status quo, but most of us can face the fact, obvious to everyone else, that we could use some improvement.
When in earnest we seek to improve our conduct and character, we have a choice to make between two fundamentally incompatible approaches to the project.
One approach is to call forth all our willpower, devise a list of Do’s and Don’t’s (i.e., rules and regulations), and then with great resolve determine to follow them.
That’s the approach to spiritual and ethical development that the Apostle Paul is fighting in today’s passage. Some people in the Colossian church are saying that the key to self-improvement is knowing the right Do’s and Don’t’s and just doing them. They put forth practices such as watching carefully what you eat, attending church regularly (on both Sunday and holidays), and seeking mystical experiences of God, preferably with angelic visions. This is all good stuff, Paul says, but it has only the “appearance of wisdom” for the project of becoming a better person. For it ultimately is, he says, “of no value” in checking the power of sin in us and giving us the character and conduct we seek.
The problem with this approach is that it relies entirely on human willpower, and our willpower is of very modest effect. We cannot will ourselves into changing in the ways we most need to change. Yes, the Bible talks a lot about repenting; but repenting isn’t first and foremost our defeating sin in our life, but our admitting we can’t do much about its power in our life. Our most strenuous efforts make only a momentary impact on who we are and how we act, because they leave us the same at our core – and it’s our very nature that needs transforming. None of us can give ourselves a different nature.
Once, a little girl who had been bad showed more wisdom for finding a solution than her father. Sarah had pushed her little sister Hannah and made her fall. When confronted with her misdeed, she denied doing it. Since this had become a pattern with Sarah, Dad decided to have a talk. “Sarah,” he said, “I’m really disappointed with your behavior. What do you need to do about it?”
He expected her to talk about stopping her lying or making amends to Hannah; but instead, with tears in her eyes, she said, “I need to ask Jesus to come into my heart.”
Her father stared with astonishment at his six-year-old There he was, zeroing in on behavior modification, and she was dealing with the deeper issues of forgiveness, inner change and empowerment. He was focused on morality; she, on the spirituality that makes morality potent and sincere.
In attempting to become the people we want to be, our prime aim is not to change our behavior by our good intentions, but to be changed at our core by a good God. We don’t need to make the most of our human potential; we need to avail of a super-human power beyond our own that can do for us what we could never do for ourselves. We need divine activity more than human activity, God’s grace more than our self-help, do-it-yourself efforts. We need to give up on self-reformation, and give ourselves over to God, that He might jumpstart the growth process and bless every step after with His help. We need to ask Jesus to come into our hearts and transform us from the inside out.
This is the second and the better approach – the approach, as Paul puts it in verse 19, of “holding fast to the head” (that is, to Christ) and of growing “with a growth that comes from God”. God has to move us forward, or we hardly move forward at all.
Yes, this approach involves our effort and practice, but it is mostly our just opening our lives up to Jesus and allowing Him to re-wire us, re-write our programming and re-boot our lives.
By that approach I was changed from a melancholy person into a cheerful one, and from a self-absorbed person into a caring one.
By that approach, one of the lay leaders of this church was changed from being one of our worst-ever badly behaved kids into a wonderful family man and a productive citizen who’s making his community better.
By that approach, another young man was changed from being a gangbanger into a guy who is holding a good job, excelling at school and radiating kindness and respect to everyone.
All it takes is our giving God the liberty to enter our hearts, take control and do in us what He’s be been aching to do all along. Let us pray.