As I struggle with my own transformation (or lack of it), I sometimes complain about the lack of change in me. I keep fighting the same battles over and over. Will I ever be rid of this bad attitude or that foolish habit? Yet God says He has made me a new creature and the old me is out of the picture. (Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 2 Corinthians 5:17)
I’m supposed to believe Him and trust His Word, not continually evaluate myself and my lack of progress, but that also is difficult. However, I’m encouraged by the life and experiences of the Apostle Paul. Once he was bent on putting Christians in prison, even killing them. Then Jesus encountered him and transformed his life. Instead of persecuting God’s people, he began preaching and promoting Jesus Christ, becoming the champion of the early church. He said,
I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. (1 Timothy 1:12–14)
Faith in Christ produced the change, or rather, because of faith in Christ and in mercy, God changed this man. People cannot change themselves. I try, but with dismal results that do not last. For Paul and for me, part of the key to change is the opposite of what modern methods tell people to do. The world says to fix on a goal and go for it; think of yourself as a success and you will become one.
Not so with God. He always works in ways that are opposite and contrary to the way of our puny brains. We assume we can change by trying harder. While God does not ask us to be couch potatoes, as Paul explains, change comes when we rely on Christ and admit that we cannot do it. In fact, Paul admitted this to the extreme.
The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost. But I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life. To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever. Amen. (1 Timothy 1:15–17)
If anyone calls themselves the chief of sinners, our first thought might be that this person has no self-esteem and never will become anything of value. Yet Paul’s honest statement about who he was and is gives an open door for God to step in and do the transformation process. God’s way of blessing us is by mercy alone, implying we do not deserve it. He never changes our lives based on our merit.
Much of the preaching in this continent is about self-effort. We are told we must do this and that, and God will bless us. That kind of exhortation twists faith from a focus on the Savior who changes lives, to ourselves — who cannot do anything apart from Christ. Then in despair, we give up, say “people never change” and become satisfied (actually dissatisfied) with the status quo.
Paul thought of himself as foremost of sinners. The Christian world thinks of him as a mighty warrior, a hero of the faith. God filled this mere man with the Holy Spirit and used him to build His church. He was no longer that one who hated and persecuted His people.
The biggest problem in my ineptitude to change is my opinion of myself. Instead of a prideful attitude that I should be a better person, I need to recognize the depth of my sinfulness. As today’s devotional reading says (referring to 1 Timothy 1:15 and 17), “Only those who have struck the deepest note of penitence can reach the highest note of praise.”
God, I know a little about how this works. The closer one gets to You and to being like You, the more one becomes aware of their own sinfulness. This is a characteristic and the paradox of Your transforming work. Others might see the changes in me, but I feel as if I am still at the bottom or worse. If I keep my eyes on You, You change me. if I put my eyes on myself and began to measure my progress, I stop changing. Faith is walking in that dichotomy, trusting You to make something of this sinner. Keep me there. It is odd and uncomfortable, but the right place to be.