There are times when I ardently wish I’d become a Christian years ago, before all the bad habits had set in, like about three nanoseconds after my birth. It would have saved an awful lot of annoyance now.
When you make the decision to become a Christian there isn’t some heavenly ping above your head that delivers a halo, a pair of Jesus sandals and perfect behaviour, oh no. You are still the same old you, with all your faults, fetishes and foibles; it’s just that from now on, the Holy Spirit will be rummaging about in your heart and mind undertaking the mother of all dejunking exercises. This is no exercise in alphabetising your DVD’s or colour-coding your wardrobe (although will you hate me if I tell you I have both of those things?); this is a major strip down and rebuild of everything that you are and everything that you do, and I do mean everything. Romans 12:2 says “Don’t copy the behaviours and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think.” (NLT). Don’t for one minute think you can become a Christian and stay exactly as you are, that is not an option. Christianity is the ultimate Life Laundry.
Unlike makeover shows, where your domestic pig-sty is turned into paradise, or you go from looking like Mrs Potato Head to Strumpet Barbie in little under an hour, this is no magic wand transformation. It’s slow; it’s very slow and sometimes it’s downright agonising. The Holy Spirit’s been rummaging about in my life for coming up to ten years and I am still a pretty unsavoury character. I shall not be getting my angel wings anytime soon and certainly not before Jesus comes back.
Take swearing for example. I still swear. Ok, so it’s not as bad as it was, but it’s still in evidence. Stopping swearing is turning out to be harder than it looks. Also in the category of harder than it looks are: Stopping myself opening my mouth and delivering cutting comments, stopping endlessly comparing myself to everyone else and stopping being judgemental. The list of my faults and failings is vast – much like the credits for one of the Lord of the Rings films – and there’s no way I’d want them scrolling past on a big screen; you’d be unfriending me pretty sharpish. I am under no illusions about myself, it’s a big old mess inside. There’s an awful lot of wrong thinking and wrong living to address – and an awful lot of clearing out to do.
The Holy Spirit isn’t there to wield a big stick over your life and smack you with it every time you mess up. If you’re feeling condemned about something then you’ve got your head tuned into Radio Devil. He’s the one who is going to condemn you and make you feel like something you trod in. The Holy Spirit isn’t like that; it’s about recognising what’s wrong – being ‘convicted’ of it and taking steps to bring your behaviour in line with the example of Jesus. Jesus is the Christian’s yardstick, not what the world thinks you should be. It’s not easy, but as Christian author Elizabeth George points out ‘making time for anything of value always requires a hard commitment to discipline.’ If you want to follow Jesus it isn’t going to be shiny happy people all the way to judgement day. You’re going to have to accept that following Jesus means that changes need to be made in your life. Also, those changes may not be universally welcomed. Are you ready for the people around you who aren’t Christians to not like the new you? It happens.
And you’re not the first person who’ll get annoyed with themselves when they slip up, or even stuff up big time. Peter, one of Jesus’ most ardent followers refused to believe it when Jesus told him that he would deny knowing him. When Peter did precisely that, Luke 22:62 records his reaction: ‘And he went outside and wept bitterly’ (NIV). Peter got afraid when people wanted to expose him as a follower of Jesus. How many of us have not owned up to being a Christian, just to appear cool or ‘in’ with a certain crowd of people; or just so the big scary atheist won’t harangue you over why you believe such bunkum? It’s a rare Christian who can be all out for Jesus whatever they face.
Similarly, Paul voices so succinctly the cry on every Christian’s lips when we find ourselves doing precisely the things we vowed we’d never do again. I’ve used Eugene Peterson’s The Message, as I think it captures the frustration we can feel so well.
“But I need something more! For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?
The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.”
Romans 7: 17-25 (The Message)
We’re going to keep making mistakes, I’m going to keep making mistakes, but the important thing is not to give up. It’s to have perseverance, it’s to keep running the race whatever and it’s to do your utmost to throw off everything that does interfere with that race. Let the Holy Spirit do the work and untangle the mess inside. Hebrews 12:1-2 is a great rallying call, encouraging us onwards onto better things with our eyes fixed on Jesus.
So next time you slip up, don’t beat yourself up (I should take my own advice here), pick yourself up, dust yourself off, acknowledge what you did wrong, accept the forgiveness and correction that God offers and keep going. And if you do it again just keep repeating it until one day you don’t do that anymore.
Then it’s time to work on the next thing.
So, about that swearing Rachel…