When We Can’t Change Ourselves
I sit down at my desk, open my Bible, and sip my coffee. While I read, I pray for the Holy Spirit to renew my mind and transform my heart to better know, love, and honor him. But as I petition before the throne, my child interrupts for the fifth time asking for a snack (even though I gave her breakfast 20 minutes ago). My answer is no, and she leaves with a huff and her hands on her hips. Irritated by the lack of quiet during my “quiet time,” I return to prayer and ask God to fill me with grace and patience toward my children. I want to be a mom who reflects the loving forbearance of my Savior. Then I hear my sons yelling at each other. Their voices grow louder as they stomp up the stairs and race into my bedroom, hoping to be the first one to hurl blame on the other. I’d asked for patience only seconds before; now I’m yelling at them, “WILL YOU JUST LEAVE ME ALONE SO I CAN PRAY?”
Similar frustrations reverberate in all sorts of scenarios. Whether we are at home or work or school or church, it seems we can’t even pray without the reality of our sin smacking us across the face.
We don’t want to be hypocrites.
We really do want to change.
And yet we still sin. We gossip and complain. We feed bitterness and anger. We indulge lust, gluttony, and materialism. We compromise.
Our ongoing sin is discouraging. We wonder how we can love God so much one day and be entirely self-consumed the next. How can we sing with genuine gratitude about his goodness to us and then covet our neighbor’s house or accomplishments? How can the same lips that pray, worship, and preach the gospel also wound the people we love most?
It’s not only the sin present in our lives that troubles us, but the righteousness that is absent. Our problem isn’t always that we do the wrong thing; it’s that we don’t do the right thing. Growth in holiness is not just about killing sin but about cultivating the fruits of righteousness. And when we look at our lives, it’s obvious that a good deal of fruit is missing.
This conflict between who we want to be and who we are is perplexing. The enemy capitalizes on it to condemn us, tempting us with the malicious whispers: How can you even say you love Christ—you hypocrite! You’re a fraud. You’ll never change. You’ll always sin like this.
Satan is a liar.
Be encouraged by Paul’s words to the church of Philippi: “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). God will not leave you in your sin. He will not forsake the work he started or declare you a lost cause. He is able to keep you from stumbling, and he will present you holy and blameless.
By his grace, we have renewed desires, the freedom to bear fruit, and the strength to fight temptation as we strive toward holiness. We long to change—and because of Christ, we can.
To be in Christ is to be a new creation—the old has passed away, the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17). There was a time when we were ruled by sin. We were probably nice neighbors and good friends. We probably made responsible choices and worked hard at our jobs. We may have even been churchgoers or active servants in our community. And yet, enslaved by our own desires, we were totally incapable of loving and submitting to God. When you’ve built your own kingdom, you don’t welcome someone else as king.
But God, being rich in mercy, set us free from the dominion of sin. Though it still ensnares us, it no longer rules over us. Though it still entangles us, the chains have been broken. Sin’s tyranny has been vanquished. Jesus set us free!
We must get our gaze off ourselves and onto our Savior!
As new and free creations, our desires change. We have tasted the bitter fruit of sin and been left empty. Now we hunger and thirst for righteousness. We want to love God, we want to fight temptation, we want to grow in godliness. A hunger for holiness isn’t the result of legalism; it’s the result of having a new heart. We desire to obey God out of loving gratitude for all he’s done for us—he’s lavished on us grace and kindness, so of course we want to honor him. We desire to overcome corrupted cravings so that we can know his surpassing worth. Our consciences are pricked by sin, precisely because they’ve been regenerated by the Spirit.
Experiencing conviction over sin should actually encourage rather than condemn us, because it is evidence of being alive in Christ.
It is impossible to be in Christ and not have renewed desires. J. I. Packer says it this way: “Regeneration is birth; sanctification is growth. In regeneration, God implants desires that were not there before: desire for God, for holiness, and for the hallowing and glorifying of God’s name in the world; desire to pray, worship, love, serve, and please God; desire to show love and bring benefit to others.”1
Salvation isn’t the pinnacle of life in Christ; it’s the beginning. After we’ve been forgiven of our sin and clothed in the righteousness of Christ, the Spirit begins his progressive work of sanctification. Our renewal means we increasingly put to death sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, covetousness, anger, wrath, malice, slander, obscenity, and lying; and we increasingly put on compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and love, allowing the peace of Christ to rule in our hearts (Col. 3:1–15). Far from being a burden, our holy renewal lifts the oppressive bondage of sin—for freedom Christ has set us free (Gal. 5:1).
Holding onto the Promise
In this life, we will have seasons of growth and seasons of drift. At times, we will clearly recognize the Spirit working in us, empowering us to turn from sin and toward righteousness. Such seasons build our confidence in God’s sanctifying grace.
I recently shared with women in my small group ways God has helped me grow in patience toward my children. Since anger is a sin I confess to them often, it was encouraging to recount specific ways God has helped me. It reminded me that I’m not a slave to sin, that he enables me to overcome the temptations that nag me most. We experience similar reassurance of God’s enabling grace through fellowship with other Christians. When we are discouraged, it’s tempting to doubt our ability to change. But when we see God transforming our brothers and sisters—helping them become more forgiving or generous or self-controlled or kind—it builds our own faith in his ability to change us.
This is an ongoing struggle though. There are times when we are far more aware of the ways we are falling short than ways we are changing. We hear Satan’s piercing accusations and wonder if there’s even a point to trying when we fail so often. Discouragement is the enemy of repentance. Self-loathing and self-pity only drive us deeper into sin. We must get our gaze off ourselves and onto our Savior!
If we place our hope in our change, our growth, our repentance, or our obedience, we will constantly swing between pride and despair, because we are up and down and all over the place. But Jesus isn’t. He is a steadfast foundation. Our longing to change should always point us right back to him—the one who already made us new creations, the one who has already helped us grow, and the one who will finish the good work he started. We will be transformed, because he will never forsake the work of his hands.
- . J. I. Packer, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs(Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 1993), 170.
This article is adapted from A Hunger for More: Finding Satisfaction in Jesus When the Good Life Doesn’t Fill You by Amy DiMarcangelo.
Sanctification is absolutely essential to the life of faith—so much so that Scripture frequently treats holiness as the identifying mark of a true believer.
Over the course of five days, be encouraged by God’s commitment to his own in this devotional adaptation from John Piper’s book, Providence.
There are so many ways that we can foster a hunger for Jesus, but the most important and primary thing is to be praying for the Holy Spirit to change our hearts.
Amy DiMarcangelo talks about how our many longings point us to Christ—the only person who understands our every need and offers us eternal joy in himself.