As Christians, it is unfortunately not the case that we arrive at a point where we never have to deal with any remnant of the sinful nature. While transformation, growth, and maturity are definite realities, and genuine change is not only possible but an essential sign of someone who has been truly born again, we will continue to be ambushed by our sinful nature while we're still living on this earth.
I had one of the “ambush” moments recently. It involved a person whom I find annoying. This is not someone whom I would choose to spend time with, but am occasionally thrown together with. They are not by any means a bad person, quite the contrary. But for some reason their personality really gets on my nerves. Instead of dealing with it graciously, I was quite curt and even rude to this person.
I was, and am, appalled by my behaviour. I realize that my reaction was unacceptable, and that change is required in the future. However, I also recognize my complete inability to change, and even my unwillingness to do so. This person's behaviour rubs me the wrong way, and I don't want to have to respond to them graciously. I don't want to have to spend time with them again.
But given that I likely will have to, and that change avoidance is not part of maturity or character growth or God's will for me, I know I have to go through the self-death of repentance, humbling myself, and seeking change. Even though I don't want to, this is Jesus' call.
So how do you change something you can't and don't even want to, but know that you must? The good news of Christianity is grace: the favour and help of God that comes freely to us solely in response to our faith and asking, given on the merit of Jesus Christ and what he won for us on the cross, not on anything we have done or will do. As Romans 8:32 says, “He [God] who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” The good news of the gospel is that not only do we receive salvation as a gift, we also freely receive the grace that we need for transformation and to obey the commands of God.
So, these are the steps I go through when I'm faced with something I know is wrong but which I can't change.
1. Humble yourself before God and fully and honestly confess your sin
This is the crucial first step. We can't receive freedom from something we haven't recognized as sin and been completely honest about, to ourselves, to God, and to others. We have to identify the full, truthful reality of exactly how dark and deep our sin is before we can be free of it.
This means no skimping and no holding back. No denying, no pretending, no leaving out the worst parts. We must be brutally honest about exactly what it was we did, thought, said, and felt, and we must own full responsibility for it, not blaming anyone or anything else. Anything less will leave us still stuck in the mire.
David eloquently expressed the pain of a guilty conscience and the liberation of confession thousands of years ago:
“When I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night your hand was heavy on me; my strength was sapped as in the heat of summer.
“Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, 'I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.' And you forgave the guilt of my sin.” (Psalm 32:3-5)
It's important, most of the time, to make this confession not only to God but also to one or more trusted spiritual confidants who can express God's grace to you and hold you accountable for change. Our brothers and sisters in Christ are God's instruments to help us to grow and our openness with God is reflected in our willingness to be open with those around us. They can assure us of God's forgiveness, pray with us for change, be honest about how we are doing, and hold us accountable to our plan for growth. Our seriousness about change is manifested in our willingness to confess to those with eyes and ears around us.
2. Humbly admit our inability to change and ask God for the grace we need
The paradox of the Christian life is that we are called to do things we can't do. This is achieved by the power of God's Spirit at work within us, breaking the power of sin and death and liberating us to follow God's commands. Humanly speaking, we cannot do this. That's why God sent Jesus (see Romans chapters 6-8). He has all the power and grace that we need to transform us, and our part is to admit our need and surrender to him to receive it.
I still don't know how this process works. How God works within my heart to change me is a totally mysterious process to me. I only know he does. I only know that when I've submitted to him in this fashion by openly admitting my sin and my total powerlessness to change, and crying out to him for desperately needed grace, that things change. Sometimes it takes time. Sometimes it's a process. But he never fails those who depend on him.
3. Follow whatever steps he has called us to obediently, depending on him for grace
We usually know what it is we need to do, or stop doing. Our problem is we can't. But depending on God for his grace, we can take the steps we need to in obedience to him.
God's word is unchanging and relevant to all of us, but how it's applied to us and how we need to obey it is a living and personal thing mediated by God's Spirit. For example, as I was praying about my failure to love this particular person I strongly felt that the first step was to begin praying for them. So, even though I didn't want to, I added them to my prayer list.
It's important to be obedient to whatever God calls us to do in order to change. Yes, he gives us the grace, but change involves obedience. Usually there are certain steps that become clear to us as we submit to this growth process. They may be things we have long known we needed to do, but resisted. Whatever it is, do it. If God calls you to it, you can be sure he will give you the grace to see it through as you follow him.