Each January, gym memberships reach their yearly high. But new years don’t actually change people.
The good news is that there’s an alternative. However, before we get to the “how” of change, it’s good to spend a little time on what and why. The reason change matters—the reason we all ache in our guts to be different than we are—is that God designed us to be perfect, but we’re messed up by sin. And God did not design us for some abstract, bloodless, theoretical perfection. “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand” (Eph. 2:10). God designed you, one might say, to be perfectly you.
When your life ends, the Lord will not ask you why you weren’t Moses or David or Esther or even Charles Stanley. If you don’t pursue that life for which God created you, He will ask you why you weren’t you. God designed us to delight in the lives He’s given us. When I am growing toward the me I’m meant to be, I am being freed from the me I pretend to be. I no longer try to convince people I’m important while secretly fearing I am not.
Getting to Know Ourselves
Let’s be honest. Pretending to be someone we’re not is hard work, which is why we feel tired after a first date, a job interview, or spending time other places where we feel we have to project an image. That’s why we’re drawn to transparency and long to go where we can just “be ourselves.”
If I am ever going to become the me I’m meant to be, I must start by being honest about the me I am.
It is a relief to not have to pretend that we pray more than we really do, know more about the Bible than we really know, or act more humble than we really are. We never have to pretend with God, and genuine brokenness pleases Him more than pretend spirituality. If I am ever going to become the me I’m meant to be, I must start by being honest about the me I am.
Sometimes I try to change because I’m comparing myself to others. But comparison kills spiritual growth. A mother with three preschool-age children hears her pastor talk about loving God so much that he is up very early every morning to spend an hour of quiet with Him. She would love an hour of quiet at any time, but her children simply will not cooperate. What she takes away is that she ought to be doing the same thing, so she does “spirituality by comparison” and ends up living under a cloud of guilt. It never occurs to her that the love she expresses to her children might “count” as a spiritual activity or that perhaps she is serving God more faithfully than the pastor, who may be neglecting his family so he can have that hour of quiet.
Dying to Self
Each one of us has a me that we think we should be, which is at odds with the me that God made us to be. Sometimes letting go of that self is a relief. Other times, it will feel like death.
I grew up with a need to think of myself as a leader—as stronger, more popular, more confident than I really was. I ran for class president and would think up good slogans and campaign hard, but I always lost. The truth is that I was more introverted, more bookish, and less of the “class president” type than I wanted anyone to think.
As I grew up, my need to be a leader kept me trying to be someone I wasn’t. It made me more defensive, pressured, unhappy, and inauthentic in ways I didn’t even know. To make matters worse, the person I married is one of those people who ran for school office—and always won. She didn’t even have a good slogan: “Don’t be fancy, vote for Nancy.” (No, I’m not making that up. She actually won with that.)
It is a relief to not have to pretend that we pray more than we really do, know more about the Bible than we really know, or act more humble than we really are.
Finally, around the age of 40, I went through six months of deep, internal emptiness and depression like none I had ever experienced. I felt as if the trajectory of my life and work was destined to keep arcing downward. It led to a moment I will never forget. I sat in the basement of our home and said to God, “I give up my need to be a leader.” Out of me came a volcano of emotion. I felt as if all my dreams had died. All I knew was that holding onto my need to lead was wrecking my life. So I prayed, “I’ll let it go. If I can’t become this leader I thought I was supposed to be, I don’t know what to do. But I’ll try to do the best I can to let it go.” What I was really dying to was a false self, an illusion of misplaced pride, ego, and neediness—the me I thought I was supposed to be.
On the other side of death is freedom, and no one is freer than a dead man. Jesus had much to say about death to self, and on the journey to the me you want to be, you will have some dying to do. But that kind of death is always death to a lesser self, a false self, so that a better and nobler self can come to life.
Inside and Out
There is an outer you—your body—that is being shaped all the time by the way you eat, drink, sleep, exercise, and live. You may do this well or poorly, intentionally or not, but it will happen. Then there is an inner you—your thoughts, desires, will, and character. This is being shaped all the time by what you see, read, hear, think, and do. We can call this inner you the spirit.
Being spiritually formed by God is the process by which your inner self and character are shaped. This is the way lasting change happens. It is not a process powered by the human will; it’s the work of God, but we can join in. We can pray. We can arrange our lives wisely around the gifts God gives us, so we will receive power from the Father to live a Spirit-charged life. We flourish when our spirits are rooted in and shaped by God’s Spirit—and God wants to do that in a way that uniquely fits each of us.
Psychologists have begun to speak of what is perhaps the largest mental health problem in our day. It is not depression or anxiety, at least not at clinical levels. It is languishing—a failure to thrive. Languishing is the condition of someone who may able to function but has lost a sense of hope and meaning. It’s not the presence of mental illness but rather the absence of emotional and mental vitality. In ancient lists of deadly sins it was called acedia, “weariness of soul and inability to delight in life.” We speak of dead marriages and dead-end jobs, and to languish is to feel inner deadness. Languishing is the opposite of flourishing, and it was the fear of author Henry David Thoreau that “when I came to die, [I would] discover that I had not lived.”
Often, people have dreams for their lives when they are young, but over time, they simply give up. Writer and artist Gordon MacKenzie tells of visiting children in kindergarten and asking them, “Who is an artist?” Every hand shot up. This decreases to half the class by third grade and is almost nonexistent by the time those same children turn 12. When we give up on our growth and life’s purpose, we languish.
Rediscover the Good Life
A great way to start a new year is with this promise from Jesus: “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them” (John 7:37-38 NIV). By this, He meant the Spirit, whom believers in Christ would receive. The King James Bible states it this way: “Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” The belly is the deepest place inside you—the place where you get anxious or afraid, where you feel hollow or empty when you are disappointed. This year, you can cast aside the shallow self you’ve settled for in years past; you can thrive and drink deeply of those living waters. And when you’re filled with Him, you can’t help but become the me you’re meant to be.