Keys to Lasting Change

By Chip Ingram   •   May 1, 2008

Everyone wants to change for the better. But why is it so hard to change? Why do we want change so badly and yet achieve it so rarely?

I think it is because our focus is superficial. Consider an iceberg; only about 10 percent is visible above the waterline. For our lives, what is above the waterline is our behavior and our speech, and we tend to focus on that. We say, “I need to change my eating habits, my workout habits. I need to watch less TV. I need to be a better parent. I need to get more work done.”

Do you ever wonder why you eat when you’re not hungry? Why, if you really believe you ought to get in shape, you don’t? Why, if you really believe you want a deeper marriage relationship, you don’t spend much time cultivating it?

We need to look below the waterline to the thoughts, attitudes, values and belief systems that create the behaviors we see above the waterline.

Four essential points from Scripture can help us to experience lasting change.

1. INTEGRITY
Proverbs 10:9 says, “He who walks in integrity walks securely, but he who perverts his ways will be found out.” If you walk in honesty–if you are willing to look at the values, attitudes, thoughts and beliefs that are producing your behavior–you will be secure.

For the first 10 or 12 years I was a believer, I was a full-blown workaholic, even after I became a pastor. And because of my workaholism, I ended up in the hospital a couple of times.

God helped me realize that if I were going to change, I needed to look underneath the waterline. I started examining my speech, because Scripture says that what comes out of your mouth is the best indicator of what’s really going on in your heart. I realized that I tended to arrange my speech to get strokes from people to build my self-worth.

Then I examined my beliefs, and I came to the conclusion that even though I was a Christian, I didn’t believe that God loved me unconditionally, but only when I was good or when I got a lot done. And because I didn’t believe God loved me unconditionally, I didn’t believe people could love me, either.

Change occurred when I got honest with God and with myself, when I looked deep inside and examined where those issues came from and then began to see both God and myself accurately.

It is helpful to pray the way David did in Psalm 139:23-24, “Search me, O God, and know my heart. … see if there be any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting” (KJV).

In this world, we don’t have the power to get an accurate picture of ourselves. We can only do it as we are aided by the Holy Spirit, the Word of God and the community of believers. So I read some books, found a group of guys I could be honest with, wrote down Scriptural truth on 3×5 cards, and I started memorizing passages about who I was in Christ.

But then I found another problem: Some days I didn’t want to look at my 3×5 cards. I didn’t want to pray. I didn’t want to read any of those books. I didn’t want to go to Bible study.

How do we remain motivated to do what’s best for us when we feel like it the least?

2. PROPER MOTIVATION
We tend to use two ways to get motivated that simply do not work.

The first is guilty feelings. You feel guilty about some behavior, and the guilty feelings build up until you’re sick of them. To get rid of them, you join the spa, get a patch to stop smoking, join a group, take some initial steps. But six weeks later, you find that you haven’t changed. Why? Because the motivation was to get rid of the guilty feelings. That motivation doesn’t last.

The second ineffective motivation is selfish desires. You want to change because you want to become better, more acceptable, more successful. Your goal is not an inward movement of the Spirit of God so you will be more pleasing to Him; your goal is based on the idea, “If I change, then I’ll be happy.”

Here’s a biblical alternative for how to be motivated.

First, the Bible teaches that God is going to judge every believer. This judgment does not have to do with our sin but with our works. Once we trust in Jesus as our Savior, we are forgiven. But from the moment we come to Christ until the moment we stand before Him, we will be held accountable for our works. We will have to give account for every act, every thought, every dollar. We’ll be judged not only for what we did with our spiritual gifts, our time, our energy and our talent, but for why we did it.

The writer of Hebrews says to believers, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). He loves you. He is good. He is holy. He is just. But He is a just, holy Judge.

I got serious about core issues in my life when I realized that not only was I destroying my life and my family, and not really helping my church, but also that I will have to stand before the judgment seat of Christ and have to give an account. And do you know what? A holy fear came over me.

You want to be motivated to get into the Scriptures? You want to be motivated to have your life match what you say you believe? Spend some time thinking about the fear of God. It’s a powerful motivator.

The second means of motivation is the blessing of God. James wrote to a group of people living double lives, and he said that if you will sow fruit in peace, living a life of integrity, over time you will reap a harvest of righteousness (James 3:17-18). When I didn’t feel like reading my 3×5 cards, when I didn’t want to read a book, what kept me going was the certainty and the hope that if I will live God’s way, there is reward.

3. A SPIRITUAL X-RAY
Imagine what it would do for us spiritually, emotionally and relationally if God would allow us to have a spiritual X-ray. We could see our motives, our values, our beliefs, our attitudes–what is really going on in our soul.

He has. Our tongue is the window of our soul. If we want to know what’s in our heart, then, according to Jesus in Luke 6:45, we should listen to our tongue. Whatever is inside comes out. Notice it says “[The] mouth speaks from that which fills [the] heart.”

According to James 3:2-12, if we can control our tongue, we can control our life. The ultimate mark of maturity and godliness is the proper restraint and positive use of our tongue. Why? Because it takes such submission to the Spirit of God. If our tongue is controlled, this is evidence that our lusts, passions, disciplines and character issues have come under the control of the Spirit. What comes out of our mouth is what is really going on down deep, so the Spirit of God must have done a major work in our heart if what comes out of our mouth is pure.

Your tongue can be a tool for transformation. It can help you to see beneath the waterline. For example, harsh words usually reveal a heart of anger. So if you find that you speak harshly, ask, “Lord, what am I angry about?” If negative words come out, it often means you have a heart of fear. If you talk too much, it may show that your heart is unsettled. Words of criticism can indicate a heart of bitterness. Filthy words can indicate an impure heart. Boastful words, an insecure heart.

On the other hand, if encouraging words come out of your mouth, you probably have a happy heart. Gentle words indicate a tender heart. Truthful words, an honest heart. Kind words, a loving heart. What does your mouth reveal about your heart?

Start listening to your speech, and look below the waterline. Then commit to bring your speech under the Lordship of Christ. Pray Psalm 141:3, “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth. Keep watch over the door of my lips.”

4. THE HOLY SPIRIT
Now you know that to change, you need integrity to look below the waterline. You need proper motivation. And you need to use your tongue to analyze what’s inside that needs to change. You may say, “I’m really going to work on these things–I’m going to try harder than I have in the past.”

The greatest danger is to believe that you can change if you just try harder. If you depend on that, you will fail.

In fact, the Apostle Paul teaches that the entire reason behind the Ten Commandments and the Old Testament law was to set a standard so all would learn that no matter how hard we try, we can’t reach it, and we would turn to God for mercy and grace.

Let’s look at how God changes us. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 3:18, says, “But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.” First, change is a work of the Spirit. If you try to do it yourself, it doesn’t work.

Second, change is a by-product of a personal, accurate and deepening relationship with God. If you really want to change, get to know God deeply. With unveiled face, behold Him as in a mirror.

Third, change occurs from the inside out. Finally, change for a Christian is a progressive, ongoing process. We call it sanctification, the process of becoming more and more righteous or holy in daily experience. Notice that the verse says it is “from glory to glory,” from degree to degree.

We want to change now. But that’s not how it works. We are going to sin at times. That’s why 1 John 1:9 says if we confess our sin, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

So how do we become more holy? Well, for one thing, we need the Body of Christ, with people’s spiritual gifts ministering to one another and with people loving one another. We need personal time with God. We need the Spirit’s convicting and empowering.

In short, we need to develop a training system of getting into the Scriptures, of learning how to respond when our tongue tells us something came out of our heart that isn’t right. A training system of prayer, of fellowship, of grace and discipline, of learning to yield to the Spirit.

Over time, as we learn to do these things, like a muscle, we’ll grow stronger. And over time, we’ll experience real, lasting change.

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