So back to the question: Why do we choose pathways that lead us to being much less than we could be, pathways that lead us to destruction?
There is not one among us who does not, on our best days, want our lives to line up with the life God has promised us in Jesus. But we find that we are trapped in the same vicious cycle that Paul speaks about in Romans 7. We discover that we cannot do the things we want to do and do what we hate with an astonishing regularity that is wrenching. Sin permeates us and seems to resist our commitment to change and thwart our best efforts to be obedient. This is never clearer in us than when we seek to address unfinished business, which always has deep connection to this sin out of which we are being rescued.
There is a difference between change and transformation. Most people are told they need to change from the time they are old enough to take responsibility for their actions. And so most of us try to change when we are unhappy with some aspect of ourselves. This can be an effective strategy if the change sought is within our reach. For example, we can change our negative attitude towards something, like school or work or a person, by practicing positive thinking techniques. We can learn to like what we did not like. We can eat that broccoli. We can discipline ourselves from bad habits if we decide fitting in with the rest of the world outweighs being excluded. These changes are not necessarily easy, but can be achieved. We call this kind of change ‘reformation.’ We become re-formed characters. The root of reformation is truth – that the change will bring us to a better life if we will exercise our personal willpower. The emphasis is on the ‘if’ because many people live life like the pledge of the Men’s Club on the Red Green show: “I am a man and I can change…if I have to…I guess.”
This is the part of the obedience model we all understand. And when we are not speaking of unfinished business, we are pretty much on our game in the obedience realm. We can change and adopt good habits. Performing a number of the religious requirements can be within our reach. We can be ‘obedient’ in dealing with stuff that does not have its hooks in our soul and helps us fit into our community. For example, I have never used alcohol. So obeying the biblical directive not to become a drunkard – I can handle that hands down. In addition, I have never killed anyone and am not currently planning to, even though there are people in my world that really tick me off. So it appears that I have won the obedience game once more.
But here I run into the truth about the limits of obedience. Jesus put his finger on this in Matthew 5:21-23. He ups the obedience bar. He reveals that the commandment, ‘Do not murder’ includes the probability that you are murdering people by your anger. Count me among those deserving death row. I was an angry man for many years and figuratively left dead bodies in my wake all the time. And if that wasn’t enough failure, Jesus ends his insightful look at the Law with, ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Matthew 5:48) How will you and I ever achieve that by the obedience model?
The answer is in the promise of deep inner transformation by God. Transformation is different in that its power source comes from outside us. It addresses the parts of us that are unchangeable by the exercise of our personal willpower. For example, when I was an angry man, I could, by working at it, control my yelling at my wife. I could go for a walk. I could do something physical like chopping wood to drain off the anger. I could use anger management methods and reroute the anger. But I found that I could not stop being angry. It was beyond my ability to change. I needed power from outside of myself to become a peace-filled man. This is what transformation is about. It is also rooted in truth – that God has called us into a relationship with Him that will bring us to a better kind of life. But in this case, the power source is the empowered presence of God in my life. A shorthand for the difference between these two is:
Reformation = Truth plus trusting in your own strength.
Transformation = Truth plus trusting in God’s strength.
But how do we get there? One of the dividing issues for those who follow Jesus well comes down to how we understand grace and mercy. I find that even many teachers I respect have difficulty making the distinction clear between the two. Because we use these words almost synonymously, one can get the impression mercy and grace are the same. “Have some grace on that person” we say when we mean ‘mercy.’ Yet in Hebrews 4:16, the writer clearly sees the two as different gifts from God. We ‘receive mercy and obtain grace’ for our time of need. This difference is our lifeline to the life Jesus promised.
Mercy happens when God withholds judgment that we deserve. And do we ever deserve justice. Everyday. Often. Without end. But for those who belong to Jesus, there is now no condemnation (Romans 8:1). This is where God meets us in our wretchedness and makes it possible for us to come back. We prodigals would never be able to return to our Father if He did not open His arms to us.
Grace is different from mercy. Grace is about God’s empowering presence in us in the person of the Holy Spirit to transform us from what we were, to conform us to the image of Jesus. Grace is how God does in me what I cannot do in myself no matter how hard I try. You can see this in the latter half of 1 John 1:9. As we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins (mercy) and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (grace). The forgiving and the cleansing are diverse works of God in our lives, both absolutely necessary and yet different. Grace is not dependent on our obedience, but enables our obedience as we trust Him.
Chew on these questions for a while. Do I feel safe enough to ask God to do a ruthless search in my life? (Psalm 139:23) Am I at a place where I trust Him enough to allow His mercy and grace to address my unfinished business?