Double-Sided Change

As a disciple-maker for Christ, I am fascinated by how people actually change and grow and mature in relationship with Christ–I want to know how I can best facilitate that process of change in others. And as an apprentice of Jesus myself, I long to grow deeper in my own relationship with Christ–how does that happen for me?

Different authors have different perspectives on how the change process takes place, and (nerdy person that I am) I’ve been studying the variety of perspectives and trying to figure out where they overlap, with the goal of being able to articulate my own perspective of how a believer in Christ grows toward maturity.

One thing initially is very clear: change is double-sided. There are two sides of the same coin in this process of change. Change is fully a work of our sovereign, good God…AND change is a work that we engage fully in as well.

God is clearly the agent of change. “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” (John 1:3) He is sovereign over all that he has created–he alone can produce change. “Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, to whom belong wisdom and might. He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding…” (Daniel 2:20-21) There are other foundational “stones” which make up the structure of the change process, but God is the “capstone,” without which the whole structure would collapse.

God is the producer of change, but he does not bring change about by magic. Though he has the power to do so, he does not do his work of change by simply zapping Christians in their sleep so that they wake up one morning fully sanctified. Rather, he calls us to abide in him (John 15:4), to obey all that he commands (Matthew 28:20), to set our minds on things above (Colossians 3:2), to work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). He calls us to actively participate in the process of change, yet with the understanding that apart from him, we can do nothing (John 15:5).

 

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Here is my attempt to summarize and visualize the process of change: the triune God brings change in Christians as our minds are shaped by his truth, and as we train our hearts to worship him in the midst of the trials he ordains and the tribe (or community) he places us in.

 

 

 

 

 

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God is the producer of change–sanctification is his work from beginning to end. No growth or maturity would happen apart from the foundational saving mercy of God, apart from the truth the Spirit reveals, and apart from the Christian’s union with Christ. The shaping influence of community is because we are united in the Body of Christ, and the formative power of trials is because we share in the sufferings of Christ.

 

 

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God alone forms and sanctifies his children, but we are not passive in the process. We respond and obey and depend and abide, and our action creates space for God to carry out his transforming work–it puts us in a posture of receptivity to the work that he is doing.

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Good News for a Weary Parent

I’m reading a book by Paul Tripp, called Parenting: 14 Gospel Principles That Can Radically Change Your Family, in preparation for a seminar my wife and I are teaching at the JEMS Mt Hermon Family Camp coming up next week. Reading books on parenting, especially books by people of such wisdom and experience as Paul Tripp or Elyse Fitzpatrick, often tend to produce guilt and discouragement in me, as I see how far my parenting is from the grace-saturated and Gospel-driven parenting that is described. Therefore when these writers (whom I look up to so much) honestly admit their parenting failures, God stirs some hope in me–that He can redeem and bring good out of my own failures as a parent too.

One section of Tripp’s book is especially convicting (or maybe I should put it this way: many sections are quite convicting, but I’m only going to write about this one!), in which he is expounding the principle that as parents we “have no power whatsoever to change [our] child.” He writes:

“God has given you authority for the work of change, but has not granted you the power to make that change happen. But we buy into the delusion of thinking again and again that that power is ours. We think that if we speak just a little bit louder, or stand a little bit closer, or make the threat a little bit scarier, or the punishment a little more severe, then our children will change.” [pg. 61]

Instead of using tactics of fear or reward or shame to try to produce change in our children, “Parenting is about your humble faithfulness in being willing to participate in God’s work of change for the sake of your children.” This is hardest for me in the parenting of my adopted daughter with special needs. My hopes that her capacity for reason and communication and self-care would increase through my parenting have gradually been drying up over the course of the almost five years that she has been in our family. Thus my patience is being replaced by cynicism, my kindness by harsh words, and my gentle shepherding by power and control. I have admitted many times in desperate prayer that I cannot bring change in my daughter, and yet I keep going back to these same old strategies to try to prove that I am actually capable of producing change.

Merely admitting my inability to elicit change in the heart of my daughter is not good news. But what IS good news is that God can bring change. He may not bring the kind of change I am longing for, and He may bring it on a different timetable than what I would prefer, but He can indeed bring change–that is within His ability. Therefore as Tripp sums it up:

“Good parenting lives at the intersection of a humble admission of personal powerlessness and a confident rest in the power and grace of God… God is with you. He wants what is best for you and your children, and no one but he has the power to produce it. He has not placed the burden of change on your shoulders because he would not require you to do what you cannot do. God has simply called you as a parent to be a humble and faithful tool of change in the lives of your children. And for that there is moment by moment by moment grace.” [pg. 70]

 

More Questions than Answers

Dr Coe, my professor in Talbot’s Institute of Spiritual Formation, has said that a person’s spirit is formed by the age of six, and that by the time one is even aware that such a process of formation is happening, their formation is complete. What comes after, the part that we consciously participate in, is really a process of re-formation or trans-formation of that which has already been formed in our spirit at that young age. A Children’s Ministry Magazine article agrees, saying that “Developmental experts believe the first six years mark a child for life. By age 7, the “personality” mold has been cast.”

I don’t have reason to disbelieve those conclusions, though I have not found actual studies that give hard evidence of such. But if that is true, it raises a whole bunch of questions as to what I can expect with my adopted, special-needs daughter.

Since we adopted her at age 7, and therefore her “formative” years were all spent in an orphanage, how much can we expect to see change? Is it possible–and if so what would it take–to see her grow beyond the institutionalized habits and mindsets that have been formed in her? Can the childlike characteristics that seem to have died within her–natural creativity, curiosity, and playfulness–ever be re-born?

What is it exactly that is formed by age six? Beliefs about self? Beliefs about how life works best? Understanding of how to relate with people? Habits of living that bring the most comfort? What does it take for those beliefs and habits to change? Or can they?

Where does her Down Syndrome fit into the mix of things? Obviously it means that her learning is delayed and very, very slow, but is it possible for her to learn some of these foundational beliefs and habits and relational skills? Once the institutionalized behaviors are cemented in her long-term memory, can they ever be un-cemented or replaced?

And if some of these things cannot be changed, then how should we be treating her? We have set the bar high, believing that she will rise to that–but how do we decide that the bar is too high or when do we give up on those expectations and say this is just how she is going to be?

It really comes down to two questions: 1) Can she change? and 2) What is our role in that process? I don’t have any answers right now…just lots of questions.