Inside-Out Changes for the New Year
January is a time for new beginnings, fresh starts and, of course, New Year’s resolutions: I’m going to exercise more, eat less, quit smoking, start running, spend less, save more. And 80 percent of us will break our New Year’s resolutions by the second week of February.
Why is that? According to clinical psychologist Joseph Luciani, these “outside-in solutions” generally fail because “you’ve done nothing to enhance your capacity to either sustain motivation or handle the inevitable stress and discomfort involved in change.” In other words, to really change, you have to work from the inside out. “It’s not the gym, Pilates class or diet that will change you,” Luciani explains. “It’s your mind.”
This is a profound truth, but it’s not new. In his letter to the Romans, Paul urged the nascent Church and new believers to “be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”
It pays to recall that transformation is a process. The Message translation puts it this way: “Fix your attention on God. You’ll be changed from the inside out.” The Amplified Bible uses the phrase “transformed and progressively changed.” The Contemporary English Bible says, “Let God change the way you think.” The Living Bible captures Paul’s words and meaning like this: “Be a new and different person with a fresh newness in all you do and think.”
Thankfully, Paul also offers pointers on how to be transformed from the inside out — how to make changes that last past mid-February.
First, he counsels, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world.” If we want to see positive, lasting change in ourselves, we have to stop imitating the world and the culture around us. That may mean finding new friends, listening to different music, changing our web-browsing habits, turning the channel or even (gasp) turning off the TV. As God’s people, we are called to be in the world but not of it — to be “Christ’s ambassadors” in a foreign land.
Second, Paul challenges us to be humble. “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. … Be devoted to one another in love. … Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position.” We are not kings; we serve the King of Kings. We are not here to be served but to serve others. We are not the stars of our own reality show. We are supporting parts in His story, His masterpiece, His poiema.
Use Your Gifts, Be Sincere
Next, Paul reminds us that “We have different gifts” and that we should use those gifts. Some are gifted to lead, some to teach, some to serve, some to encourage, some to give. The list is as numerous and boundless as humanity. Using our God-given gifts the way they are supposed to be used changes us and the world around us for the better.
Of course, Paul adds that each of us and all of us, no matter our unique gifts, are called to “share with the Lord’s people who are in need,” “practice hospitality” and “live at peace with your neighbor.” This is a command; this is God’s economy at work.
Fourth, Paul urges us to “be sincere.” We should say what we mean and mean what we say. Of course, what we say shouldn’t be mean. Yes, we are called to speak the truth — but always in, and with, love.
“Hate what is evil,” Paul adds. “Cling to what is good.” We know the difference because it is written on our hearts.
Be Joyful and Rejoice
Next, Paul encourages us to “Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” This goes back to the process of transformation and real change. We must be patient as God renews and rebuilds and repairs us, hopeful and faithful as He daily transforms us into a new creation. It takes time.
Finally, Paul challenges us to “Rejoice with those who rejoice” and “mourn with those who mourn.” As Philip Yancey writes in The Jesus I Never Knew, Christians are dual citizens. “We live in an external kingdom of family and cities and nationhood,” he observes, “while at the same time belonging to the kingdom of God.” Christians are torn between two worlds. We see glimpses of beauty amid so much brokenness and sense that the world God designed and created is not as it was meant to be.
So we should mourn when this broken world wounds or maims or afflicts or destroys what He has created, but we should celebrate when His beauty breaks through the brokenness, when a man and woman are knitted together into one flesh, when a new life is born, when an old friend walks out of the hospital, when a marriage is mended, when a soul is saved. We should remember that Paul’s given here is “with”: We are called to be with the mourners and with the rejoicers, with the happy and with the hurting.
Best and Worst
How can we do all these things? How can we live in such a way? Paul has an answer: The only way to live like this, the only way to bring about these inside-out changes is to “clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ” — to accept Him and follow Him.
Paul knew that this sort of change was possible because he experienced it. He was all of those things we are trying to leave behind. In fact, he called himself “the worst of sinners” — proud and hard-hearted, cold and uncaring, vengeful and angry, closed off and cloistered by his culture. But everything changed when he allowed the Living God to begin transforming him. It started on the inside.
Alan Dowd writes at the crossroads of faith and public policy.