After reading two extremely good books by Tim Chester (Total Church and Delighting in the Trinity), I was really looking forward to reading his latest publication. You Can Change, subtitled “God’s transforming power for our sinful behaviour and negative emotions” maintains the high standard.
In it, he sets about describing how we can have hope for change, whether we are struggling with a particular sin, or simply feel we have plateaued in our spiritual walk.
As you might expect from Tim, this is a theologically rich book, and points repeatedly to Scriptural truths to be understood rather than to “disciplines” or practices to be put into effect. However, it is also immensely practical, and includes some questions to help you apply the teaching of each chapter directly to your personal life.
He starts off by saying that God’s change agenda is for us to become just like Jesus – we were made in the image of God with the intention that we reflect his glory. This change is not instantaneous however. Sanctification does not usually progress through crisis moments but in a thousand small decisions made day by day.
Chapter two examines why we want to change, and deals with wrong reasons, including trying to make God love us (he already does), or trying to prove ourselves (there’s no point). He moves on to examine how we change. External activities can’t change us, because sin comes from within, from in the heart. He has some very helpful thoughts on the nature of legalism and the power of grace. The Spirit’s role is to give us the desire to do what is right. Sanctification ultimately is God’s work, but that does not mean we are passive. He then examines how God uses our sufferings, hardships and struggles to work towards his purposes in our lives.
Chapter five is particularly helpful, pointing out that behind every sin is a lie, which must be countered with the truth. However, it is possible to have “confessional faith” with “functional obedience”. He identifies four key truths about God that we need to preach to ourselves. There are some very good insights on fearing God rather than man. Chapter 6 deals with the desires we have, and the importance of recognising idolatrous desires. We serve whatever our hearts desire most. We need to put to death sinful desires, not just sinful behaviour.
God always seeks the best for his people and that best is himself.
Chapter seven is perhaps my favourite in the book. He addresses the question “what stops us from changing”. The answer boils down to one of two things: love of self or love of sin. He then goes through several examples which I found very provoking, including proud self-justification, proud self-reliance, and hating only the consequences of sin. In the following chapter he claims that faith and repentance are the only true gospel “disciplines”. What we traditionally call disciplines should rather be thought of as “means of grace” – ways we can reinforce faith.
Though much of the book has been about applying the truth of the gospel to holiness, a chapter is devoted to change in the context of community (which will come as no surprise to readers of Total Church). This was again very provoking as often we view holiness as a strictly personal project. The book ends by reminding us that God intends a lifetime of daily change for us.
Overall I would say this is another outstanding book well worth the time required to read it. It should not be thought of as only for people struggling with a specific large sin. Any Christian would benefit from reading it. It is full of first class theology, but its real strength is how that theology is applied so directly to real everyday situations. The variety of examples used mean that most people will find their own struggles directly addressed in some way.
Do I have any criticisms of the book? Well coming from a more charismatic persuasion I would perhaps have made more of the Spirit’s empowering us to resist temptation, and not just focusing on his giving us the right desires. I suppose you could argue they amount to the same thing. And sometimes the emphasis on God working through our trials can leave you wondering whether it would be a sin to pray to be removed from them!
I thought while I was reading it that there would be benefit in condensing this material into a shorter booklet that could be used as the basis for small group study, especially considering his emphasis on change within community. I think there is probably a little too much material in there for it to be done a chapter at a time (depending of course on what else you do in a your small group meeting). The size of Vaughan Robert’s “God’s Big Picture” would be ideal.