Can I Even Change?
Struggle with sins can feel like a forever-battle. The battle is always on, it’s frequently discouraging, and victory seems elusive.
We believe in the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work, but we don’t always see hard evidence of change. Our struggles with sin persist, often the same ones we had last year, and the year before that.
As God matures us, we become more aware of these vulnerabilities. We also begin to see how these flaws are closely tied up with our character. One Christian might always do battle with his streak of stubbornness, another with her gloomy introspection, another with an impulsiveness that tends to offend people.
The fight against these sins goes on, but progress is wanting. Particularly those sins that are wrapped up in my character are hard to put to death—it’s as if they run too deep. Maybe this is just how I am?
So what is the place of character weakness in the Christian life? Can we overcome these through a more valiant effort? Can I even change?
Let me state up front that I am not a psychologist but a pastor. I am less familiar with personality descriptors like ESTJ and INTJ than with taking my ESV or NIV on pastoral visits. Years of this experience have shown me the wide spectrum of different characters and personalities among God’s people. Such diversity can be a fascinating thing, for the Spirit works so many beautiful gifts and strengths in Christ’s body. It certainly means that no two pastoral visits are ever the same.
But I have also seen how a person’s character can be home to particular and frustrating weaknesses. We all stumble in many ways (James 3:2), but we also fail in ways that are unique to ourselves because of aspects of our personality.
A committed introvert might struggle against the sin of coolly disengaging from the people he should be loving. Or a strong ‘Type A’ personality could find it hard to be patient and empathetic.
Sometimes people even get characterized by a moral failing: ‘She is so stubborn.’ Or maybe we’ve confessed about ourselves, ‘I have an addictive personality.’ ‘I’m a worrier.’ The point is, sin runs deep.
In Hebrews 12:1 the Holy Spirit exhorts us to “lay aside every weight,” together with the “sin which clings so closely.” The sin which clings so closely is our indwelling sin, those sinful patterns that are indelibly written into our hearts and lives. Thankfully, we are much more than the sum total of our character failings.
But sometimes we’re not sure where sin begins and our personal temperament ends.
Sinclair Ferguson observes, “Sin has a way of knitting itself into the very fabric of our being, into our character and personality, into our propensities and our weaknesses and, yes, even into our strengths—sometimes especially into our strengths. It becomes my distinctive sin.”[i] Here is our ongoing struggle.
A New Creation
If my sin is so tied up in who I am, how can I ever hope to be free? Because our individual ways of thinking and behaving have been laid down so deeply—patterns of pride, oversensitivity, insecurity, envy, etc.—the prospect of constructing new ways seems unlikely. We’d be utterly hopeless without God’s intervening grace.
But God can change you. Where sin abounds, grace abounds even more (Rom 5:20). Our temperament doesn’t define us, not when God is reshaping us and giving a new identity in Christ. God is more than able to turn a heart of stone into a heart of flesh!
And so a Christian declares, without an ounce of exaggeration, “I am a new creation” (2 Cor 5:17). Through the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit, there is nothing in our life or character or disposition that can remain untouched—not even in the deepest and darkest parts of who we are. Out of nothing God creates, and recreates.
We are changing, even if the change happens in ways at first imperceptible. The moment of conversion is just one miraculous moment, while God’s sanctifying project continues over a lifetime.
I love how Paul speaks of believers being transformed “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18). Bit by bit, there is change in our character. As we die to sin, we witness the growth of new traits and the beginnings of better tendencies. Triumphs are small, but when God is working on his beloved children, the triumphs are certain.
Repurposing Our Character
Paul’s account in Romans 7 reminds us that struggle with sin will endure. One believer will wrestle all his life with the challenge of having a people-pleasing character. Another with her deep-seated preference to be lazy. Another with a dogged spirit of greed, or a propensity to worry.
But by recognizing these tendencies of our character, we can be better prepared to fight the good fight. Our closely clinging sins should cause us to cling more closely to God’s daily gift of forgiveness and renewal. For grace is what he promises.
It is grace that will bring to completion the good work that God has started.
Does God’s promise mean that one day our unique personalities will be eradicated, totally submerged in sanctification? I don’t think so. God surely loves the diversity of Christ’s body too much to change everyone into a character clone. And as he conforms each of us to the image of his Son, God can repurpose some of our character traits into unique and holy strengths.
A stubborn person becomes resolutely determined to live for Christ.
An extrovert learns that he is able to share the gospel easily with nonbelievers.
A quiet soul turns her thoughtfulness towards understanding other people and praying for them with empathy.
The good news is that Christ is able to do great things with each of us, no matter who we are or where we’ve come from. We praise God “who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us” (Eph 3:20).
Can I even change? No, but I can be changed by God.
[i] Sinclair Ferguson, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2016), 198, emphasis original.
[Published at The Gospel Coalition-Australia]