The following is adapted from a talk I gave last year. If you want to know more, see Paul Tripp’s excellent book, Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands.
Look around the people at your church. What kind of people do you see?
Pretty nice people I would imagine. Nice job, or maybe doing nicely at school or university. Nice husband or wife or boyfriend or girlfriend. Some with decent kids, too. Seems to get along well with friends and family. Involved at church, at Bible study groups, in ministry. Nice, godly people. Nice to hang around with. You would count a lot of them would be your friends.
Maybe from time to time you would them how they’re going. They seem to be going alright, too. Sure, sometimes you would hear about some of the problems they have, and you would pray for them, but they seem to be on top of it. All very decent, all very nice.
But if we are really honest with ourselves, we know that it’s not true. Not least because it’s not true for ourselves personally. We have our problems and worries. We endure suffering, anxiety, worry, loss and pain. Sometimes these things go on for years. We struggle daily with sin, burdened by yet another failure. We’ve got all these idols that a lot of the time we don’t even know we have, but show up every time we speak or act or feel.
But we try to hide behind our public mask of niceness and respectability. We hide because we want to look like everyone else. We hide because we are either too proud or too ashamed to admit our sinfulness. We hide because we think it’s not a big deal, or it’s private, or it doesn’t affect anybody. Sometimes we’re so used to it we don’t even realise we have our masks on. At other times we accept other people’s masks, because we’re too embarrassed or don’t know how to probe behind them.
And so we end up with all these masked people having nice conversations about movies and shopping and games and clothes and gadgets and family. But, you know, we see right through it. We feel that people here don’t really know us, don’t really share our joys and sorrows. We feel disconnected from other people at church, even though they are friends whom we see every week.
I imagine that this is something we want to change. We want to develop genuine Christian relationships, rather than just having relationships among Christians. We want to be each other’s spiritual companions, where we are comfortable in helping and rebuking each other, rather than just being friends. We want to help each other to change and grow, and receive help in changing and growing.
I want to show you through this article that change happens when we target our hearts with the gospel.
The gospel of change
Firstly, I want to show you the power of the gospel to change lives. This is what the apostle Paul said in Ephesians 4:11-16:
And he [Jesus] personally gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, for the training of the saints in the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ, until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into a mature man with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness. Then we will no longer be little children, tossed by the waves and blown around by every wind of teaching, by human cunning with cleverness in the techniques of deceit. But speaking the truth in love, let us grow in every way into him who is the head—Christ. From him the whole body, fitted and knit together by every supporting ligament, promotes the growth of the body for building up itself in love by the proper working of each individual part.
Paul has just explained God’s great plan for the universe and our place in that plan as God’s people in chapters 1-3. We are a people who have been transformed by the gospel from death to life. And so he now shows us how this plan works out in our lives.
The gospel makes change possible
God has given various word gifts to people—gifts of apostleship, prophecy, evangelism and pastor-teaching. The gifts were given so that everyone:
- will reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son
- will grow into maturity in Christ Jesus
- will not be tossed about by every wind of teaching or human cunning
- will grow in every way into Jesus, who is the head of the body, the church.
See what God’s doing? He is changing his people to be like Jesus. Having raised us out of the clutches of the evil one, and he is now transforming his people into one who is worthy of the inheritance that the gospel brings: worthy of being Christ’s body; worthy of God himself.
And so change is possible, because God is doing it. Maybe you are worn down by a particular sin which just doesn’t go away. Maybe the relationships with your husband or wife, boyfriend or girlfriend, parents or children are far short from what God wants them to be. Maybe you are carrying around the burden of emotional pain and brokenness. The gospel proves that we can change. The same power that God shown in raising Jesus from the dead, in raising you from the dead, is now working us, to bring us to maturity in Christ.
So take heart! Take courage! Change is possible, and it will happen. The gospel guarantees it.
Change happens when we speak God’s words to each other
Another thing to notice is how God changes people. He doesn’t just push a button and it all happens automatically. Rather, he uses his people to change people.
Come back to the passage again. What are the people who are given word gifts supposed to do with them? Are they just to keep it to themselves, satisfied that they are gifted in knowing the word of God? No! They’re to use their gifts to train the saints in the work of ministry and to build up the body.
What are the saints then to do after they have been trained? Are they just to sit there and absorb all the teaching without doing anything about it? No! They are encouraged to speak the truth to each other in love, in order that the whole body may grow in every way into Jesus, and that it may build up itself in love.
The body only grows when each part does its work. It is in our ordinary conversations that change happens, when we speak God’s word to each other, when we confront each other with our idolatry, when we present God himself to each other. That’s right: our everyday interactions, whether it’s in a crowd or just one-on-one, can have enormous power for change.
What an enormous privilege it is that God has chosen us as his instruments to change people. What an enormous privilege it is to have such power flow through us. Think of what would happen if we actually take hold of this power. Think of the conversations we’re going to have. Think of the encouragement we will be getting in the midst of our suffering. Think of the progress we will make when our fellow brothers and sisters find where our idols are hidden, and prayerfully help us to change. Think of us, as God’s people, really sharing our lives with each other as we journey towards perfection.
Sometimes we are oblivious to this privilege. We go on living life in our little worlds, not aware that we are part of something huge—participants in God’s grand plan in transforming his people. At other times, we are unprepared to speak the Word of God to people in their situations and relationships in our everyday conversations. How about we spend as much effort in preparing to offer spiritual guidance in our personal interactions as we spend in preparing our other ministries.
So we can offer more than a listening ear, a heart of compassion and a willing to help, although they are great things. We can offer the transforming power of God’s Word. Let us not squander the amazing privilege God has given us, and use the opportunities in our conversations to channel God’s power in changing people. Let us be prepared to speak God’s truth in all our relationships.
Heart to heart
So, how do we help people change? It would be useful to begin by looking at what makes people tick.
A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit; on the other hand, a bad tree doesn’t produce good fruit. For each tree is known by its own fruit. Figs aren’t gathered from thornbushes, or grapes picked from a bramble bush. A good man produces good out of the good storeroom of his heart. An evil man produces evil out of the evil storeroom, for his mouth speaks from the overflow of the heart. Luke 6:43-45
Jesus is saying that people’s fruits, their actions and even emotions, are driven by their hearts. Those with good hearts will produce good fruits, whereas those with bad hearts will produce bad fruit.
Even when something that we cannot control happens, whether good or bad, how we feel and how we react to that situation is driven by our hearts. As an example, suppose you are running late for work and a friend rings you up out of the blue with some pressing need. Now, if your heart values work, then you would feel annoyed at the interruption and so you would fob it off as quickly as you can, so that you can get to work. Or, if you have a different heart, you may have compassion and so you could spend time with your friend dealing with those needs. And so whatever controls our hearts controls our emotions and behaviour.
What this means is that if we want to help people get lasting change, we have to target their hearts. It is no use just to get people to change their outward behaviour or even change their circumstances, as these things, while good, will not have a lasting impact. That is why a lot of the time when we try all sorts of things to change people, whether by accountability structures or even threats and bribes, it doesn’t work, because they don’t target the heart.
We target the heart by finding out what’s really controlling people’s hearts and where it needs to change. In other words, we find out what people’s idols are and expose them, and help people put God back in his rightful place as the ruler of our hearts.
For this is the core of the problem—there are so many things that compete for the attention of our hearts. We have an amazing ability to elevate our desires to become idols, often without us being aware of it. Once they capture our hearts, they produce all sorts of anxieties and emotions and sin. Take an example: the desire to be financially secure. There’s nothing wrong with this desire. But when this replaces God as the ruler of my heart, then all sorts of conflict happens. I become irritated when someone asks me to be generous, because that gets in the way of financial security. I would lie and cheat in order to get it. And I would feel bitter and get worried when something happens that threatens my financial security.
But God is more jealous and more powerful than these idols. He will simply not put up with having other things rule our hearts instead of him. The good news is that he is intent on working powerfully within us, through his Spirit, to recapture his place in our hearts.
Therefore, the way we help people change is not really to present an explanation, or strategies, or techniques on how people could deal with and solve their problems. Our job is to help people see what is really ruling their hearts, and to present God as both the one who demands our hearts and the one who can works in us to do just that.
In the end, we can’t change our own hearts, let alone other people’s. And so we must fall on our knees in prayer, that he would change our hearts, and use us to change the hearts of others.
Back to the question at the beginning of this article. What kind of people do you see when you look around your church?
What you see is a bunch of broken people, a people whose hearts are struggling with multiple allegiances, a people who need help to change. Yet at the same time you see a bunch of people dearly loved by God, on a journey to grow in maturity in Christ, having their hearts cleansed and recaptured to God, and being used by God to help change others. God is working in all of us, in every situation, in every relationship, for his purposes, to build a people for himself that is worthy of his glorious Son. And he cannot be stopped.
It is not easy to expose ourselves and be vulnerable, to be willing to let others point out our idols and accept help from others to change. It is not easy to be courageous and confront people and have those difficult conversations about idolatry. Exposure can be frightening. Therefore we must that God would powerfully work in us, to overcome our fear, to trust him in his work.
It’s time to forget masks. It’s time for change.