It has been noted that I am not a supporter of the self-improvement preaching of the day. Instead, I am a proponent of the supernatural transformation that happens under the blood of Jesus. In non-Bible terms, Jesus' actions provoke a non-self change in our character and perspective. My real concern is what happens after this initial transformation.
In most cases this transformation springs up from an encounter with Jesus during a crisis. It is usually something that we can't handle, whether it is conviction of sin, circumstances beyond our ability to cope or some other such thing that provokes us to look beyond our own resources. We discover that there is something bigger than us, something that provides answers and resources that we need. So we surrender our lives and accept everything God has for us. It is after this initial transformation that we need to start making right choices, when we need to seek God's character, when we need to put on the new while we take off the old. This is where we can get mixed up with the self-improvement people.
We can't really change anything about our heart. We were born with it and unless it is transformed by Jesus we will die with it. We were born with a rebellious heart towards God and only he can rescue us from that rebellion but even with a transformed heart it is easy for us to slip back into the familiar. It isn't that sin has any power over us any more but it is often more familiar, more comfortable, easier for us to understand than this new thing that is happening to us. When someone hurts us it is easier for us to hate them than to forgive them because hatred is familiar. When someone does us harm, vengeance is a first thought because love is still unfamiliar. When we have to respond quickly to something the familiar is usually the first reaction. This is where we need training.
The Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy:
Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather, train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come. (1 Timothy 4:7-8)
Timothy was ministering to a people governed by myths and old wives' tales. Even his Jewish upbringing was probably mixed with some Greek traditions. We are a people who get overwhelmed by the culture in which we are found. Our young people are immersed in it and fall into that trap so easily. It is not a simple thing to swim against the popular current, especially when the popular current is disguised as individualism and freethinking. They and we need to train ourselves to be godly.
We need to know God and learn how he thinks, what his values are, and how to respond to the stimuli of our culture. "Train yourself" is what Paul said and this we confuse with "help yourself", "improve yourself". What it actually means is for us to force ourselves to turn from the familiar and look to Jesus, to spend time with Jesus, to allow him to affect our heart and mind. After the initial crisis that caused the transformation we need to grow in our new character and perspective; we need to keep our eyes on Jesus. This is a choice that we are responsible for.
Paul refers to physical training. Perhaps you have tried physical training. If you have you probably know that our body is a liar and it is very lazy. It will try to convince you that it can't do certain things. It will try to convince you that it is weak, tired, sick, and hurting. It will affect your emotions and your perspective. You will give the training a noble start but it won't be long before it convinces you that you are too old, too tired, too out of shape. Those who succeed are the ones who force their body into the right action, making it overcome all the obstacles.
Training ourselves in godliness is similar yet different. All of us have the ability in ourselves to change the course of action of our body. Any of us can get up at any time to take a walk. Any of us can begin to ride our bike. Any of us can make the choice to eat healthy. That is in our means but often we are just too lazy to continue. Godliness is different in that we cannot change our heart but we can change it's source of influence. It is like Paul wrote:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:1-3)
Godliness happens when we let go of the things of this earth, when we let go of our old priorities and get our hearts and minds focused on Jesus. It is not any more complicated than that. You will know how well you are doing by your quick reactions. If your knee-jerk reaction is to spew hatred then you are not focused on the right source. If your reaction is to strike back then your heart and mind are not looking where they need to be. Is the fruit of the Spirit being produced in you? Then you have your heart and mind set on things above, not on earthly things.
It does take some training to remind our heart and mind that they are the result of a new creation, that the old has gone and the new has come. We do have to take off the old garment, the old character, and put on the new, the new garment of godliness. Our part is to get the focus right but it is Jesus who continues with the transforming. The closer we are to him, the more focused we are, they more like him we will become. There are no short cuts. You can't take a quick pill. You have to ignore the teachings that will tell you that you can have quick results with 5 minute devotions. There are no secret lists, no self-improvement methods, no special prayers. There is only a life-time of training ourselves to let go of this place and focus on the things above. It is something we have to do every single day of our life and as we do it what is familiar to us will change.
Ask yourself where you heart and mind is focused today?