If Christianity was a simple matter of will power and determination things would look a lot different these days. The messages I hear coming out from the Church are a bit scary as more psychology and self-improvement are being taught than we hear Jesus Christ being preached. It's a bit confusing as well-intentioned teachers turn the gospel of Jesus Christ from a selfless act to a self-centered seeking. We treat Jesus and the gospels as some means to improve our current condition and attitude, ignoring the need of transformation and rebirth by the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit.
I will confess, I am a big time advocate and participant in healthy living, a form of self-improvement. I was never much of a sports person and for the longest time I ignored and abused my health. But after the natural energy of youth left me I began to notice how tired I was getting and how hard it was to concentrate. I was not giving my best to my ministry or to my children. So about eight years ago I started to look at what I was eating and my lack of activity. I started making some changes, cycling, walking, I even did some jogging. I did a lot of research on nutrition and had some guidance from friends who were professionals. I started regaining energy and found I was able to give more to the ministry and my children.
I want you to note my motivation. I was not convicted by a selfish motivation to look good or stay young but instead a selfless motivation of wanting to give my best to others. I do not spend the time I do in the gym or on the cycling trail to look good or to even feel good for myself. I consider this time an investment in and a sacrifice for others. I want to be able to do whatever I have to do when the Lord calls on me and directs me. I don't want to fail him because I have been a poor steward of what he gave me. It is what motivates me to keep going, knowing I am serving Jesus and others by doing it.
This is only a simple example to a more complex problem that we are facing in the Church. What is our motivation and where did it come from? There is far too much "self" in the Church, from worship to ministries to service to preaching. It becomes "what can I get out of it" instead of "use me for your glory Lord". When our motivation is centered on how things benefit us we get to a point of realizing that the cost outweighs the benefit and we walk away. When we are compelled by the love of Jesus we understand that the benefit is "others" and paying the cost is a normal part of our service to Jesus.
There are a few people who may take exception to the thought of us "paying the cost" because it is Jesus who paid the cost of our salvation. These people are 100% correct. But Jesus also warned us of the cost of following him. He said it would cost us everything and if we were not willing to pay that cost (not of salvation but of service) then we are not worthy of following him. But here is the other place that we get ourselves into trouble. This cost is not born of our self-will or by mere grit and determination. There is something incredibly supernatural about all of this.
Our part is to make the decision. We make the decision to repent, to make Jesus our Lord, and to serve. Those are the big "willpower" decisions, when we turn away from our sin and turn to Jesus. After that we must make the decision every day to trust Jesus. We are told to stand our ground, not to give up an inch of it to the enemy and as we make that decision God fights the battles. The message from the Word of God again and again is that our victory is not found in the horse or the sword. This means there is nothing we can do to save ourselves or to help ourselves. Determination, hard work, positive thinking will sustain us short-term but will fail us in the end. These alone cannot improve our service to Jesus. But being dependent on the Holy Spirit means we take our direction from him and he fills us with the strength and wisdom, and he empowers us with the determination and grit that we need to go all the way with Jesus.
In the flesh it may look the same but it is like the example I gave of the healthy living; motivation and perspective makes a difference in understanding the heart condition. We can accomplish a lot by our own will-power and determination, but in the end it is only a work of the flesh and it will not last. But when our motivation is the love of Christ and our determination is to be like him, to serve him, to obey him, the work is not of the flesh but of the Spirit and it is an eternal thing.
Today you may decide that you are determined to be more loving, to be more generous, more caring, more thoughtful or any number of good character traits. Depending on the circumstances of the day you may actually succeed in one or two of these but it won't be long lasting. However, if instead you are determined to keep your eyes on Jesus, to obey him, to follow the direction of the Spirit you will soon discover that you are being transformed from the inside out and all of these good character traits become who you are instead of only what you do. It is supernaturally driven not self-improvement driven.
We need to stop instructing people on self-improvement and get back to preaching, teaching, living Jesus Christ.