Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Romans 12:2
Last week I mentioned that I have been reading The Heavenly Man, which is the story of Brother Yun, a leader in the Chinese house church movement. One of the remarkable things that Yun talks about a number of times in the book is that he was imprisoned because God loves him. “There is always a purpose behind why God allows his children to go to prison. Perhaps it’s so they can witness to the other prisoners, or perhaps God wants to develop more character in their lives.” Therefore, Yun maintains, we should not pray so much for release from prison for these brothers and sisters, but rather that God’s purpose in putting them there will be fulfilled, that they will have the strength to persevere.
I think that it is likely that God’s purposes in something like prison are more complicated than we can easily figure out from observation. We can figure out one or two dimensions of what God is doing. God is working personally in the lives of each person inside and outside of that prison. Each person who is touched by any event in our lives is touched intentionally by God for his purposes in loving that person. This gives a depth to the events of our lives and the lives of the people around us, as guided and directed by a sovereign God, that we can’t understand by human minds.
It is hard to imagine the beatings and abuse and suffering of our brothers and sisters who undergo physical persecution for the name of Christ. We face some persecution in the West, but is of a completely different nature. The trials that we face are very different. Our trials deal more with the seduction of the easy life. In our culture it is easy to think that we don’t need God. After all, we can be quite comfortable in this life without God. Especially if, as Yun maintains (in accordance with Scripture) that if we follow Christ we will find suffering. Isn’t it easier to just coast along? Does God really demand that we hand our whole lives over to him, to trust him, when we know he will put us in uncomfortable and maybe even very painful situations?
It seems to me that if Yun still had things in himself that God needed to work on after two or three times in prison, refining him and molding him, I am far from getting there myself. The worst struggles of my life pale in comparison to some of the easier events of Yun’s life. I don’t mean to suggest that I feel guilty about not undergoing those experiences, or that I have missed out. I am grateful for God’s hand in my life. I’m grateful that he has given me opportunities to grow, to respond to his voice, to serve and to learn about grace and forgiveness.
I am acutely aware, though, that I’m not there yet. In fact, it’s hard to imagine getting there from here. Can I become complete in Christ, transformed into his likeness, starting from where I’m at.
The answer is “No, of course not.” You can’t get there from here. It takes God to transform us. We can’t do it ourselves. It does require our cooperation. God doesn’t force himself on us. Sometimes we refuse to learn, and the lesson needs to be repeated. Yun talks about this in regard to his most recent time in prison, that he went at least in part because he had not yet learned what he needed to learn. When we don’t get the message, God patiently repeats himself.
I know that I am particularly hard headed and stubborn, and sometimes it takes a lot for God to get through to me. When I think about that, I almost despair of ever getting there, ever reaching who God intends that I will become. But I know that he is able, and I am confident that he who began the work in me will continue it to completion.
If you are not being changed, if your life is not substantively different because you are following Christ, you should examine your life now to understand if you are indeed following him. You cannot follow Christ without being changed. You can not be a true Christian and stay the same. It doesn’t happen, ever. If you are not willing to be changed, you have not handed your life over to God.
If you follow Christ, if you make him your Lord, he is going to transform you. That is going to mean suffering and trials. You can count on it. In addition, you are not going to be able to understand all that God is doing, at least in this life. That has to be ok. All we can do is trust God, and commit continuously to faithfully submit to following him. He is able, and he will transform us. He has promised to do it, and he always keeps his promises.