There is only one way to climb even the tallest mountain: one step at a time. There is only one way to swim across even the English Channel or a Great Lake: one stroke at a time. It is a basic part of our nature that we do everything we do by repeating one action over and over. I think one thought at a time. I type one letter at a time. And then I string them together. And then I edit them for coherence by going over them again, one word, one sentence at a time.
Repetition becomes habit and habit becomes nature. It’s not just that these repeated actions add up to what we do, they become who we are. They are what forms our nature. It’s also true that these repeated actions don’t just happen to us. We decide to do them. We choose to write or climb or swim or paint or strum. I’m sure you get the idea. If you want to become a guitar player, you know what to do: get a guitar and play it every day. You’ll play badly at first but you’ll get better and better as you play daily and then you’ll be a guitar player.
This process is as obvious as it sounds and yet there is one area of life where we tend to forget that this is how everything works for us humans. When it comes to character development (or moral development if you like), we all have things about ourselves we would like to improve. Too angry, too fearful, too stingy, too sarcastic, too lazy, too workaholic, etc. And most of the time we cycle between ignoring, trying to change all at once (we call these ‘resolutions’), failing, and stressing out over our badness/failure to change.
But we can only climb these inner mountains the same way we would climb Kilimanjaro: one step at a time. What’s more, we don’t have to climb alone. The Holy Spirit is our guide up our mountains. Take a little quiet time today and reflect on what part of your character you would most like to change right now. Think of one small step you could take in that direction. I’m confident the Spirit will help you think through this. Then do that one thing. Take that small step. Then do it again. And again. Eventually that will become part of who you are. It takes time and there are no shortcuts. But you can do it. The Spirit will help you. And you’ll love the view.
“Rather, I am a sinner if I rebuild the old system of law I already tore down.” Gal. 2.18
It is difficult to speak or write much about this without leaning toward the twin dangers of legalism and lawlessness. Theological debates can go on without end and frankly I have no interest in them as they never seem to help anyone.
I present this little verse to you because in your ongoing relationship with Jesus, he has/is/will be setting you free from things in your life, remnants of old systems of religion or self-help, various ways of trying to please God and/or improve yourself. Jesus is teaching you that he is always and already pleased with you – totally passionately in love with you. The Holy Spirit is growing and maturing you, accomplishing what you could never do tugging on your own bootstraps.
And yet there is something within us that has a tendency to try and refurbish those old ways. Often it comes in the form of bad teaching from those who (perhaps unwittingly) would saddle us with the same bondage they themselves are under (as Peter was doing in the story Paul relates in Galatians). It might come from impatience with the Spirit’s pace or order in growing us, or with dissatisfaction with where we are in life. Self-help is an attractive way to put ourselves together and gain success as the world defines it. But success as the world defines it is often what God calls failure.
When you came to Jesus, he began to tear down the old system of law that had you in bondage. He is in the process of setting you free. Reflect and pray on the verse above. Are you living into that freedom as fully as you can? Or are you are rebuilding what was knocked down?
One warning: living in freedom sometimes means making hard choices, ones that go against the grain of what our sinful culture would deem wise or prudent. I have seen people lose their freedom entirely because they would not give up the security and comfort of where they were, even when God was very plainly telling them to leave it and follow him. There are many reasons our sin nature craves a system of law. Like all lusts of the flesh, that must be resisted. Freedom is a harder choice, one you have to continually make, but it is also the choice the Spirit of Jesus is always calling you to make. Choose freedom.