1. God himself changes you.
This is foundational to all. “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
He intervenes in your life, turning you from suicidal self-will to the kingdom of life. He raises you in Christ when you are dead in trespasses and sins. He restores hearing when you are deaf (you could not hear him otherwise). He gives sight when you are blind (you could not see him otherwise). He is immediately and personally present, a life-creating voice, a strong and strengthening hand.
All good fruit in our lives comes by the Holy Spirit’s working on scene. Jesus said it was better if he went away, because the Holy Spirit would come (John 16:7). The Holy Spirit continues to do the things that Jesus does—continually adding to the number of books that could be written. The stories I tell are not just about what has happened to me and what I’ve done. They are about what Jesus Christ has done as he goes about saving and sanctifying me through all my days.
2. The Word of truth changes you.
“The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple.” (Ps. 19:7)
God communicates messages to us— many messages. Scripture speaks with a true voice into a world churning with false voices. Scripture reveals innumerable features of God’s person, purposes, will, promises, and actions. Scripture clarifies every facet of human experience. I come to know myself truly as I live before the eyes of the One whose opinion matters. It is no accident that Scripture appears in each of the stories I have told.
In Scripture, God comes in person. We participate by hearing and responding.
Of course Scripture and God work in harmony. In fact, all five dimensions are complementary—and all ultimately depend on the hand of God. One lovely expression of the interplay between the Word of God and the God of the Word occurs in Romans 15. Paul first points out how Scripture changes us: “Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom. 15:3).
A few sentences later, Paul asks God himself to change us, to give us the very things that his Word calls for and calls forth: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Rom. 15:13). In Scripture, God comes in person. We participate by hearing and responding.1
3. Wise people change you.
“Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise” (Prov. 13:20).
Godly growth is most frequently mediated through the gifts and graces of brothers and sisters in Christ. At the most basic corporate level, you can’t call on God unless you believe in him; you can’t believe in him unless you hear of him; you can’t hear of him unless someone proclaims him (Rom. 10:14). Good worship, preaching, teaching, prayer, and sacraments have radiant, fruitful effects.
Similarly, the honesty and graciousness, humility and clarity, good sense and convictions of others have radiant, fruitful effects (James 3:17–18). Good role models make a huge difference (2 Tim. 3:10–11). It is a great mercy to know people who deal gently with your ignorance and waywardness, because they know their own weakness and sinfulness, and they know the mercies of Christ (Heb. 5:2–3). It makes a huge difference when other people are able to comfort you in your afflictions, because God is bringing comfort into their afflictions (2 Cor. 1:4).2
4. Suffering, struggle, and troubles change you.
“Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8).
God works on us in the midst of trouble because trouble catches our attention. Difficulties make us need him. Faith has to sink roots, as profession deepens into reality. Martin Luther called tentatio— affliction, trial, difficulty, struggle—the “touchstone” of Christian experience. He said that hardships were his greatest teacher because they made Scripture and prayer come alive.
The difficulties that we experience necessitate grace by awakening a true sense of weakness and need. This is where the Spirit is working. People change because something is hard, not because everything goes well; something—including myself—is off. Ministry traffics in trouble because Christ enters trouble, lives through trouble, is unafraid of trouble, speaks and acts into trouble. Struggles force us to need God. And we learn to love the way Christ loves only by experiencing the hard things that he experienced in loving us.3
The darkness of the human condition is characterized by two immense wrongs that create turmoil throughout our lives: a complex mix of moral evils arises from inside us; a complex mix of situational evils besets us. The Bible uses the word evil to describe both sin and suffering, just as we do in English. Something inside us is wrong. People believe, think, feel, want, and do bad things. Of course, the obvious atrocities are moral evils.
But the falsity, self-deception, and godlessness of “normal” life and the misshapenness of “normal” desires similarly count as moral evil in God’s assessment. We are “off,” in relation to both God and other people. And things outside us are wrong. Bad things happen to us. Other people betray us. We face losses, sicknesses, and death. We swim in the falsehoods of our sociocultural milieu. A Liar and Murderer is out to deceive and kill us. In sum, we face troubles (externally); we are troublesome (interpersonally); and we are troubled (psychologically), struggling both with what we face and with who we are.
5. You change.
“You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thess. 1:9).
We turn—from darkness to light, from false gods to the only true God, from death to life, from unbelief to faith. You ask for help because you need help. You repent. You believe, trust, seek, take refuge. You are honest. You remember, listen, obey, fear, hope, love, give thanks, weep, confess, praise, delight, walk. Notice all these active verbs; they speak of wholehearted, whole-person action.
These are the fruitful characteristics of a flourishing life. No one does any of this for you. You are not passive. You are not a puppet or a robot. You are 100 percent responsible, and yet you are 100 percent dependent on outside help. Any other way of putting it makes you either far too independent or far too passive. Notice, too, that none of these active verbs is a one-and-done. These are a way of life.
1. The sacraments similarly express the dynamic interplay between God himself and the words and elements (bread, wine, and water) that are bearers of his promise, presence, and strength. We participate by receiving and responding.
2. It is also true that non-Christians can profoundly affect us for good because of God’s common grace. I have learned many things from nonChristians about hospitality, hard work, beauty, patience, language, courage, and scholarly integrity.
3. It is a less developed theme in Scripture, but blessings and happy circumstances can also change us for the good—when we have learned to see God’s hand in them and are grateful.
David Powlison (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is a teacher, a counselor, and the executive director of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation. He is also the senior editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling and the author of Seeing with New Eyes, Good and Angry, and Speaking Truth in Love.