Which would be better? To rid the human heart of its selfish and sinful tendencies or to fill the human heart with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control? Then again, are these alternatives legitimate? Is either alternative even possible?
Some followers of Jesus believe that selfishness and sin are super-glued to the human heart and the best we can do is to avoid blatant outbursts of evil thinking, feeling, acting and reacting with God’s help. Other followers of Jesus believe that God’s Spirit can so fill our hearts that we are set free from self-centeredness and for a life of loving other-centeredness. Which alternative most reflects God’s plans and provisions for us?
In answering these questions, we must watch how we frame the alternatives. On the one hand, we are not doomed to be helplessly and hopelessly bound by our sin until we die. Clearly, Jesus calls us to Spirit-empowered discipleship that makes us good and true persons whose lives bear good fruit. This is why Jesus spoke clearly and consistently about becoming the kind of persons from whose hearts good things (super)naturally flow (Luke 6:43–46). Indeed, Jesus calls us to live as He lived, with His Spirit working in and through us. That is the whole point of calling people to follow Him — so that they may become like Jesus, their master (Luke 6:40).
On the other hand, we should not expect to be perfectly sinless. The Apostle John wrote a letter to friends in Christ to help them not to sin (1 John 2:1). Certainly, John expected that this was possible and normative, especially for those who are filled and led by the Holy Spirit. Otherwise, why bother writing for such a purpose? Still, however, John continues his thought by saying: “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate who pleads our case before the Father. He is Jesus Christ, the one who is truly righteous. He himself is the sacrifice that atones for our sins — and not only our sins but the sins of all the world” (1 John 2:1-2 NLT).
Thus, while we cannot expect to be flawless, we may expect to be free from slavery to our natural self-centeredness, self-preoccupation and self-promotion. We rightly expect to live above and without such sin in our lives. We must anticipate freedom from living with our selves at the center and freedom for living with God at the center. We properly expect this freedom from … and freedom for …!
Of course, the evil one delights in deception and discouragement. First, he suggests we aim low and settle for minimal impact from God’s power and love. (He might even try to pass this off as “humility.”) But if that doesn’t work, he is just as happy when we imagine ourselves incapable of anything like “serious sin,” however we may define what “serious” means.
Either we settle for less than God offers, or we imagine ourselves incapable of being really bad. Why do we fall prey to such false alternatives? It is because we tend to compare ourselves with others and not with Jesus, the true and perfect human being. And it is because we do not trust that God can do all God promises to do.
What has God promised to do? According to Jesus, God pours out the Holy Spirit upon us. God fills us with the Holy Spirit, who renovates us from the inside out. As a result, our inner person becomes a source of Spirit-fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. According to Jesus, the Spirit will reveal to us the person and way of Jesus, remind of us Jesus, and empower us to live our everyday lives in Jesus’ way.
How, then, does God work this way in our lives to conform us to Jesus’ character and way, and cultivate the Spirit’s fruit within us? Within the teachings of Paul especially, we read of a pattern to follow as we seek God to work in these ways within us. We are to put off or put to death the way we used to live before Jesus became our Lord and Savior. We say “No!” to attitudes, desires, reflex responses, words, thoughts and actions that are contrary to Jesus’ life. Paul speaks of this in even more radical terms. When we commit to follow Jesus, we accept Jesus’ dying as our dying — both the dying that our own sinfulness leads toward, and also a dying to that sinfulness and its hold on our lives (Galatians 5:19–21). In a sense, when we belong to Christ, we have nailed our former ways of life to the cross and have died with Christ to them (Galatians 5:24).
We do this because God’s Spirit has empowered us to do it. In fact, the Spirit renews our minds, reveals how life was meant to be and can be, and draws us toward the new way of life we see in Jesus (Ephesians 4:23).
Then, we must fully embrace and put on that new way of life. It is the life we were created to live, the life Jesus lived, which has now come within our reach by the power of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:23–24, 30–5:2). God will not clothe us against our will, but God will empower us to decisively reject the old way and powerfully walk into the new way patterned after the way Jesus Himself lived His life.
If we are filled with the Spirit, we have the authority and the empowering to embrace that new way of life. If we are filled with the Spirit, we can keep in step with the Spirit and welcome the work of the Spirit to produce Spirit-fruit within us (Galatians 5:22–23). As Paul says, “Since we are living by the Spirit, let us follow the Spirit’s leading in every part of our lives,” (Galatians 5:25 NLT).
Many followers of Jesus do not really know or believe that such a life is possible. Yet, it is not only possible; it is normal. And many followers who know it is possible have yet to trust God to do what God promises to do. If that describes you, why not ask God and then trust God to do what He has clearly promised to do? And why not ask and seek now?
Bishop David Kendall is an ordained elder in the Great Plains Conference who was first elected to the office of Free Methodist bishop in 2005. He is the author of “God’s Call to Be Like Jesus” (fmchr.ch/godscalldk) and the co-author of “The Female Pastor: Is There Room for She in Shepherd?” (fmchr.ch/fpsisdk).1