“Life Change” will lead you into a challenging examination of sin and righteousness. You will struggle with sin throughout your life. Your identity in Christ beckons you to a life of holiness, but your heritage as a sinner living independently of God continues to influence your attitudes and actions. “Life Change” addresses both resisting sin and pursuing growth in holiness.
“Life Change” starts with an inventory of your personal values. What you truly value in any given circumstance determines your attitude and actions. The tool examines seven broad categories of sin, called the seven deadly sins. These categories describe tendencies in which personal values conflict with biblical principles and God’s will. Each person has unique tendencies to sin. Identifying your personal tendencies to sin will help you resist those tendencies. Confessing sin keeps personal sin tendencies from remaining hidden and therefore opens up opportunities for gaining support to resist sin. The exercise called “A Letter from Your Tempter” provides a creative way for you to confess areas of sin to others.
The second part of the “Life Change” tool turns to positive growth. Exercising a spiritual discipline will enable you to experience dependence on God in a new way. Examining the fruit of the Spirit will encourage you to see how God has already been transforming you and to set your sights on new areas for growth.
Though “Life Change” may be used profitably by individuals, it has been designed to be done in a small group. This process can solidify the sense of community you experience with a group that has been together for a short time, or it can deepen that sense with a group that has been together longer. Given the sensitive nature of the content that people will be exploring in these exercises, care should be taken when the content is shared with a group. Coed groups may want to consider splitting up times into single-sex groups for sharing times. Some of the content from the “Life Change” exercises may need to be adjusted for sharing in a group setting.
You will do the “Life Change” exercises in private. Each exercise provides instructions. You will get out of the exercises what you put into them in terms of time and focused attention. May this process be a significant time for you to increase your understanding of your growth in righteousness!
In this exercise, you will identify several biblical beliefs that you have learned to practice in some area of your life. You might not practice a belief perfectly, and you might not practice it in every area of your life. Nonetheless, it is an area in which you have experienced significant growth.
For instance, maybe your faith has helped you lessen your anxiety about work deadlines. Or perhaps God has convicted you and helped you change from having a cynical demeanor to one of encouragement when you relate to your relatives.
The following pages contain a list of biblical principles that may help you identify areas of past growth. It is not an exclusive list, so feel free to choose other biblical principles that apply to your own experience. Choose up to three biblical principles that you have come to believe and practice. Record them on page 80, and in the appropriate space, describe the process by which you grew to practice that belief. Consider the influence that Scripture, prayer, and other believers played in your life-change experience.
Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. (Matthew 5:42)
Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. (Matthew 5:44)
Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. (Matthew 6:19)
Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. (Matthew 6:25)
Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal. (2 Corinthians 4:16-18)
Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what do righteousness and wickedness have in common? Or what fellowship can light have with darkness? (2 Corinthians 6:14)
But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:5-6)
Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more… . You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:19,22-24)
Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Ephesians 4:29)
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)
Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:13-14)
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! (Philippians 4:4)
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Philippians 4:6)
Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3:2-3)
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. (Colossians 3:12-13)
If a man will not work, he shall not eat. (2 Thessalonians 3:10)
Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. (2 Timothy 2:16-17)
Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. (Hebrews 13:2)
Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure. (Hebrews 13:4)
Confess your sins to each other. (James 5:16)
Live in harmony with one another; be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble. (1 Peter 3:8)
Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. (1 Peter 3:15)
Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. (1 Peter 4:8)
If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? (1 John 3:17)
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in him. In this way, love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment, because in this world we are like him. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:16-19)
Now that you have spent some time considering how God has been transforming your life, take time to offer thanks to Him. You may decide to take a half hour one morning this week to pray or journal, listing all that you are thankful for. Or spend a few minutes every day, perhaps before bed or after you wake up, and thank Him. One thing to thank Him for is His commitment to transforming you to be more like Christ.
Slowly read the definitions of each category of sin and the descriptions of how each manifests itself in a person’s life. As you read, underline any phrases, lines, or sections that describe your behavior. Be honest.
After you have worked through all seven, take time to review what you underlined. There may be many areas of sin that God wants to address in your entire life. The key now is letting Him reveal what He wants you to address right now. However, we are often blind to our own sin. The Spirit may bring to mind some areas of sin, or He may use recent interactions with others to point out areas to you.
Identify one or two of the seven that you would say are the predominant sin categories you are currently struggling with. Make notes for yourself describing the personal dynamics of those particular areas of sin. For example, if you struggle with greed, the personal dynamic may be as follows: “When I’m around my old college buddies and see the cars they drive and the homes they live in, I find myself obsessed with having those nice things too. I don’t desire to have more than they have or to be better than they are. I particularly want to enjoy the luxuries of a car and a house like theirs.”
You may want to include in your notes descriptions of those sins from various angles in your life. For instance, how does the struggle with greed show up at work? With friends? With family?
Be prepared to share with the group the areas of sin with which you struggle. You won’t have to go into detail about the dynamics of those areas of sin at this point, only the category (envy, greed, and so on). Also, if you are in a coed group, you will probably separate into single-sex groups for this discussion.
Envy is being dissatisfied with our lives, talents, and gifts and focusing on the circumstances of another’s life. It begrudges someone their status, material possessions, or the relationships and good will that they have earned from others in the community.
—Kaye Briscoe King
When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with tambourines and lutes. As they danced, they sang:
“Saul has slain his thousands,
and David his tens of thousands.”
Saul was very angry; this refrain galled him. “They have credited David with tens of thousands,” he thought, “but me with only thousands. What more can he get but the kingdom?” And from that time on Saul kept a jealous eye on David. (1 Samuel 18:6-9)
With respect to envy, many of them are wont to experience movements of displeasure at the spiritual good of others, which cause them a certain sensible grief at being outstripped upon this road, so that they would prefer not to hear others praised; for they become displeased at others’ virtues and sometimes they cannot refrain from contradicting what is said in praise of them, depreciating it as far as they can; and their annoyance thereat grows because the same is not said of them, for they would fain be preferred in everything. All this is clean contrary to charity, which, as Saint Paul says, rejoices in goodness.
—St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, VII
Actively trying to dissuade others from admiring or accepting anyone we envy. Setting up an unfair rivalry or competition with that person. Being happy and satisfied when bad fortune befalls another. Belittling and planting seeds of doubt about another’s character. Gossiping. Devising ways of destroying someone, sometimes with a long-range plan. Being dissatisfied with our physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual selves. Being unwilling to be content with our station or lot in life. A person can become our flash point for an obsession. We encourage criticism and antagonism against the person through sarcasm, teasing, or cutting him down. Envy can be masked as contempt for a person’s culture, position, and talents or for someone who is in authority over us.
—Kaye Briscoe King
Greed is a desire for inordinate amounts of personal possessions or status. Greed uses others for our personal gain in spite of any harm that this manipulation may cause them.
—Kaye Briscoe King
Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,
Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. People who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs. (1 Timothy 6:6-10)
“Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5)
This is greed: living to possess anything—stamps, dolls, autographed balls, books, CDs, paintings, figurines, toys, property, cars, contacts/acquaintances, whatever—with the primary objective of owning, the preoccupation with having, the obsession of getting, and/or the dedication of too much of our lives or the investment of too much of our hearts.
—Dr. William Backus
Now you can see, my son, how brief’s the sport
of all those goods that are in Fortune’s care,
for which the tribe of men contend and brawl;
for all the gold that is or ever was
beneath the moon could never offer rest
to even one of these exhausted spirits.
Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto VII
Putting possessions in place of God. Being ambitious and disdaining morality, the law, or the rights of others. Pursuing status, material possessions, reputation, or power. Believing that all’s fair in competition and, thus, becoming ruthless and unjust. Being too possessive or protective of our children, spouse, or friends. Being self-centered. Refusing to set boundaries. Avoiding conflict by not correcting or disciplining children for fear they will not love us. Deliberately engaging others in illegal or unethical activities. Manipulating others … to do our will through threat of physical violence, withdrawal of affection, cajoling, or whining. Letting control and power be motivating forces in our lives. Being too eager to give advice or possess authority. Attempting to have others in debt to us so we can exert power. Using flattery, gifts, favoritism, or even covert bribery to win support, affection, or authority.
Backing down from personal standards or refusing to be involved with or defend people of lesser means or position; fearing being stigmatized by leaders or the wealthy. Being dishonest by stealing or fencing stolen goods, cheating on exams, falsifying records, or evading taxes. Being narcissistic. Believing we are entitled to something because of who we are. Wasting possessions, talent, or natural resources. Living beyond our income in order to impress others or sustain our present standard of living. Embezzling. Gambling in such a way that gambling controls us. Intriguing or conspiring. Borrowing, sponging, weaseling, or playing on the good will of others in order not to use our own money, time, or talent. Being stingy or being indifferent to the homeless and hungry. Failing to engage in teamwork in our workplace or at home.
—Kaye Briscoe King
We lust when we seek another god or material satisfaction to fill the emptiness in our lives. Lust is an excessive, driving desire for personal sexual gratification, disregarding God’s intended purpose for sexuality, in order to fulfill our own inordinate needs.
—Kaye Briscoe King
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)
Lust is often defined as the desire for inappropriate physical intimacy with a person, or the image of a person (such as computer-generated images), other than a spouse. It is a sin that many people must guard against throughout their entire lives.
However, within marriage, there is an additional element of lust that is often overlooked. When a husband feels lonely and demands that his wife engage sexually with him to fulfill his desire for intimacy, he is sinning. In Ephesians, Paul lifted the bar for marriage higher than it has ever been before or since. He said a husband ought to tenderly care for his wife’s best interest, not primarily with a view to his own desires:
In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church. (Ephesians 5:28-29)
Sexual intimacy can become the focal point of marriage, even for the believer. If a husband uses manipulation to persuade his wife to enter into sexual activity with him, he may be lusting after his wife. For instance, a husband comes home after work loaded with flowers and eager to help cook dinner, wash the dishes, and clean up the house. Then he initiates physical intimacy with his wife, and she asks to postpone it until tomorrow. The husband suddenly changes demeanor and becomes very short with her. He withdraws from her and goes to bed without a word. Could it be that he wanted only her body? Was he lusting after her physically while not truly caring for her interests before his own? Did his longing for physical intimacy interfere with his ability to see what would be loving for her?
In other words, lust may include an inappropriate pursuit of your spouse. If we are consumed with a pursuit of sexual intimacy beyond its proper role as an expression of love between husband and wife, we are struggling with lust.
Hostility toward sex also falls under the category of lust, as the following manifestations describe. It is no more godly to be obsessed against sex than for it.
Misusing sex for personal gratification. Violating the church’s marriage laws, such as those concerning adultery. Lack of consideration for one’s partner in the marital relationship. Indulging sexually outside marriage in thought, word, or deed, alone or with others. Acting or fantasizing that leads to sexual perversion or addiction. Frequenting adult movie houses or reading sexual magazines. Engaging in voyeurism or indecent exposure. Molesting children. Raping. Engaging in prostitution or other promiscuous activities. Sodomizing. Stimulating sexual desires in others. Being immodest with intent to seduce. Condemning sex as evil in itself. Repressing sex. Refusing to seek help or adequate instruction for problems concerning sex. Prudery. Deliberately inflicting pain (whether mental, sexual, or emotional) on others. Tormenting animals. Holding someone against his or her will. Teasing. Denying that one’s own sexuality is a gift from God. Being unwilling to inform our own children about sex.
—Kaye Briscoe King
Sloth is the act of refusing to use our natural gifts and talents for emotional and spiritual growth. It is laziness or an unwillingness to perform our duties, work, and studies or pay attention to our needs and those of others.
—Kaye Briscoe King
For even when we were with you, we gave you this rule: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.”
We hear that some among you are idle. They are not busy; they are busybodies. Such people we command and urge in the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and earn the bread they eat. And as for you, brothers, never tire of doing what is right. (2 Thessalonians 3:10-13)
If once they failed to find in prayer the satisfaction which their taste required … they would prefer not to return to it: sometimes they leave it; at other times they continue it unwillingly… . These persons likewise find it irksome when they are commanded to do that wherein they take no pleasure. Because they aim at spiritual sweetness and consolation, they are too weak to have the fortitude and bear the trials of perfection. They resemble those who are softly nurtured and who run fretfully away from everything that is hard, and take offense at the Cross, wherein consist the delights of the spirit.
—St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, VII
Fulfilling our responsibilities requires some effort on our part. God designed human beings to work. Even in Eden, Adam was given responsibility: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28). Human beings have labor as a fundamental, divinely mandated purpose.
Spiritual growth also requires effort. If people desire to experience the abundant Christian life while remaining idle in their faith, they will be disappointed. Consider Paul’s example of exertion:
I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:12-14)
Neglecting our family, such as being unwilling to follow through on relationships, courtesies, and concern for family members. Avoiding working through conflict. Procrastinating when we do not find immediate payoffs. Living in a dream world. Avoiding social obligations or becoming busy with irrelevant tasks in order to avoid important commitments. Spending an inordinate amount of time on rest, recreation, television, reading, etc. Always looking for easy answers and shortcuts to solutions. Putting pleasure above all else. Not assuming responsibility for our work by wasting time,... producing inadequate work, not meeting deadlines, or leaving our tasks for others to complete.Avoiding spiritual growth. Ignoring the needs and concerns of our employees. Not treating people of lesser means with dignity and being unwilling to go out of our way to accommodate those in need. Lacking concern for injustice done to others. Being unwilling to undergo hardships without complaining....Failing to fulfill spiritual and religious obligations, such as attending church regularly.
—Kaye Briscoe King
Gluttony seeks happiness, pleasure, and security in the obsessive use of drink, drugs, sex, smoking, work, or any activity that is harmful to ourselves or others.
—Kaye Briscoe King
While you may not find yourself craving food compulsively, gluttony may still be a concern. Gluttony is often associated with food, but basically it is a pursuit of pleasure. Whereas lust is concerned more with intimacy and the satisfaction that comes with feeling connected with another person, gluttony pursues physical pleasure for its own sake. Gluttony involves an addiction to a physical pleasure.
Consider the saying “Some eat to live, I live to eat.” You may put in the place of eating any activity of physical pleasure: “Some men enjoy sexuality with their wives as a natural part of their relational intimacy; I am obsessed with my wife as an object of pleasure.” Any number of things that result in physical pleasure can be the object of a glutton’s desire. It is quite possible that both a lust for intimacy and a gluttonous desire to experience sexual pleasure are involved.
Addiction to one object of physical pleasure might not be the only expression of gluttony. Shrewd gluttons realize what Søren Kierkegaard wrote about in Either/Or. Kierkegaard explained that physical pleasure reaches its pinnacle if the person diversifies the experience of pleasure from various objects. If the glutton pursues pleasure in moderation from various objects, he will more fully experience the pleasure from each source. So gluttony can be hidden by the diversity of pleasure sought. For example, you get a massage, go out for a good meal, and retreat home for sex with your spouse. Having all of these experiences in a given day is not in itself sinful. However, if you rely on these diverse objects of pleasure to escape the struggles of life, you are misguided. One way to test your heart is to determine how you might feel if these pleasures were removed from your life. Would you demand from God that He return your meat entrees, or would you be content with bread and potatoes?
Being self-indulgent in any pleasure—such as food, drink, drugs, or sex—that may lead to an addiction or, at the minimum, interfere with our social or vocational abilities. Being a perfectionist or demanding unrealistically high standards. Exaggerating our self-importance or being preoccupied with fantasies involving power, wealth, and reputation. Acting as if we are superior to others. Neglecting our health through lack of rest, recreation, exercise, wholesome diet, or balanced lifestyle. Refusing to care for our teeth. Refusing to seek counseling and face our participation in the addictive or dependency processes. Manipulating in order to sustain our addiction.
Becoming rigid and intolerant. Condemning others’ pleasures as evil to squelch our own attachment to pleasure. Being a religious fanatic about sex in order to help ourselves detach from an inactive addiction that we have just under the surface. Denying the seriousness of our attachments and how the object of these affections consumes a great deal of our time. Substituting addictions for reality in order to block out pain, suffering, and our circumstances. Allowing them to become our false gods while turning our back on God. Being unwilling to accept help because of our love and loyalty to our attachment. Neglecting our spiritual walk. Having a tendency to become manic and unrealistic. Lacking self-discipline. Looking for a shortcut to success in order to get something for nothing. Having an over-attachment to grief because of past failures and feelings of unworthiness. Refusing to use things of the world in a balanced way.
Gluttony changes into an addiction when the attachment and any ensuing illnesses become a means of escape from intimacy and the responsibilities of our relationships with God, self, and others.
—Kaye Briscoe King
Pride occurs when we push God aside, become the center of our own universe, and act as if the world revolves around us and is under our control. It is a rebellion against God’s sovereignty.
—Kaye Briscoe King
Fools say to themselves, “There is no God.” (Psalm 14:1, NET)
As these [young Christians] feel themselves to be very fervent and diligent in spiritual things and devout exercises, from this prosperity … there often comes to them, through their imperfections, a certain kind of secret pride, whence they come to have some degree of satisfaction with their works and with themselves. And hence there comes to them likewise a certain desire, which is somewhat vain, and at times very vain, to speak of spiritual things in the presence of others, and sometimes even to teach such things rather than to learn them. They condemn others in their heart when they see that they have not the kind of devotion which they themselves desire; and sometimes they even say this in words, herein resembling the Pharisee, who boasted of himself, praising God for his own good works and despising the publican.
—St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, II
Pride at its essence is an attitude that denies the existence of God. It is an attempt to exert oneself as an independent being. However, when we foster such an attitude, we are merely deceiving ourselves. In a culture where independence is so highly valued, pride is often hard to notice. We fail to realize that any movement we make with an independent attitude is rooted in pride.
When we think that we can, through will alone, accomplish a goal, we are deceived. Even “Christian” behavior can be done pridefully, in independence. If we try to live up to some status quo of behavior in our church community on our own power and merit, we are deceived. We are ignoring the reality that the Almighty gives us life and breath.
Besides being dependent upon God’s sovereignty, we are also dependent on other people. We are not individual islands. To say to oneself, It’s just me and God, is a form of pride. To be Christian is to be part of the body of Christ. We must not think we can live the Christian life as God intended in isolation from other Christians. We need others to sustain us.
Depending on ourselves rather than on God. Expecting others to treat us as if we are a god. Being self-absorbed and leaving no time for God. Refusing to love and trust God; refusing to accept forgiveness from others, ourselves, or God, because we judge ourselves as not perfect (as we should be, since we are taking God’s place). Pitying ourselves because we think our sins make us less respectable.
Attempting to control or predict the future by using spiritualism, astrology, fortune-telling, black magic, or superstition. Not practicing gratitude for others’ gifts, knowledge, or good works.
Being territorial about our status. Acting as if we were better, further advanced, or more virtuous. Practicing hypocrisy (judging others harshly for faults that we ourselves possess). Refusing to recognize our own sins because to admit wrong or lack of perfection reveals that we are less than we think we are. Discounting our sins by minimizing or rationalizing: “Boys will be boys,” or “That is just natural for women to do,” or “That is the way teens normally act.” Being too sensitive and refusing to see that we can grow from constructive criticism. Refusing to receive guidance from our community.
Refusing to take responsibility for … what we have done. Being unwilling to make amends and restitution. Lying or deceiving to escape discipline. Letting someone else take the blame because he is dispensable and we are not… . Exaggerating, interrupting, talking too much or in hyperbole. Taking center stage in an attempt to claim wisdom or abilities that we do not possess. Behaving ostentatiously in order to focus attention on ourselves. Having inordinate shyness because we feel we are not perfect. Being performance driven. Refusing to admit wrong or apologize in order to save face and avoid damage to our status in the community.
Refusing to accept less than excellence in food, drink, lodging, or another’s performance. Being aggravated by the irritating habits of others. Being a bigot and saying our customs, race, religion, dress, and culture are superior to those of others. Overspending time and money on how we present ourselves, our home, or office in order to impress others. Showing superiority by thinking that we should not have to do what others do, such as work, chores, etc. Taking credit for our abilities and accomplishments rather than giving God or others credit for thoughts, insights, etc. Having to be the only one who has a credible idea or plan. Reinforcing our superiority by being overbearing, argumentative, and opinionated. Being legends in our own minds.
—Kaye Briscoe King
Anger becomes a sin when it takes the form of rebellion, revenge, or retaliation; causes harm to self or others; or sets an obstacle in the way of our relationship with God.
—Kaye Briscoe King
When their delight and pleasure in spiritual things come to an end, they naturally become embittered, and bear that lack of sweetness which they have to suffer with a bad grace, which affects all that they do; and they very easily become irritated over the smallest matter—sometimes, indeed, none can tolerate them… .
There are other of these spiritual persons, again, who fall into another kind of spiritual wrath: this happens when they become irritated at the sins of others, and keep watch on those others with a sort of uneasy zeal. At times the impulse comes to them to reprove them angrily … and set themselves up as masters of virtue… .
There are others who are vexed with themselves when they observe their own imperfectness, and display an impatience that is not humility; so impatient are they about this that they would fain be saints in a day. Many of these persons purpose to accomplish a great deal and make grand resolutions; yet, as they are not humble and have no misgivings about themselves, the more resolutions they make, the greater is their fall and the greater their annoyance, since they have not the patience to wait for that which God will give them when it pleases Him.
—St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul, V
But no man can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers, this should not be. (James 3:8-10)
One of the most common ways anger tempts the believer is with the simple phrase “I’m right.” The issue is not always who is logically correct. The person who struggles with anger may well be “right” most of the time. However, we shouldn’t impose our judgments in any manner we choose, even if our judgments are correct (and often they aren’t). We are called to love, not to be “right.” Sometimes loving others involves communicating what is right and what is not, but that communication shouldn’t be guided by a passion-filled anger.
Hating God. Refusing to allow Him into our lives. Turning our backs on a personal relationship with Him. Refusing to use our talents and gifts or pursue the mission God has given us. Blaming others (God, parents, spouse) and not accepting responsibility for the negative conditions we have brought on ourselves and the inner decisions we have made that have contributed to our unhappiness.
Being cynical. Purposely trying to ruin someone’s reputation. Gossiping. Using profanity, grumbling, or attacking someone verbally (such as quarreling, nagging, rudeness, or raging) or physically (such as hitting, torture, or murder). Harsh or excessive punishment of children or others over whom we have authority. Forcing our will on others. Seeking revenge and retaliation.
Turning our anger against ourselves, such as through self-mutilation, overeating, bulimia, anorexia, or pushing ourselves to overwork or be perfect.... Refusing to let anger emerge and thus causing depression. Allowing anger to manifest itself in disease and conditions harmful to the body. Self-pity.
Anger is out of order when we refuse to forgive and are unwilling to let go of bitterness or love another as God does. We refuse to love the unlovable or our enemies. Anger in the form of passive-aggressive behavior is demonstrated when we ostracize another person, spoil another’s pleasure (by snubbing or being moody or uncooperative), or physically or emotionally sabotage someone.
—Kaye Briscoe King
In order to identify areas of sin that the Spirit is prompting you to address, make time in your schedule this week for solitude. Go to a park, on a hike, or for a drive by yourself. You know best how and where you experience solitude and peace from life’s demands. Ask the Lord for wisdom. Seek to understand what the Lord wants you to change in your attitudes or actions. Use the space below to note your one or two main categories of sin as well as how you play out those categories in your life.
We all face temptation to sin every hour of every day. Sometimes the tempter is us, our self-centered flesh. Sometimes the tempter is the world around us: media images, cultural expectations, the “system” at work, and so on. And sometimes, the Bible tells us, the tempter is “the prince of this world” (John 12:31)—the Devil and his servants.
What if you could read the instructions a supervising demon gives your personal demon about how to tempt you? C. S. Lewis played out this “what-if” in his famous book The Screwtape Letters. Here’s a sample from that book:
My Dear Wormwood,
Let him assume that the first ardours of his conversion might have been expected to last, and ought to have lasted, forever, and that his present dryness is an equally permanent condition. Having once got this misconception well fixed in his head, you may then proceed in various ways… . You have only got to keep him out of the way of experienced Christians (an easy task nowadays), to direct his attention to the appropriate passages in Scripture, and then to set him to work on the desperate design of recovering his old feelings by sheer will power, and the game is ours. ...If you can once get him to the point of thinking that “religion is all very well up to a point,” you can feel quite happy about his soul. A moderated religion is as good for us as no religion at all—and more amusing.
In the following exercise, you will write a fictional letter about yourself, as though a senior demon were instructing your personal demon in how to tempt you. The point is to get you thinking about how temptation and sin work in your life. What lies does the tempter feed you? In what situations are you most vulnerable to the tempter’s voice? What sins do you frequently fall into or struggle with, and how does that occur?
As a believer, you are experiencing the Holy Spirit’s transformation process. The Spirit opens your eyes to your sin, convicts you of it, and leads you to repentance. When you spend time in this kind of reflection, you become aware of the sin in your life.You realize that the Enemy loves to use whatever means possible to promote you to sin. Both your strengths and weaknesses can be twisted to sinfulness. For example, one of your strengths might be that you are a gifted encourager of other believers. How might your personal tempter twist this strength to make it an area of sin? Likewise, in an area of your weakness, perhaps pornography, what is your tempter’s strategy? How does pornography rob you from experiencing joy in Christ?
Before you begin writing your letter, ask God to help you grow more godly and holy as a result of this reflection. Next, imagine a letter that your personal tempter’s boss might write to your tempter about you and your vulnerabilities. Use the material you identified last week in the “Seven Deadly Sins” exercise to help identify your areas of greatest struggle. Think also of your strengths and how your tempter could render them ineffective. Knowing yourself the way you do, write as one wishing and plotting for your downfall. How would your tempter set you up to be rendered useless for the kingdom of God? How would he make use of your flesh and the world around you? Jot some notes.
Then choose one specific sin you struggle with, and write your letter about that. Your goal is to learn how to listen to the Holy Spirit’s conviction and evaluate how sin affects your life. Your goal isn’t to understand and write about every area you struggle with. If you cultivate an attitude of attentiveness to the Spirit of God and His conviction of sin in your life, you will experience a lifetime of growth in your struggle against sin. Therefore, choose only one area and try to clearly describe the dynamics of how your flesh, the world, and the Enemy tempt you in that area.
Think about yourself in practical terms. How does it happen that you are prone to react in anger toward your kids? How is it that you find yourself spreading gossip instead of remaining quiet? The letter ought to go beyond the behavior to the root of the sin. Why do you do it? What payoff do you get or expect to get? What lie are you falling for? What selfish motive makes you susceptible? Why do you let the world’s pressure get to you in this area?
Be as transparent and vulnerable as you can appropriately be with your group. The more transparent you are, the more meaningful this exercise will be for you and them. Your group leader will probably have men and women separate into two subgroups when these letters are read, so you don’t need to worry about material that you don’t want to share with members of the opposite sex.
Also, confidentiality will be extremely important when these letters are read. The information in the letters must never be shared without permission, even to one’s spouse. A breach of confidentiality in the group will often bring with it enormous tension, conflict, and loss of trust.
Try to keep your letter to one single-spaced page so everyone will have adequate time to share his or her letter. As a good rule of thumb, your letter will answer the following questions about your area of sin:
Choose one spiritual discipline listed below or some other discipline that you have never consistently exercised. Exercise that discipline consistently throughout the coming week. During the week, think about how the discipline affects your dependence on God, and note your conclusions on page 100. Be prepared to discuss your experience of the exercise in the next session.
Practicing these disciplines is not a formula for sanctification, but it can be a great way to refocus your attention on God and others.
In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul lists nine character qualities that comprise the fruit the Holy Spirit bears in a believer’s life: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Read about each quality and respond to the questions about each. Identify friends, family members, and members of your small group who exhibit that quality.
As pride can be seen as the root of all sin, love is the root of all godly deeds: Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:78)
Unfortunately, love often lacks the force it ought to have for believers because the English word love has lost much of its meaning as used in Scripture. People use the word in many ways to refer to a variety of sentiments expressed toward an even wider variety of objects.We have a critical need for our understanding of love to be biblically, rather than culturally, informed. However, cultivating love requires more than simply correcting our misunderstandings; it requires a personal reorientation.
Our world caters to our self-centeredness.Yet the love we find in Scripture, exemplified most profoundly in Christ’s life, is an others-oriented love:
This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. (1 John 3:16-18)
If we are to cultivate love, we must learn to shift our focus from ourselves to those around us. None of us will fully rid ourselves of our ever-present preoccupation with self. And indeed, we benefit greatly from loving God and our neighbor. But cultivating love requires that we learn to love for the sake of the other rather than merely for our own benefit.
Biblical love is not just others-centered in our thinking but also in our actions. Love physically gives to others. It listens to those in pain and offers words of sympathy. It offers encouragement in the form of a smile. It gets its hands dirty helping a neighbor fix a car. In short, one who loves lays down self-interest for the interest of the other.
1. Do you currently have any relationships in which you love another for his or her sake, not just your own? How would you describe that relationship?
2. How do you seek to demonstrate others-oriented love in those relationships?
3. List those you know (including members of your group) who exhibit love. Describe how they demonstrate that characteristic.
4. How does observing love in those people spur you on to love similarly?
Those around us often understand happiness in terms of the absence of undesirable elements of life —pain, suffering, disappointment. In contrast, Christian joy is a response to the presence of something positive in our lives—the presence of Christ through the Spirit, along with the hope we have in Him. This presence and hope enable us to have joy in the midst of pain, suffering, and disappointment.
Joy comes from knowing that though we will experience the hardships that come with living in a fallen world, our present experience is nothing like the future that awaits us. As Karl Barth once said in the face of distress, Christian joy proclaims “a defiant ‘Nevertheless!’”5
Even Christ’s experience on the cross involved joy:
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who
for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and
sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2)
Cultivating joy, like cultivating love, requires us to move beyond ourselves. We must move beyond our present circumstances, beyond our short-term pains and pleasures. Cultivating joy requires that we not pursue it as an end in itself but rather that we pursue God and one another in other-directed love. When we do so, we find that joy is a by-product. As John Stott writes, “The self-conscious pursuit of happiness will always end in failure. But when we forget ourselves in the self-giving sacrifice of love, then joy … comes flooding into our lives as an incidental, unlooked for blessing.”
Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your
gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. (Philippians 4:4-5)
When joy characterizes our lives, we aren’t shaken by the tides of our circumstances. We still grieve during times of loss and rejoice in times of celebration. We’re not stoic, lacking any expression of emotion. But we don’t despair in times of loss, nor are we overly taken by temporal success. A joyful person has a strong awareness of God’s good providence.
1. In what circumstances has a sense of joy been most evident in your life?
2. What circumstances most “steal” your joy?
3. How might others help you cultivate joy in your life?
4. List those you know (including members of your group) who exhibit joy. Describe how they demonstrate it.
5. How does observing joy in those people spur you on to joy?
Our contemporary definition of peace can be misleading. We think of peace as the absence of conflict, but Scripture gives a much richer perspective. Biblical peace involves total well-being, wholeness, and harmony. Cultivating that kind of peace in our lives and relationships is hard in a fragmented world like ours. A fallen world is full of obstacles to personal wholeness, unity with our brothers and sisters, and justice in the world. God has provided the way of ultimate reconciliation through Christ: “He himself is our peace” (Ephesians 2:14). We can be agents of reconciliation as we walk by the Spirit: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God” (Matthew 5:9).
Though conflict is common in human relations and is necessary to a certain degree, it should not be an end in itself. Christians should aim not to be in conflict, either internally or interpersonally. Peacemakers pursue harmony in relationships. They aren’t necessarily averse to conflict, but they want it to lead to resolution.
Internal peace comes from integrity. Peacemakers avoid living double lives. They seek to integrate areas of their lives. If possible, they want to work, go to church, and live in the same community, so as not to have unrelated sets of relationships. People characterized by peace are not secretive because they have nothing to hide.
1. What are some practical ways you can embody God’s peace in your life context (for example, in your home, church, and community)?
2. How can you avoid acting as though your attitudes and actions in one area of life don’t affect other areas? How can you avoid being a different person in different settings?
3. List those you know who exhibit peace internally and in relationships. Describe how they demonstrate it.
4. How does observing peace in those people spur you on to peace?
Be patient, then, brothers, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near. Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!
Brothers, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (James 5:7-11)
Time has become a commodity, and to some people, time is the most valuable commodity they have. We speak of spending time, saving time, wasting time, and buying time. Many professionals attend seminars that will teach them to invest their time wisely in order to get the greatest possible return on their investment. Yet in this world where we view time as a commodity and spend it expecting results, we are called to cultivate patience. Patience requires a willingness to lay aside our to-do lists and our incessant demands for quantifiable results for the sake of others’ needs, our own spiritual development, and the worship of God. A patient person does not hoard time.
Another aspect of patience is restraint from taking matters into our own hands. Patient people, when circumstances necessitate, are willing to wait. They wait for clear direction from the Lord when confused about a job opportunity. They wait for a child to finish explaining an incident before rushing to judgment. They restrain their anger when their son embarrasses them in public. They wait for God’s healing hand after the disappointing breakup of a relationship.
1. What circumstances consistently test your patience?
2. How do you typically react to those circumstances?
3. How might such circumstances help you cultivate patience?
4. How can you cultivate patience? How can others help you cultivate it?
5. List those you know who exhibit patience. Describe how they demonstrate it.
6. How does observing patience in those people spur you on to patience?
When autonomy and self-sufficiency are cherished, little room is left for kindness. Philip Kenneson observes that “kindness is a particular manifestation of love’s other-directedness. Kindness seems to manifest itself as a certain way of being helpful to those who need help. Such helpfulness stems first of all from God’s helpfulness, of which the Christian is imminently mindful.”
For the self-sufficient individual, to seek such help is to admit one’s inadequacy, and to be offered such help is an affront to one’s sense of independence. Cultivating kindness involves the reciprocity of freely giving and receiving grace between needy people, not independence but interdependence. As with all of the Spirit’s fruit, kindness is essentially an expression of other-directedness in that it calls us to be freely available to those around us.
In the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus demonstrates the close connection between love and kindness. The Samaritan finds a victim of assault and robbery, personally bandages him, takes him to an inn, cares for him that evening, and then pays for his ongoing care. After telling the parable, Jesus vividly makes His point about the connection between love and kindness with a final question:
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36-37)
1. What keeps you from expressing kindness to others? What aspects of your culture, personality, or personal heritage (family and cultural background) hinder you?
2. List those you know who exhibit kindness. Describe how they demonstrate it.
3. How does observing kindness in those people spur you on to kindness?
When the rich young ruler called Jesus “good teacher,” Jesus reminded him that “no one is good—except God alone” (Mark 10:17-18). Like all of the Spirit’s fruit, goodness is a reflection of God’s character. However, many people in our time consider goodness to reside in the nature of humanity. What those people fail to recognize is that the only good inherent in humanity is what remains of the image of God placed in us at Creation (see Genesis 1:26-27). Goodness always has God as its source.
The London Times once asked a number of writers to submit essays on the topic “What’s wrong with the world?” G. K. Chesterton’s reply was the shortest and yet the most profound. His reply simply read, “Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely, G. K. Chesterton.” Such an acute awareness of our fallenness leaves no room for the kind of self-affirmation and self-actualization prevalent in our society. John Stott affirms this truth:
Christian believers are able to affirm only those aspects of the self which derive from our creation in God’s image (e.g. our rational capacity, moral responsibility, and capacity for love), while at the same time denying (that is, disowning and repudiating) all those aspects of the self which derive from the fall and from our own personal fallenness. These Christian forms of self-affirmation and self-denial are very far from being expressions of a preoccupation, let alone an infatuation, with ourselves.”
We are not inherently good, but the Holy Spirit who indwells us is. Only through deferring to His power and presence in our lives can we develop the characteristic of goodness.
In John’s gospel, Christ defines goodness by referring to Himself:
“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd who owns the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it.” (John 10:11-12)
In this passage, a good person not only avoids thinking maliciously about others but he also goes so far as to make personal sacrifices for them. Onlookers can see that a good person acts for others’ well-being. Further, good people aren’t fickle in their intentions. People don’t say of the good woman, “She let us down, but she had good intentions.” The good person follows through on good intentions.
1. In your mind, what qualifies a person as a “good person”?
2. If you consider yourself a “good person,” in what sense do you think you are good?
3. List those you know who exhibit goodness. Describe how they demonstrate it.
4. How does observing goodness in those people spur you on to goodness?
Few words come nearer to capturing God’s character than the word faithful. All of salvation history testifies that God is a covenant-making and covenant-keeping God. In light of His unyielding faithfulness to His people, being called to imitate Him in this respect is an exceedingly high calling.
Cultivating faithfulness is difficult in a world like ours that downplays the significance of commitment and is obsessed with instant gratification. We must have what Eugene Peterson has called “a long obedience in the same direction.” Faithful husbands and wives keep their promises “until death do us part.” Faithful students finish all their assignments on time. Faithful employees do not fudge on their work but rather press on diligently to complete a high-quality product. Faithful parents don’t throw their hands up and give in to their children’s disobedience; they continue to train and discipline them.
For Christians, faithfulness involves more than fulfilling one’s commitments. It involves consistent dependence on God’s power. The pages of Scripture are filled with tragic stories of men and women who sought to chart their own course rather than remain steadfast in following God’s direction. The entire history of Israel demonstrates that when memory grows short, commitment and dependence grow weak. Our faithfulness to God in the present requires a profound appreciation of His faithfulness to us in the past and an unreserved confidence in His promises for the future.
1. What are some of the most significant ways God has demonstrated His faithfulness to you?
2. What are some of God’s faithful acts that you often forget to be thankful for?
3. In what areas do you struggle the most with being faithful to your commitments?
4. How can others help you cultivate consistency to follow through with your responsibilities?
5. List those you know who exhibit faithfulness. Describe how they demonstrate it.
6. How does observing faithfulness in those people spur you on to faithfulness?
All of our lives are, to some degree, ambition-driven. We want to be significant and have our lives count for something. These desires aren’t necessarily evil, but if left unchecked, they can choke out the fruit of gentleness. In a world where those who wield power are the ones who make a difference, ambition-driven Christians can easily give in to the seduction of power.
Our culture tells us, “If you want to get anything done … if you want to make an impact, you have to be in a position of power to do so; otherwise, you are doomed to ineffectiveness, and ultimately, failure. Hence, people who want to make their mark on the world will have to make peace with doing so by using the world’s ways, which are usually the ways of power and coercion.”
Gentleness, meekness, and humility involve “the strength to refrain from power and coercion.” Those who are gentle are not the opposite of those who are strong. They simply refrain from using their strength for intimidation or manipulation. They realize that by being gentle, they can encourage and edify another. A gentle person is one by whom others don’t feel threatened when they’re vulnerable. They will reveal their fears and confusion because they know that this gentle person does not inflict pain on those who are vulnerable.
If someone tells about his demotion at work, the gentle man does not accuse the person of poor performance. (“Well, you must not have worked hard enough.”) The gentle woman does not condemn her friend who admits to hitting her child in a moment of anger. (“How dare you do such a thing!”) The gentle person will try to channel personal strength toward helping others, not condemning them.
1. Can Christians be ambitious and at the same time cultivate gentleness? If so, how? If not, why not?
2. How does an initial response of gentleness rather than correction communicate love to someone who reveals a failure or sin?
3. How does that initial gentleness provide a platform for later influence in the person’s life that can lead to repentance?
4. List those you know who exhibit gentleness. Describe how they demonstrate it.
5. How does observing gentleness in those people spur you on to gentleness?
The final quality mentioned in Paul’s list of the Spirit’s fruit may seem out of place. The others share a common theme of other-centeredness. Yet at the conclusion of the list we find what most translations call self-control.
In the Greek world of Paul’s day, self-control was a chief virtue, foundational to developing all other virtues. If one was to master the virtuous life, he first must learn to master his own emotions and desires; he must learn to be controlled by nothing. Yet when Paul identified this virtue as a fruit of the Spirit, he used the term differently from the way others used it. In calling self-control a fruit of the Spirit, Paul attributed the control of the self not to the individual’s work but to the Spirit’s work in that individual’s life. For Paul, self-control meant to be controlled by God.
When we understand self-control in this way, we see that perhaps the best way we can cultivate this fruit is not necessarily through more concentrated efforts of our will. Instead, we should do what we can to nourish the other aspects of the Spirit’s fruit, all of which call us to forget ourselves in the service of others and in the worship and service of God.
1. In what areas do you struggle to control desires or emotions?
2. How can others help you cultivate control over those areas?
3. List those you know who exhibit self-control. Describe how they demonstrate it.
4. How does observing self-control in those people spur you on to having self-control?
Take some time this week for worship. The fruit of the Spirit is merely a reflection of God’s glory in our lives. As you contemplate the fruit of the Spirit, remember that those characteristics don’t originate in us but in our glorious Creator and Savior. Set aside a time in which you focus not on your current circumstances or personal relationships or the tasks on your schedule but upon the character of God. Express your appreciation for His continuing work of sanctifying you.