I’m a huge fan of makeovers. I could spend hours watching rooms, houses, and people being rehabbed, dressed up, spruced up, or slimmed down. My dream cable TV station would be The Makeover Channel, featuring all makeovers all the time. I’d binge watch past episodes of What Not to Wear, The Biggest Loser, and Extreme Makeover (home and body editions). Looking at “Before” and “After” photos leaves me in awe of the vision and skill it takes to bring about that kind of change.
This makeover fascination is also a spiritual thing. In my heart and life, I feel the need for change. That feeling stays with me despite the fact that, like a lot of people who allow themselves to be labeled Christian, I’m probably doing OK on the outside: I read the Bible and go to church (even on Wednesdays). I respect the law, give to charity, pay my bills, and say grace before dinner. I’m “nice” to most people most of the time. If there were a club for “nice” people, I think I could make a reasonable case for membership. But in spite of this, my sense of a need for a spiritual makeover remains. Niceness doesn’t seem to be enough. When I think about it, niceness shouldn’t be enough for any Christian.
A lingering dissatisfaction with merely outward good behavior can be a very positive thing for those who follow Christ. That’s because discontent with just being nice can point us to a more important truth, namely that Christians are not just people who manage to use good manners and stay on the right side of the law. Rather, Christians are people who are being transformed from the inside out in their thoughts, attitudes, desires, and instincts, not just in their actions. When we accept that Jesus Christ died on the cross to take the penalty for our sin, we begin a journey in which not only are our words and actions changed to reflect God’s love and will, but our motivations for those words and actions begin to change as well. That happens as we allow Scripture, prayer, and biblical teaching to show us the truth about God and ourselves and to strengthen us to make right decisions. II Corinthians 5:17 puts it this way: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (ESV). “New creations” aren’t just nice people who do the right things when other people are around. New creations have different attitudes and motivations and different priorities that align increasingly with God’s priorities. To experience that newness, we have to pay attention to our inner character.
The changes from old self to new Christian self don’t happen instantly. New Christians don’t typically wake up one morning overflowing with peace, love, and joy in their hearts, suddenly capable of infinite patience. Fear and guilt and selfishness don’t disappear overnight. Just as it takes time for a seed to grow into a tree, it also takes time for our new spiritual selves to grow and bear fruit. That fruit comes in the form of kinder, more truthful words; greater gratitude for blessings; and increased patience with ourselves, others, and God. Greater maturity moves us toward more actions in loving service to God and other people, and we lose taste for things that dishonor God: songs that advocate violence, jokes that degrade other people. Thankfully these changes can and do happen. As we pray, read Scripture, allow godly believers to influence us, and obey God’s direction more and more, our character comes to reflect Jesus’ character and the qualities described in I Corinthians 13, Galatians 5:22-23 and others. Just as Jesus loved God the Father and did everything according God’s will (John 15:9), as we grow to love God more, we desire to demonstrate that love through our obedient actions. In a sense we do become nicer, but this niceness is rooted in our character and values, not just in our behavior.
As the process of change continues, we sometimes hit bumps in the road. We do or say something sinful, we have trouble forgiving someone or giving up a destructive habit, or we lash out at someone and damage a relationship. In other words, we come up against our shortcomings. The Apostle Paul, a giant in the Christian faith, laments in Romans 7:13-25 that despite his new nature, he struggled with sin. But Paul also understood that that struggle is not a losing battle and that God provides ways for us to recover and get back on track after we mess up. If our struggle does lead to failure, God assures us of forgiveness and guidance when we admit our wrong and ask for help (I Jn 1:9). Failures can even help remind us that the process of revealing our new natures through our attitudes and actions (II Cor 5:17) is just that—a process. It happens over time.
Another important truth: Jesus didn’t die just to make us “good” or “nice” people. His death on the cross wouldn’t have been necessary if all it did was teach us to share our toys and obey the speed limit. A strong will, positive reinforcement, or even the threat of negative consequences could bring lots of people into line—Christians and non-Christians alike. Jesus died to restore our relationship with God. Sin had broken that relationship. In taking the punishment that we deserved for our sin, Jesus made it possible for that relationship to be restored. If we reduce our Christianity to mere good behavior, we miss this essential truth. The beautiful thing is that as a result of that restoration of our relationship with God, we can begin the process of transformation of our hearts and minds into one that reflects God’s character. That’s what God intended for us from the beginning (Gen 1:26-27), and it’s a key aspect of Christian joy. God’s original design for us was perfect, and it would have meant perfection and joy for humans. Sin got in the way of that design. Thankfully, Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross and resurrection from the dead paid for that sin. Through that death and resurrection, Jesus opened the way for us to be what we were meant to be and to experience that joy that sin would’ve stolen from us.
Good behavior clearly has value. Generally speaking, schools, governments, and highways run more smoothly when people obey laws, show courtesy, and respect authority figures. But following Christ means more than following the rules, and merely following the rules won’t restore a broken relationship with a God who is both loving and holy. Only Christ can restore that relationship. Only God can transform us into the person that he intended us to be. Even as we strive to live lives that honor our loving God, we can’t be content with mere niceness. Our hearts and attitudes have to change as well, and that begins when we allow God to use Scripture and other means to transform us from the inside out. But we don’t have to beat ourselves up for not changing fast enough either. God is working on us. Yes, we have a role and responsibility in the process: pursuing transformation through prayer, Bible study, and gathering with other believers to worship (Heb 10:25). But ultimately God does the work. He arranges our lives to take us in the right direction. He reshapes our character. We can trust God as our good and wise Creator to bring about beautiful transformation in the loving, patient way. He is our Master Designer, the only one with the wisdom and power to truly make us over into the inwardly beautiful creations we were intended to be.