“I know that I would probably go to Hell if I died right now, but I can’t change. I can’t give up this life. I can’t give up my friends. I just can’t do it.”
I spoke these words to my freshly converted Christian friend as she sat across from me in a booth at IHOP. It was the summer of 2010, and something terrible had transpired the night before – yet again. Over the last year, my intoxicated endeavors had grown increasingly reckless. Week after week I was venturing into increasingly dangerous situations in my drunken stupidity. This particular weekend, though, my recklessness drug me to a devastatingly new low.
When I woke up on this particular Sunday morning and the mental fogginess from the alcohol started to clear, I remembered what had happened just hours before. My heart sunk into the deepest part of my stomach. I scrambled to find my phone and sent a text to my friend. She came running to my rescue later that day (as was her regular Sunday custom). Fear and despair wrung out of my soul like water out of a wet sponge as I shared with her how I’d knowingly exposed myself to the HIV virus.
As I sat there in IHOP with my friend, the remnants of belief that I had in God began to spark as I pondered the horrific mess my life was. Though I was highly skeptical of religion, I’d seen how my friend’s faith in God had given her exactly the things I needed in life: stability, contentment, joy, and peace. I would have never admitted it, but over the last few months I had experienced a developing craving for the life and joy she seemed to have through her relationship with God. Something within me knew I could find peace in this invisible Jesus my friend had grown to love.
But I held back.
Why did I hold back? Because I knew Christianity meant change, and I didn’t possess the power to change. Though a growing part of me wanted to cease from all the destructiveness that was dominating my life, I knew that I couldn’t. I had tried before, to no avail. As of late there had been many Sunday afternoons I’d “lay down the law” as I gazed dizzily into my reflection in bathroom mirror, “No more drinking, Matt. No more wild nights. No more hookups. No more, no more, no more!” Then Thirsty Thursday would come rolling in around the corner and my craving for little Captain and a lot of wildness would take over. I’d raise my white flag almost immediately. Back to the bar I went.
I loved the pleasures that alcohol and various lusts of the flesh brought me, but I knew that they were destroying me. The longer I continued on in them, the more depressed I found myself in my scarce moments of sobriety – which just made me want to escape sobriety all the more. I knew this whole God thing my friend was experiencing was working for her, but I just couldn’t fathom it working for me. I viewed morality and uprightness as the avenue to the presence of God, and if I knew anything at all, it’s that I was not moral or upright. God felt inaccessible. Change felt utterly impossible. I was hopeless. So I continued on doing what I did best; I fed my addictions and just tried to have the best possible time I could.
I know there has to be someone reading this blog today who feels the same way that I felt five years ago. Growing inside of you is a desire to be plucked from the corrupt path you’re on. You want a fresh start – you want new life – and you’re inclined to believe it can be found in this God the Bible speaks of. But the problem is you detect zero ability to change yourself.
And I’m here to tell you that you’re absolutely right.
You and I are less than hopeless if the solution to our life’s biggest problem is self-change. We absolutely cannot free ourselves from our bondage to sin – yes, sin. Call it addiction, call it fun, call it whatever you want; but our realest, deepest problem is our sin. This devilish master owns us, and I don’t care what Oprah or other spiritual gurus say; we do not have the capability within ourselves to change that. Sure, we can hop into a 12-step program or listen to meditation podcasts and by our own willpower trade out our addiction to alcohol or sex for some other, more “acceptable” indulgence of the flesh. Perhaps we may even be among the very few who are able to muster up the self-control to deny ourselves all harmful vices. But is sheer abstinence really what we need or want? How miserable would it be to live a life of denying yourself the very thing(s) you still want most? Is a white-knuckling life a healthy, joyful life? I don’t think so.
We need to be freed not merely from the symptoms of alcoholism, sex addiction, drug addiction, or other lusts of the flesh; we need the sinful heart from which those things flow to be radically changed. We need a transformation in our desires.
The narrative of the Old Testament plainly and repetitively depicts the natural human heart’s refusal and inability to sincerely obey God. Inheriting our first father’s sinful nature, we are all wholly corrupt upon our arrival into this world. Every one of our hearts is desperately sick (Jeremiah 17:9). Because of our sinful nature, simply being told about the good way in which we should go isn’t enough to make us go in that direction. When God says jump, we sit down. When God says quack like a duck, we meow like a cat. I know these examples may be facetious, but hear my point: we are natural rebels, through and through. Regardless of how willful or determined we may be, we cannot sit down in our chair and rewire ourselves to love the things of God and hate and flee from what he calls sin. Our rebellion runs too deep and we are powerless to tame it, much less uproot it.
But this is why the gospel of Jesus Christ is the most glorious news in the world! In the gospel, God doesn’t ask us to change our own hearts. He changes our hearts for us. I know you may have heard it differently or maybe misunderstood it in the past, but the invitation of the gospel is not “get ahold of all your sinful patterns or addictions or thought processes, start living a moral life, join a church, and then you’ll be saved.” No! The invitation of the gospel can be summed up in three words: “Come to Jesus.”
If you don’t know exactly how to view Jesus, start by viewing him as your Great Substitute. The sinless Son of God lived the perfectly righteous life that you and I were unable and unwilling to live. Why? So that he could give his righteousness to us. The Lamb of God then hung naked and bloody on Roman cross under the full weight of God’s wrath for our sin. Why? So that God’s anger could be forever removed from us. Through clinging in faith to Christ, anyone can be forever cleansed from their guilt, covered by the righteousness of Jesus, and – get this – be given a new heart.
Read these words of the prophet Jeremiah (please don’t skim over this!):
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, 32 not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the Lord. For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the Lord. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”(31:31-34, emphasis mine)
And the prophet Ezekial:
“I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone and give them a heart of flesh. Then they will follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. They will be my people, and I will be their God.” (11:19-20)
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.” (36:26-27)
Our Great Substitute has signed this New Covenant with a pen dipped in his own blood. The redemptive work of Christ remedies the two biggest problems we all have: our guilt and our nature. By faith in Jesus, sinful men are provided abundant forgiveness of sins and a radically transformed heart. God isn’t calling us broken sinners to change ourselves – he’s calling us to look to Christ and be changed through him! He longs to forgive us our sins and heal our rebellion through the redemption that is in his Son.
I finally took him up on this invitation about three months after the conversation with my friend at IHOP. I didn’t have a thorough knowledge of the Bible, but I had heard enough to know that Jesus was the remedy. One day it finally clicked: “I don’t have to change myself, I just have to surrender myself to God and ask him to change me.”
Five years ago this week, I asked God to forgive me, free me from my slavery to sin, and give me power to live a new life . . . and he did! He changed me in such a drastic way that my heart’s deepest affections shifted from sin to him. Does this mean I became perfect or unaffected by sin? Definitely not. Believers in this life experience a magnificent foretaste of the redemptive power of Christ, but we won’t experience the fullness of our redemption until our King returns to make all things new. On that Day this morally and physically corrupt flesh will be swallowed up by immortality – by new, perfect, sinless, incorruptible, Christ-like bodies. With the rest of God’s redeemed people, I long for that day! But until then, though my flesh wages war against my new nature and sometimes strikes blows here and there, I have great comfort in knowing my imperfection on this side of Glory doesn’t invalidate my regeneration. My love for Christ (though imperfect) and desire to please him (though not as strong as it should be) assures me that my heart has been changed. I am very literally a new creation in Christ Jesus.
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” – 2 Corinthians 5:17.
Not that a picture defines anything, but the contrast in these two photos is so symbolic of what has taken place in my heart. I don’t even remember taking the picture on the left, which was snapped just over five years ago. When I look into my eyes there, all I see is emptiness and death. But I thank God that at the right time, he revealed his Son to me and gave me new life through his redeeming work.
Whoever may be reading this, if you’re feeling the same way I was feeling five years ago –dominated by your sin – know that there is real hope for real change. It lies not within yourself, but in the One who, in great love for you, lived and died for you. Look to Jesus! Fall on your knees and plead with him to forgive you of your sins and to give you a new heart. He is so merciful and so gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love toward those who fear him. He turns away none who will sincerely seek forgiveness and new life.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” – Matthew 11:28-29.
“Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” – John 7:37-38.
Look to Jesus! And keep looking until your heart grows warm in love for him.
Note: As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I was exposed to the HIV virus in the summer of 2010. I was tested periodically for this virus as well as any other diseases over a two year period following my conversion. All of these tests came back negative. God was very gracious in his protection of me even in my great stupidity.