It is with pride that I call myself a realist. It is with a wry smile and a patient eye-roll that my husband calls me a pessimist. I fight back by labelling him an optimist- one of those starry eyed, rose coloured glasses people with only one foot in reality.
So where do you put yourself on the scale? Do you see the glass as half full or half empty? If you can’t work it out, think about the title of this month’s book… You Can Change. Your reaction to it might tell you which camp you fit in. Did you reach enthusiastically for the book, hopeful that in it you would find the answer to your struggle with sin? Or perhaps, like me, you groaned at the self-help sounding title, carefully checked the endorsements, and finally settled down to read it on the off-chance it would contain some wisdom about sin in the life of a Christian.
It is clear from chapter one that this is an optimistic book. We are challenged to believe that it is possible to change even our most persistent sinful behaviour and attitudes. What is also clear is that this is not a self-help book. Chester might be optimistic about change, but this is not a starry-eyed, rose coloured glasses type of optimism. This is not a book filled with empty platitudes about the power of positive thinking, will-power and self-improvement. Chester’s optimism in the face of sin is based firmly on the work of Christ in restoring us to the true image of God. As people who have seen the glory of God in the face of Jesus, we now reflect that glory as we’re transformed into his likeness.
It is here that I felt the sting of rebuke. It is one thing to be pessimistic about my ability to change, but surely the God who can forgive my sin can also change how I live. How could I doubt God’s ability to change me?
Yet along with the much needed rebuke came further questions. If one day we will ‘bear the likeness of the man from heaven’ (1 Cor 15:49), how much of that change can I expect to happen in the here and now? Do such enthusiastic claims need tempering with a good dose of realism this side of heaven? This is not a tension that Chester raises at this point, but it is one I felt the weight of.
I think it’s a Biblical tension. Reading through 1 John with a friend from church, we keep marvelling at the seemingly conflicting statements regarding Christians and sin. Chapter 2, verse 1 says ‘My dear children, I write this so that you will not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense- Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.’ And 3:9 takes it a step further. ‘No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him; he cannot go on sinning, because he has been born of God.’ Wow. On one hand, John exhorts his readers not to sin, explaining how a life of sin is incompatible with being born of God. And yet he has begun his argument with the reassurance that if we do sin, we can rely on Christ the Righteous One to speak in our defense.
Perhaps my mistake is not in recognising the tension, but in being pulled too far to one side of it. I focus so much on the inevitability of sin and on God’s ability to forgive that I stop thinking big when it comes to dealing with my own sin in the here and now. I either put it in the too hard basket, telling myself that I’ll never beat it in this lifetime, or I downplay its significance, concluding that it doesn’t really matter because I have Christ to stand for me. I forget the 'bigness' of sin in God's eyes.
Chapter one ends with an exhortation to think big. As we think about what aspects of ourselves we would like to change, Chester urges us: “Please don’t settle for anything less than being like Jesus and reflecting the glory of God.” (p. 24)
See, I told you it was optimistic!