“Change from the Inside Out”

Is it possible for human nature to change? Is it possible for a cruel person to become kind? Or a selfish person to become considerate? Or liars to become honest? Most people (and most religions) would say it isn't possible. There is a Muslim proverb that says, "If thou hearest that a mountain has moved, believe it. But if thou hearest that a man has changed, believe it not." Arthur Schopenhauer, the nineteenth century German philosopher, is recorded as having said, "A leopard can change his nature sooner than a man may change his." A Hindu once told the American Methodist missionary Stanley Jones, "A man may change his acts but not his character. This is fixed." 

It is against this backdrop of cynicism that the Christian must humbly but confidently disagree. The great future hope (and present reality) of the Christian is God's amazing power to transform and recreate us (Eph. 4:23-24). Jesus said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again (or from above) he cannot see the kingdom of God." (Jn. 3:3) Through faith in the good news of Jesus' sacrificial death and triumphant resurrection, people are reborn and changed, but that change occurs from the inside out

Our natural inclination is to affect change from the outside in, believing that if we change our habits and our behavior then our character will follow suit. Through keeping religious rituals and certain ascetic practices we mistakenly believe our inner-selves will be transformed. Paul warned the Colossians not to fall for such a ruse, "If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh." (Col. 3:20-23)

Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and scribes on more than one occasion. "For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people's bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness." (Mt. 23:27-28) Jesus knew that to change a person's character requires a complete transformation of the human heart; the inside must be cleansed before the outside can change. (Mt. 23:25-26) Through the new covenant that Jesus established, God's promise to Ezekiel is fulfilled: "And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh." (Ezek. 36:26; cf. Jer. 31:31-34; Psa. 51:10)

Jesus always emphasized the heart (see the Sermon on the Mount) because that's where the change must begin. Without Jesus, we try to affect lasting change by manipulating the environment around us and altering external factors. While this may have some effect on behavior it does not transform character. It's the difference between hanging lifeless ornaments on a fake Christmas tree and a healthy, living tree producing its fruit. (Gal. 5:22-23) One is truly alive while the other is a cheap parody of nature.

In fact, the greatest single hindrance to social change is the human heart: greed and the self-centeredness of humanity. It is this inward corruption, the taint of sin, that social reformers have forgotten. And as a result, they have been constantly disappointed and disillusioned. Beatrice Webb, the famous English social reformer, said, "Somewhere in my diary – 1890? – I wrote “I have staked all on the essential goodness of human nature…” [Now thirty-five years later I realize] how permanent are the evil impulses and instincts of man – how little you can count on changing some of these – for instance the appeal of wealth and power – by any change in the [social] machinery…. No amount of knowledge or science will be of any avail unless we can curb the bad impulse."

Human beings are never as bad as we could be, sure. But we are never as good as we should be. (Rom. 3:23) We can change circumstances, rebuild neighborhoods and provide a safer environment. Governments can and should offer social programs to help the needy and create and enforce just legislation that rewards good behavior and punishes bad behavior. These social changes are good but they do not guarantee individual change. Individuals will have more influence on the environment around them than the environment has on the individual. A bull in a china shop is going to have more of an effect on the china than the china will have on it.

Creating new laws and changing the outside will have some effect on human behavior but it is powerless to change the human heart. Laws are introduced despite human desire not because of it. Law discourage criminals from doing harm. This is good and necessary in this fallen world; if there were no lawbreakers there would be no need for law or law enforcement. But how does one go about getting the criminal to stop desiring to do harms? How does one change his heart?

This is an important point for Christians to grasp. In Christ, we are no longer under law but under grace (Rom. 6:14). This is not to say there is no law for Christians. Rather, the "law" we abide by in Christ is "the perfect law, the law of liberty." (Jas. 1:25) We please the law-giver because we have to; we please the grace-giver because we want to. The "obedience of faith" (Rom. 1:5; 16:26) we render to Jesus is totally motivated by his love and grace toward us. The starting point for all Christian thinking and behavior is what Jesus has already done for us. "We love because he first loved us." (1 Jn. 4:19) We are "obedient" to Jesus "from the heart." (Rom. 6:17)

Let's end with an example from Scripture that illustrates this point. The early church behaved like a family. They took care of one another's needs. The Christians in Jerusalem "were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the things that belonged to him was his own, but they had everything in common... There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need." (Acts 4:32-35; cf. 2:44-46) What a society! How did this come about?

This was not some form of communism where people were obligated by law to share their goods with others. There was no specific commandment to give in this instance. Rather, they "had everything in common" because they "were of one heart and soul." This generosity came from their transformed hearts. The law of liberty freed them from materialism and covetousness to love and care for one another. This is consistent with all forms of benevolence we see Christians engaged in in the New Testament. The Christians at Antioch "determined, everyone one according to his ability, to send relief to the brothers living in Judea." (Acts 11:29) Their generosity was something "determined" in their heart and mind to do. The Christians from "Macedonia and Achaia [were] pleased to make some contribution for the poor among the saints at Jerusalem.” (Rom. 15:26) No one forced them to give; they were "pleased" to do it. In fact, those from Macedonia had to "beg" Paul to be part of the relief effort. (2 Cor. 8:3-4) 

There is a vast difference between Jesus Christ and, say, someone like Karl Marx. They both spoke about "the new man" and "the new society." These expressions are common to the vocabulary of both. But Marx saw the new man as a product of the new society. Change the environment, change the man. Jesus, on the other hand, saw the changed society as dependent upon the making of new men. To quote the Lord, "make the tree good and its fruit good." (Mt. 12:33) Jesus is the only one who has the power to change human nature because he is the only one who can change the human heart. Once the human heart is transformed, there is no limit to the influence for good that a person can have on the world around him. (Mt. 5:13-16)