Personality unchained [Does God want to change your personality? pt. III]

personalityThe most drastic transition in all of life is birth. Think about an infant in the womb. She isn’t far from the outside world—in fact, it’s all around her. She can already see and hear signs of the outside world, but only with veiled senses. She’s inches from the light of this world and yet lives in relative darkness. We can now take snapshots of her in the womb and have an early sketch of what she looks like. Still, we await the birth to get the first true glimpse.

From the moment the child was created in the womb, she was made for life in this world. She’s already very much alive, but for the rest of time, we’ll mark her span of life by the date of her birth, when she came out of the darkness and into the light. The Spanish-speaking world recognizes the significance of that transition––to give birth is to “dar a luz,” literally “to give light.”

God wants to change your personality—drastically

Some of the New Testament’s most common metaphors about spiritual life refer to darkness, light, and birth.

Jesus calls himself the light of the world and says, “Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”[1. John 8:12]

A letter to one of the earliest churches declares,

God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.[2. 1 John 1:5-7]

That movement from darkness to light comes from a new birth. “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again,” says Jesus to a man named Nicodemus.[3. John 3:3]

I’ve been writing about personality, and in the past few weeks, I’ve defined personality as disposition + mental health + character.

The new birth we’re considering affects far more than our personalities. But as our personalities go, I believe this new birth may be as drastic a transition as our original births.

I shared in an earlier post that we shouldn’t expect God to change someone’s disposition. God has graced you with a beautiful disposition––whether outgoing or introverted, carefree or cautious, especially emotional or logical. Those aspects of who you are should be celebrated and accentuated, not masked or diminished.

I shared in another post why we should see mental health in a category of its own. We do ourselves and others a lot of harm when we confuse a mental health problem for a character problem, or when we neglect to see the way that problem may be distorting someone’s true, God-given disposition.

The drastic change in our personalities comes because of a change in character––a move from walking in darkness to walking in light. Pride is transformed to humility, wrath to patience, greed to charity. Above all, we become people whose character is defined by love. One of John’s letters makes the connection clear:

Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates a brother or sister is still in the darkness. Anyone who loves their brother and sister lives in the light, and there is nothing in them to make them stumble. But anyone who hates a brother or sister is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness. They do not know where they are going, because the darkness has blinded them.[4. 1 John 2:9-11]

I believe God very much wants to change this part of your personality. Take any disposition and saddle it with malice, deceit, hypocrisy and envy, and you’ll have a perverted version of God’s original creation.

Overlay the same disposition with love, faithfulness, integrity and kindness, and you’ll see not just a brand new person, but the old person as they were made to be. You won’t see someone who isn’t himself anymore. You’ll see someone who is more himself now than he ever was.

Kill the old self?

In his letter to the Ephesian church, Paul tells them to put off the old self and put on the new self. This may be the cause for people’s belief that their personality—disposition included—requires a total overhaul if they want to be a Christian. “The old self needs to die. Whomever I become should be a different person entirely,” they think.

But look at the full teaching. It urges people “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.” [5. Ephesians 4:22-24] Paul isn’t urging a wholesale change of the person, so that we’ll see no resemblance between the old and the new. He urges a removal of those things that corrupt, so that true righteousness and holiness can shine through.

Yes, die to yourself. Die to all selfish ambition and vain conceit. But don’t kill the creature of God underneath. God’s grace doesn’t kill your personality. It doesn’t change you into someone you’re not. It allows who you really are––who you were made to be––to be seen.

Two common mistakes

We commonly make two mistakes when we think about our character and what God does:

1 – Expect no change.

The church has promoted all kinds of horrible tag lines that ignore the way that God’s grace transforms us.

  • “Not perfect, just forgiven.”
  • “This church is full of hypocrites, but we can squeeze in one more…”
  • “Of course I keep on sinning. I’m human.”

These may contain kernels of truth, but they contain far more to deceive us. To the contrary, John writes things like, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them,” [6. 1 John 3:9] and, “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” [7. 1 John 4:8] If we expect our character to remain unchanged by God’s grace, how small is our faith?

As much as C. S. Lewis is revered today, we haven’t often taken him seriously on this point:

The command “Be ye perfect” is not idealistic gas. Nor is it a command to do the impossible. He is going to make us into creatures that can obey that command. …If we let Him—for we can prevent Him, if we choose—He will make the feeblest and filthiest of us into a god or goddess, a dazzling, radiant, immortal creature, pulsating all through which such energy and joy and wisdom and love as we cannot now imagine, a bright stainless mirror which reflects back to God perfectly. His own boundless power and delight and goodness. The process will be long and in parts very painful; but that is what we are in for. Nothing less. He meant what He said. [8. Mere Christianity, 1952; Harper Collins: 2001, 205-206]

2 – Expect instant maturity

A child’s birth is miraculous, but it’s also traumatic. Over nine months’ time, that child learned how to live well in the womb. It can take time to learn how to live in the new world outside the womb––to adjust to the light, to breathe and eat for the first time. The event has brought about a dramatic change, but maturity will take time.

Similarly, we need to be careful not to expect instant maturity from new Christians. They are, in many ways, living in a new world and trying to understand how it works.

From all that I’ve read in Scripture and Christian theology, I believe God’s grace removes all hatred and outward rebellion at once. These are the things of darkness and have no place in the light.

But in our immaturity, we can make foolish and naive decisions. We may rush headlong into new convictions without proper forethought, grace, or tact.

In our immaturity, our selfish ambition and vain conceit may continue to hinder us. By God’s grace, we should expect these to be chipped away in us, but we can’t expect them to be gone at once. Just as with the newborn, the drastic transition from light to darkness precedes a lifelong process of growth. We deny ourselves and take up our cross daily. [9. Luke 9:23]

Yes, God wants to change your personality. He wants to transform your character so that you may be like God in true righteousness and holiness––the way you were created to be from the beginning. Have you experienced that transformation? And are you experiencing it still?

God is not far from any one of us. Though we may see only dimly and hear as if with stopped up ears, God’s call is for us to come out of darkness into his wonderful light.[9. 1 Peter 2:9] He is willing, and he is able.

Next week: Want to get the most out of a sermon? Are you listening for these 3 things?


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