Just Smile More

I was greeted in the dining hall line that day at Bible College by a friend who was smiling big. That was notable because she wasn’t really known for her smile. That’s not a criticism. Some people, like my wife, have a beautiful, sparkling smile that they share with everybody. [That’s her in this blog.] Others are more like me—I have to think about smiling. My resting face is a scowl. This friend’s smile was between my wife’s smile and my own. Maybe the reason we were friends is because we shared similar senses of cynicism and sarcasm.

But she was smiling brightly and told me why. “A friend told me that I needed to smile more and be happier and so I am.” I probably said something like, “Oh, sounds good” and we got our food. On the inside I might have been thinking, “good luck with that.”

I’ve thought about that simple exchange over 30 years ago just recently. Some Christians—I am one of them—have the tendency to mistakenly believe we can change ourselves with just the right amount of willpower. Not smiling enough? Just work at smiling more. Spending too much time on social media? Just stop it. You can do it. Struggling with pornography? You don’t need to tell anyone. You can defeat this on your own. And wouldn’t that be better than admitting your sin to a friend and asking for help?

We do need to put effort into our growth. The New Testament is clear on that.

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Phil 2:12–13 (ESV)

Work out your salvation means to put effort into your growth; to work hard at change. But it’s always God’s work in you that actually results in your work making you more like Christ.

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. 1 Cor 15:10 (ESV)

Paul gives us a grace sandwich. It was God’s grace—but he worked harder than anyone—but it was the grace of God. The lazy Christian is not a growing Christian. We have to work.

But you have never changed yourself. It is always the Spirit through Scripture that changes you. So if you’re struggling with a besetting sin, it’s better for you to pray more than to work more. Prayer shows dependence upon God. Of course you need to do both: pray and work. But it’s God’s work that makes your work effective. We don’t even want to change (Phil 2:13) unless God changes us. He has to give us even the desire to change (“to will and to work”).

Why is this so important? Why write a blog on a smile from 30 years ago? Because this view of sanctification emphasizes me and my work, not God and his work. It’s a gospel problem because the gospel doesn’t go far enough. It gives me a future, but I don’t really need it right now. I’m able, through my own willpower, to change myself. Not very happy; decide to be happy and presto, I smile more.

You and I need the gospel for our salvation, but also our sanctification. Your salvation should work out in your sanctification. The gospel changes you (2 Cor 5:17) and keeps changing you. Are you stuck? Don’t put on a big smile. Work hard and ask God to make your work effective.

I’ve written on imitations of biblical growth that aren’t real growth here.