My oldest daughter famously found her mother’s lipstick when she was about two years old, and she thought she knew what to do with it. I remember sitting in front of my desktop computer as she glided into the den with lipstick approximately on her lips. Clearly she didn’t know exactly where her lips were. She thought she looked so growny (a Southern expression that means grown up), but she actually looked like a cute little kid. It kinda looked like growth, but it wasn’t.
For the biblical counselor, not just any change will do. It’s possible for your counselee to experience change that doesn’t glorify God but does kinda look like real spiritual growth. It happens all the time with unbelievers. AA does help many quit drinking which is a net benefit to society. I’m thankful for every drunk that quits drinking. But it isn’t change that glorifies God.
And our change does need to honor God. Listen to how Paul prays for the Philippian believers.
Philippians 1:9–11 (ESV) And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, 10 so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
Paul expected Christians to grow (cf. Col. 1:9-11). He says in verse 11 that the type of change that he is praying for results in the glory and praise of God. It’s possible for your counselee to change in a way that doesn’t glorify God. There are all sorts of ways to change that don’t result in praise and honor for God. Here are some examples.
Substitutes For Biblical Change
Change by willpower—I can do it myself. Lots of Christians attempt to change themselves this way, and some succeed. But it’s not change that glorifies God. Pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps glorifies you, not God. Some very disciplined counselees seem to accomplish this. However, when you change by your own willpower, you proclaim that you don’t need God’s grace.
Change through circumstances—I will be different if I am in a different situation. “If my wife would get off of my back, I wouldn’t get so angry.” “If we just had separate bank accounts, my wife and I wouldn’t argue about the finances.” Changing jobs, changing churches, or changing families doesn’t change you.
Change by spookiness—“I will just let go and let God. I don’t have to do anything; God will magically change me.” Hmm…I think God gave us a lot of commands in the New Testament that he expects us to work at obeying. Another more subtle version might be, “I will pray really hard that God would change me.” Good, but not enough.
Change by decision—I lay it all on the altar. I make a series of decisions during revivals or missions conference or other special services at my church. But a decision is just the beginning of the change process. It is not change itself.
Change by man-centered means—self-esteem or other worldly theories. “If I just felt better about myself, I wouldn’t do that.”
Change by exchange—This is a popular one. This is where you just trade one idol for a more socially acceptable one. You quit finding your comfort in food and now you find it in eating right and dieting. You’re the poster boy for good health, but all you’ve done is rearrange the furniture of your life. You quit finding your comfort in shopping and now you find it in how well you manage your finances. You quit finding your escape in alcohol, and now you find it in mindlessly watching YouTube videos. You’ve exchanged one way of obtaining your idol for another one, but you haven’t given up your idolatry.
None of these methods are the story of sanctification. Most of them are unbiblical. Therefore, we cannot use them to change ourselves or our counselees.
So what is God-glorifying spiritual growth? Well that needs to be the subject of another blog, but what we can say is there is a human-divine dynamic in spiritual growth. God prunes us (John 15:2), but growth is not one-dimensional—it’s not all about what God does. Every Christian has a responsibility too; we must put effort into our growth. Always being dependent upon God to change us, but it only happens as we work at it. You work hard, but you have never changed yourself. It’s always been God’s work in you. It’s responsible dependence.
We see that clearly in Colossians 1:29 (cf. Phil 2:12-13) where Paul says, For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me. (ESV)
Christian growth is never the two things we want it to be: fast and easy. And maybe that’s why some of those substitutes are so tempting. They promise a quicker route to growth. But it takes hard work. Why else would the Christian life be described as a walk (Gal 5:16), a race (1 Cor 9:24-27), a wrestling match (Eph 6:10-12), and a fight (2 Tim 4:6-7)? Each of those metaphors pictures struggle and difficulty and effort.
Don’t take shortcuts to spiritual growth that aren’t really growth after all. Make sure your counselees understand their dependence upon God and their responsibility to God.