Sometimes friends ask me what I have been reading recently. Often my mind goes blank- I know I have been reading books but I can’t for the life of me remember what they were about. So I’m hoping that writing up lessons that I have picked up from my reading will at least be of benefit to me!
I’ve recently finished reading Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp’s book How People Change. I have read a number of books by Tripp in the past and have come to appreciate his applied theology. “Good theology has power when it is applied to daily life,” he writes and this book is a model of precisely that. It is written into the realities of suffering, family difficulties and the like that Tripp has encountered in his counselling work. But rather that coming up with simplistic solutions the book spends time applying the Gospel into the heart conditions that underlie many of life’s challenges. That means that the book isn’t a simple read but it is worth spending time in reflection on it. And indeed How People Change is realistic- change takes time.
The book seeks to address what the authors call the ‘Gospel Gap’. They describe it in these terms: “We live with some sense of the past forgiveness of our sins and the future promise of heaven, but without understanding or experiencing the power of the Gospel in the present.” The problem is that we say that we believe the Gospel and yet the reality of our thoughts and lives often lag far behind what might be expected. Lane and Tripp are critical of the fact that much preaching fails to apply the Gospel to the reality of daily life- and I suspect I probably need to plead guilty to that. So how should the Gospel produce change in the practicalities of life?
Lane and Tripp take us to a picture of a garden (but in a simple enough way that even I could understand it…) There are four things in the garden- heat, thornbushes, the cross (which is portrayed as a tree to keep the image going) and the fruit tree. The question that is posed is this- when the heat comes on, how can we see fruit grow in our lives rather than thorns?
The first reality is the heat- the picture of the sun beating down on the garden. The real world is marked by pressure, suffering and temptation to a greater or lesser extent for all of us. “On this side of heaven we all live under the heat of trial in some way.”
They note that trials tend to produce thorns in us. That picked up something that I have been reflecting on recently. Generally speaking in Scripture (I know there are exceptions) it doesn’t seem to be the case that individual suffering on earth is due to an individual’s sin. For instance, if a person has an illness it is not often a punishment for sin. However, we need to face the reality that the reverse is true- we often sin in the way in which we suffer. These are the thorns growing as a result of the heat.
This works out in different ways. Tripp and Lane use the example of a husband coming back from a stressful day at work looking forward to a relaxing time at home. However, he returns to the chaos of children shouting and demanding attention. His response is anger and frustration. In some ways it would be easy to blame the difficult situation (The Heat). In reality, though, the heat has simply exposed the selfish desire for ease, comfort and control that existed within the man’s heart.
Other thorns are mentioned- for instance our tendency to find our identity in our problems rather than in Christ, the sad fact that our response to pressure is all too often an unhealthy escapism and the shifting of blame on to others which is as old as Genesis 3. The book is not afraid to ask probing questions about our natural responses to difficult situations and expose the idolatries that often underpin them. Whilst that is challenging to read, it is nevertheless a vital step in the path towards change for it is only when we recognise the thorns in our hearts that we appreciate our need of the Lord Jesus.
The key to change is the cross of the Lord Jesus. However, this is not simply a matter of past forgiveness but also the amazing reality that the Christian is now united with the crucified and risen Lord. When I recognize my need for change I discover that this is possible because Christ now lives in me. The apostle Paul’s comment in Galatians 2 is quoted- “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” I found this emphasis really helpful: as I’ve written previously I’m convinced that grasping our union with Christ is the key to change. We need to find our identity in that union and not in anything else- seeing ourselves as those united with Jesus who have to face illness, depression, loneliness, temptations and the like. Lane and Tripp put it well,
“We base our lives on the fact that because Jesus lives in us, we can do what is right in desire, thought, word and action, no matter what specific blessings or sufferings we face, Our potential is Christ! When we really believe this and live it out, we start to realize our true potential as children of God. We start to see new and surprising fruit mature in our lives.”
As we treasure Christ and our union with Him more than anything else, fruit does appear in the garden of our lives. Again there is an encouraging realism here: the authors point out that, if we are Christians, we already are producing fruit because of Christ’s work in us. We are not to deny the evidence of the transformation worked in our hearts (others will often see it much clearer than we do.) Real change does happen even in the midst of heat because of the work of Christ for us and in us. When this fruit appears it is a sign of what Christ has done:
“The harvest of good consequences is a hymn to the presence, grace, love, wisdom and power of our Redeemer.”
The book ends with two encouraging stories- of how a couple in severe marriage difficulties and how a church that was stagnating were transformed by acknowledging the thorns in their hearts and by turning to Christ for forgiveness and the power to change.
This is a book that doesn’t pull its punches but I was left grateful for that in that it turned me away from my sinful self and towards the Lord Jesus who alone has the power to change us at the deepest level.