Our culture abounds with hollow and deceptive theories of change that masquerade as biblical wisdom
By Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp
We live in a culture of false promises—a world that promises us we can avoid chaos, live in freedom, and keep our own agenda and pride intact.
When you are seeking true life change, it’s important to understand the counterfeit solutions that the world offers to the problems in your life. As the apostle Paul said to his fellow believers,
So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness. See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (Col. 2:6-8, NIV)
Paul is concerned that we not allow ourselves to be taken “captive by hollow and deceptive philosophy.” The Greek word translated “taken captive” is actually closer to “abducted” or “kidnapped.” Paul’s point is that we can be abducted by falsehood when we least expect it. He urges us to live with our eyes open to the cultural influences that seek to gain our allegiance when we are not really paying attention.
Paul tells us that we get captivated by hollow and deceptive diagnoses and solutions that present themselves as superior to Christ. Our culture abounds with hollow and deceptive theories of change that masquerade as biblical wisdom, often because they borrow some aspect of biblical truth. Yet they are hollow because they miss the center of biblical wisdom, which is Christ. In some way, they allow the person to live independent of Christ and avoid the deep heart transformation that only Christ can bring about.
What deceptive and hollow alternatives exist in our culture? Following are five myths about how to change:
Myth #1: “I just need to change my circumstances.”
The most popular simplistic approach to change focuses on external circumstances:
- “I need more money.”
- “If I could change my looks, my life would be better.”
- “If I could get married, life would sing.”
- “If I could get out of this marriage and find someone who appreciates me, I wouldn’t be so depressed.”
- “If my children respected me the way they should, I would be nicer.”
Finger-pointing is the strategy, and the goal is to change my life by changing the circumstances around me.
In the garden of Eden, Adam was the first to employ this approach by blaming Eve (and God) for his own sin: “It was the woman whom you gave to be with me.” (Genesis 3:12, ESV). It’s the other person’s fault. If it is not another person, it’s something else—the hard day at work that leads me to snap at you; the lack of money that leads me to cheat on my taxes. In every difficult situation, temptation abounds to blame others.
This approach to change is not only deceptive, but hollow as well. It misses my need for Christ’s redeeming grace, and it places the blame on my sin at God’s doorstep! We blame God for placing the problem, person, or circumstance in our life. We question God’s wisdom, goodness, and character. Obviously, with this approach, the grace of God will not be sought or received.
Myth #2: “I need to change my behavior.”
Sometimes we are willing to acknowledge that the need for change is a little closer to home:
- “I should be more patient and nicer to my wife.”
- “I have to stop blowing up at my kids and start to give more to my church. I should reach out to my neighbors and quit visiting those Internet sites.”
- “I shouldn’t let people’s opinions drive me crazy!”
Very likely, all of these statements are true. Your behavior does need to change! But this approach only addresses external actions. It does not go after the reasons why you continue to do these things. Instead, you simply hope to replace bad behavior with good.
The Bible passages that emphasize the need for new behavior are all built on the foundation of God’s grace at work to change our hearts through the power of the Spirit. The Word and Spirit work together, enabling us to see Christ in all his power and mercy. This leads to heart change at the level of what we worship and cherish at any given moment. This kind of radical heart change reorients me vertically—person to God—and I repent of what I have cherished in place of Christ. This vertical change then leads to new behavior on the horizontal, person-to-person, plane.
An approach to change that only focuses on external behavior is never enough. Biblical change is so much more!
Myth #3: “I need to change my thinking.”
You’ve seen the TV ads. They focus on a social malady like racism or sexually transmitted diseases and end with an upbeat message that education changes people. In this approach to change, your thinking needs to be adjusted so that your behavior will reflect appropriate thoughts about your circumstances.
This view of change is closer to a truly biblical understanding of change, but it is not sufficient. Our expectations and desires do play an enormous role in determining our actions and responses to life, and the Bible does call us to change the way we think about things. But this approach again omits the Person and work of Christ as Savior. Instead, it reduces our relationship to Christ to “think His thoughts” and “act the way Jesus would act.” If you have a problem with anger, you are told to memorize certain verses so that you can recite them in moments of anger. If you struggle with fear, you should read Scripture passages that focus on trusting God when you are afraid.
This emphasis fails to introduce the Person who has come not only to change the way we think about life, but to change us as well. We are more than thinkers. We are worshipers who enter into relationship with the person or thing we think will give us life. Jesus comes to transform our entire being, not just our mind. He comes as a person, not as a cognitive concept we insert into a new formula for life.
Myth #4: “I need to change the way I see myself.”
“Believe in yourself!”
“You’re a good, gifted person. Go for it.”
“You can do anything you put your mind to.”
“Don’t be so hard on yourself.”
This approach to change looks within oneself for the power to change. This seems deeper because it addresses our innermost feelings.
This view begins with a positive view of our innate goodness and the need to affirm our goodness. The more we do, we are told, the more we will be able to love ourselves and others. The great commandment is often cited as biblical proof for this theory of change: “You can’t love God or others if you don’t first love yourself.”
It all sounds so biblical! But it makes assumptions about the human heart that the Bible does not.
The most important assumption this theory makes is that our hearts are empty and need to be filled. But the Bible does not say that we are empty. Rather, it says that we are a cauldron of desires for everything but the true and living God. This approach says that if we feel hollow, it is because the things we pursue are not enough to satisfy what only God can satisfy.
But we are not empty beings! We are rebels against God.
The “self-esteem” solution is deceptive because it seems to capture how we feel inside, but it makes us look far more passive and innocent than we really are. The Bible describes us as defectors and enemies of God who want to fill ourselves with things in creation rather than the Creator (Romans 1:21-25). This view flatters us far more than we deserve.
Scripture’s approach calls us to forsake the things we have sought to fill our emptiness. Before we can be filled with God’s grace, we must engage in intelligent, honest repentance. We have to forsake and demolish the god-replacements that have supplanted the true God in our lives.
Repentance is a form of emptying the heart. James 4:1 says that we fight with others, not because we are empty, but because we are full of desires that battle within us. Along with deep repentance, Scripture calls us to faith that rests and feeds upon the living Christ. He fills us with himself through the Person of the Holy Spirit and our hearts are transformed by faith.
The Bible agrees that guilt and self-loathing can hinder change. On a superficial reading, it would seem plausible that we need lots of affirmation: If I can just deal with this oppressive guilt and increase my self-esteem, then I will be free to live and love.
But this approach is hollow because it does not offer good news for the guilty and self-loathing person. Instead of connecting our guilt and shame to our own sin and rebellion against God, this view downplays our guilt and misses a great opportunity to call us to esteem Christ’s work on our behalf. It obscures the path to real forgiveness, joy, and peace at the cross.
Similarly, the person who labors under a false sense of guilt and shame because of the sins of others against her needs more than affirmation and boosts to her self-esteem. She needs to see that the cross clarifies that she is responsible only for her own sins, not the sins of others that have so deeply wounded her. God’s view of sin lifts her shame and self-loathing by giving her an identity that is rooted in Christ, not in the evil she has experienced.
The cross of Christ shows me how glorious, merciful, and forgiving God is and how great His love is for me in Christ. This recognition of my guilt and God’s glory is the only thing that can eradicate shame and self-loathing. And it is found outside me, not within me. I am called to esteem God, not myself.
Myth #5: “I just need to trust Jesus more.”
You may be surprised we listed this as a myth. The key here is understanding the Jesus I need to trust. In some approaches to change, Jesus is merely a therapist who meets all my needs. But is Jesus my therapist or my redeemer?
If He is my therapist, then He meets my needs as I define them. If He is my redeemer, He defines my true needs and addresses them in ways far more glorious than I could have anticipated.
If Jesus is my therapist, He is the One who comes to affirm me. Instead of trying to love myself, I think about how much Jesus loves me.
Of course, God does shower His love upon us in Christ. Everyone who reads the Bible knows this. But Jesus is not a vending machine who dispenses what we want to feel good about ourselves. He is the Holy One who comes to cleanse us, fill us, and change us.
He does not do this according to our agendas. He will not serve our wayward needs. He loves us too much to merely make us happy. He comes to make us holy. There will be many occasions when He will not give us what we think we need, but rather, He will give us what he knows we need.
You are full in Christ
Everything about God has been revealed in Christ, and when someone becomes a Christian, all that fullness dwells in him. We don’t need anything else to fill us up—we have Christ. This is staggering when you consider the greatness of our glorious, mighty, gracious and holy God.
In 2 Peter 1:4, the Bible says that believers “participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption in the world caused by evil desire.” We do not become divine, but we have the Divine One living in us from the moment we trust in Christ. We have everything we need to live in godly ways. There is no need to be seduced by deceptive and hollow promises of change that lead us away from Christ. These promises will prove to be forms of bondage that enslave us to ourselves and our self-sufficiency. They “protect” us from giving up control and wind up enslaving us to our own agendas.
The fullness of Christ gives us two things: It cleanses us from sin and it raises us to new life! Paul is stressing that the forgiveness of sins brings us freedom over the powers of evil. Our new record and new power are never separated in Scripture and we must keep them together in our lives as well.
Nothing is subtle about the ongoing war that rages throughout the Christian life. Trials and temptations abound, but we respond to them from a new vantage point. J. C. Ryle captures the active reliance upon Christ that is necessary for our sanctification: “Would you be holy? Would you become a new creature? Then you must begin with Christ. You will do nothing at all, and make no progress till you feel your sin and weakness, and flee to Him. He is the root and beginning of all holiness, and the way to be holy is to come to Him by faith and be joined to him.”
Adapted by permission from How People Change, by Timothy S. Lane and Paul David Tripp, New Growth Press, 2006. Two other helpful resources on this topic are Caught Off Guard, by William Smith, and A Quest for More, by Paul David Tripp.
Timothy S. Lane, M.Div., D.Min., is Executive Director of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF), a faculty member, and a counselor with twenty-five years of experience, including ten years as a pastor. He is the coauthor of the books How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making; coauthor of the curriculums Change and Your Relationships and How People Change; and author of the minibooks Conflict; Family Feuds; Forgiving Others; Freedom from Guilt; and Temptation: Fighting the Urge.
Paul David Tripp, M.Div., D.Min., is the President of Paul Tripp Ministries, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to connect the transforming power of Jesus Christ to everyday life. This mission leads Paul to weekly speaking engagements around the world. In addition, Paul is on the pastoral staff at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia; the Professor of Pastoral Life and Care at Redeemer Seminary in Dallas, Texas; and the Executive Director of the Center for Pastoral Life and Care in Fort Worth, Texas. Paul is a best-selling author who has written eleven books on Christian living. He has been married for many years to Luella and they have four grown children.