When you read about the fullness of life that Jesus and the other New Testament writers exemplify and talk about what do you think?
Surely, you’re drawn to this beautiful way of life –- it is holy, peaceable, centered in God’s goodness, generous, and Spirit-empowered. What if you could grow in Christ to the point that you would be full of the Spirit of Christ like the Apostles in Acts!
Do You Believe that you Can Really Change?
Do you believe that you can really live in God’s abundant life like one of Jesus’ Apostles? That more and more you could actually learn to obey Jesus’ teachings from your heart?
Being able to naturally and routinely bless those who curse you as Paul did.
Overcoming impulsiveness and learning to be faithful to God, as Peter did?
Setting aside anxiety and learning to join Mary and sit still at Jesus’ feet and listen?
Trusting Jesus as your best friend, like John did?
Imagine that more and more you can become like Jesus!
Focus on One Change in Character
The great monk Thomas a Kempis in 1486 said, “If every year we uprooted a single fault, we should soon become perfect.” One year. Have you ever spent a whole year learning one thing from Jesus?
Most of us fail in our efforts to change and become like Jesus because we try hard for awhile and then give up. We try, but we don’t train. We don’t keep our focus long enough and we don’t go deep enough; we don’t develop a plan for how we can work with God’s grace to change to become like Jesus on the inside in that one area.
We suffer from the “gopher hole syndrome”: every time we close up one hole then another pops up! Of course, the holes are just symptoms — the real problem that we need to deal with is the gopher. We need to dig down deep and keep digging till we find that critter and then we can remove him from our yard! When the gopher is gone then the holes will go away.
To change you need to focus on one behavior with God’s help, digging underneath it to deal with your heart in that area over time. Jesus and the authors of Scripture continually direct us to give our “heart” to God, to love him and to love others as he loves us. But today many people don’t even know what their heart is, much less how to change it! In the Biblical understanding your heart is not your emotions; it is your will and orientation for life; it’s the source of the way you live and relate to others.
Real Change is Possible!
Some years ago, with the help of Dallas Willard’s teaching, I began implementing a simple, but systematic process for learning how to change from the inside out by addressing my heart in one area at a time. I wanted to learn how to obey Jesus from my heart. I wanted to learn to become like Jesus!
One at a time God focused me on overcoming particular sins and growing in the love of Christ in that area. For each area I spent many months seeking to become like Jesus with the help of the Word and the Spirit. First, I focused on overcoming lust. Then learning to bless those who curse me. Then rooting out selfish ambition and jealousy. And now, for the last six months I’ve been learning to become the kind of person who rejoices in Christ in all situations.
Of course, I’m a work in progress! I certainly haven’t been perfected in any of these areas! I still have much to learn to become like Jesus –- especially when it comes to rejoicing in all situations! In fact, this issue was particularly difficult for me to be accountable to God for and to accept that by his grace I could really become a more joyous and relaxed person because all of my life I have tended to be burdened by my responsibilities and problems and have been prone to negativity and complaining. I thank God that he is indeed helping me to live in his joy in a way that not only blesses me, but more importantly brings glory to Jesus and care to others.
In our Soul Shepherding ministry of counseling and spiritual direction Kristi and I have been offering to others the same approach that’s helped us. We believe that Jesus Christ is the Wonderful Counselor and that he is present when we meet with clients. Our role as counselors is to assist Jesus in the lives of our clients. As part of psychotherapy or spiritual direction we can help people to connect with the risen Christ through meditation on Scripture and prayer so that they can learn from him how to overcome their struggle.
Along these lines we’ve seen people experience freedom from anxiety, depression, lust and compulsive sexual behavior, anger and unforgiveness, the Dark Night of the Soul, ministry burnout, and other problems.
An Example of a V-I-M Plan for Christlikeness
How can you overcome what you’re struggling with? How can you learn to implement one of Jesus’ teachings in your life? Dallas Willard in his book Renovation of the Heart lays out a basic pattern for personal change or growth: Vision, Intention, and Means. This begins with becoming a disciple of Jesus, which is a decision that many “Christians” have not made. To “Enroll in Jesus’ Master Classes” is the opportunity of a lifetime!
Here’s a personal illustration of a VIM plan that I did. You can apply my VIM plan to an area in your life that God wants to help you to become more like Jesus.
Vision (Seeing Jesus’ gospel of the kingdom offered to me in my struggle/need):
God has given me a new Gospel vision: By his grace to me through Christ I can learn to be a thankful and joyful person in any situation – even as a “melancholy” personality type! Trying to “make things happen” for myself or others is stressful and it disconnects me from God. Having my happiness dependent on my circumstances causes me to become grumpy and negative when things aren’t going well for me. These are false narratives (cultural lies) that I’m replacing with the truth that Jesus Christ has invited me to live with him in the reality of the Kingdom of the Heavens, starting now. The Kingdom of God is wherever he is in charge. It’s primarily a spiritual reality — “For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).
Christ, the King, has risen from the dead! He is present with me always. He is smiling and his arms are open to me. He welcomes me into God’s glorious kingdom, which means that he is active all around me in all the situations of my life and he is ready to govern me in gracious ways as I do whatever I’m doing. Wow! Even in the midst of difficulty or pain or injustice I can connect with Christ, be loved by him, learn from him, be guided by him, and partner with him in ministry to others — that is cause for thanksgiving and rejoicing!
Intention (Choosing with my heart to rely on God to help me become the kind of person he’s shown me that I can be):
This is the dig down deeper step! I have to wrestle with myself at this point because part of me wants to fix my problems myself rather than to rely on God or anyone else to help me. I like to be in control! (Anybody relate?) Being overly self-reliant is why I am prone to slip into getting burdened, complaining, or being impatient when things aren’t working out like I want them to.
Dear Lord, please form my whole heart around the Gospel vision you’ve given me and help me to become a grateful person, joyful in Christ, and ready to be a blessing to others.
Means (Applying specific spiritual disciplines as God’s means of grace in my focus area):
I’m relying on God’s grace to help me to become thankful and happy in Christ by going into training with Jesus, asking him to change my character (choices, thoughts and feelings, bodily disposition, social connections, and soul — the dimensions of the human person identified in Jesus’ Greatest Commandment). I reviewed a Spiritual Disciplines List and asked the Lord to guide me in developing a spiritual workout program. Here’s the rhythm of life with Jesus that I used in my training for over six months:
- Memorize Philippians 4:4-13, 19-20: I’m forming my thoughts and feelings in God’s Word and immersing my soul in the flow of God’s life through praying Paul’s beautiful words in Philippians 4 that teach me the goodness of being a person who is thankful to God in all things; joyful, positive-minded, and content in Christ; generous to others; and eager to bring glory to God with my life.
- Study William Law’s teaching on gratitude and praying the Psalms: Chapter 15 in Law’s ancient classic A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life is “The Singing of Psalms in our Private Devotions” and it inspires me greatly so I keep re-reading it. And I practice it by joyfully singing a Psalm every morning!
- Choose to give thanks in prayer and to praise God: In the mornings I thank God for his blessings to me even in the difficulties I may encounter that day (things that normally I might stress about or try to control) and praise him for his goodness to me. Often I do this by lingering quietly in bed. Reciting Psalm 100 helps me to begin offerings thanks and praise to the Lord. Also, I smile to God!
- Watch and pray in solitude and silence (Matthew 26:41): I realize my vulnerability to complain, worry, or become burdened and impatient when I have problems. To overcome this I’m setting aside time to watch and pray with Jesus in solitude and silence, regularly for five or ten minutes of quiet prayer and at least once a month for extended hours. To watch and pray is to anticipate the coming temptations and to ask God to help me so that when the trials come I would meet them with an appreciation that God is with me to guide and care for me in good ways. God is enough for me! “Lord, whom have I in heaven, but you? Earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 73:25-26).
- Abandon outcomes to God: I’m going into situations submitted to my Sovereign Lord and his will by praying, “Lord, your will, your way, your time.” I want to maintain a disposition of acceptance before God of what is, learning from Jesus as my teacher in all situations, waiting on him and following his leading.
- Prayer Partner: Regularly I confess to Kristi (and others) how I’m doing with this VIM plan, receive feedback from her, receive her affirmations, and ask for prayer. “Christ’s Ambassadors” (2 Corinthians 5:20) help me to rely on God’s grace.
- Seek to bless others as God has blessed me: I am learning to “live in the overflow” of God’s love. What a joy it is to share with others the ways that Christ is ministering to me (including through Scripture and godly people as I illustrated above). So I look to affirm God’s goodness in others –- to encourage and bless them with a smile, kind words, or helpfulness.
Transformation in Christlikeness is a process. The learning and growth come by experimentation, failure, thanking God for his mercy and trying a new approach, and so on. As I go along I have needed to “Re-VIM!” (Revise my VIM Plan) I’ve renewed the Gospel vision of the kind of person God wants to help me become. I’ve continued to wrestle with deeper levels of my heart that are afraid or resistant to being a grateful person no matter what. I’ve revised my means for growing in the grace of gratitude to God based on what I’ve learning about God and myself during my training program with Jesus, my Coach.
The primary source of feedback on how I’m doing in my process of being formed into being a more positive, thankful person like Jesus is what comes out of me when I go through stressful situations, being mistreated, and other trials. As James wrote, “Consider it a sheer gift, friends, when tests and challenges come at you from all sides. You know that under pressure, your faith-life is forced into the open and shows its true colors. So don’t try to get out of anything prematurely. Let it do its work so you become mature and well-developed, not deficient in any way.” (James 1:2-4, MSG)
The Triangle of Soul Transformation
Imbedded in my illustration of using a VIM Plan for transformation is what I call the “Triangle of Soul Transformation.” God’s grace manifests to us through the Holy Spirit, the Word of God, Creation, and the Body of Christ as we interact with God in three primary ways:
- Enthrall Your Mind with Jesus and his Gospel. Jesus shows us that God is our Loving Father and his kingdom is here and now open to us. It’s the best news! But we need to let this Gospel vision wash away our false narratives (cultural lies) for life.
- Accept Trials and Trust Others to Grow. Accept your difficulties as learning opportunities. To help you learn share your struggles and hopes with friends and seek their feedback and prayer. Trials show us how we’re doing with our VIM Plan and any revisions we may need to make.
- Practice Disciplines to Develop Habits of Love. Don’t just try — train with Jesus by developing a “rhythm of life” with him. These are the means of grace, which represent our part in putting ourselves in a position to experience God and hear his voice in order to become more loving people.
It’s About Learning to Obey Jesus from your Heart
Dallas Willard says that the “great omission” in Jesus’ Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) is learning to obey everything that Jesus taught, seeking with purpose and training actually to make progress to become like Jesus — more and more.
In most churches today we don’t explicitly teach people how to obey Jesus’ commands. As a case in point, when was the last time you heard of a class in church or even a sermon on learning how to bless those that curse you? Some of the subjects in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount are touched on from time to time in our churches and Christian groups. Others are not. Rarely do we see concrete training provided for how to actually become the kind of person who obeys a given Bible teaching from the heart.
What Teaching of Jesus’ Might You Focus On?
In the spiritual direction or mentoring that we offer to pastors and leaders/caregivers, as well as in our spiritual formation and soul care classes, we have used the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 to 7) as a guide for developing a personal VIM Plan for transformation in one area of character. Here’s what that looks like:
Which one of Jesus’ teachings from the Sermon on the Mount is the Spirit of God drawing you to learn to live by? Imagine relying on God’s grace and training with Jesus to become a person who is more like the Lord himself! Imagine what it’d be like to become like Jesus in that specific area.
I invite you to pray about picking one of Jesus’ teachings below to develop a VIM Plan for learning how you can actually become more like Jesus in that area. (Or perhaps God will put a different character defect or personal growth area on your heart.)
- Be grateful in the midst of your life problems that you’re blessed because you’re a part of God’s Kingdom (Matt 5:3-11; Beatitudes)
- Appreciate your self-worth as the “salt of the earth” and the “light of the world” (Matt 5:13-16)
- Delight in God’s Law that Jesus fulfilled, like the Psalm 1 Man (Matt 5:17-20)
- Eliminate anger as a ruling emotion, so you don’t lose your temper, seek revenge, or internalize anger as resentment or depression (Matt 5:21-26; 38-42)
- Eliminate contempt, e.g., don’t look down on or speak negatively about other people or groups (Matt 5:21-22; 7:1-6)
- Refuse to cultivate lustful desires (Matt 5:27-30)
- Simply speak the truth in love without trying to get people to think well of you or to do what you want them to do (Matt 5:33-37)
- Bless those that curse; love your enemies (Matt 5:43-48)
- Seek to please God, not people, with your generosity, prayers, or fasting (Matt 6:1-18)
- Eliminate materialism or greed to store up treasure in heaven (Matt 6:19-24)
- Eliminate worry and anxiety by trusting your Heavenly Father and submitting to his kingdom rule (Matt 6:25-34)
- Ask God for what you need (including Christ’s Ambassadors who help you to connect to God) rather than negating yourself or being overly dependent on other people (Matt 7:7-11)
- Be kind; be considerate and take initiative to do for others as you’d like them to do for you (Matt 7:12; Golden Rule)
- Stay on the narrow path of discipleship to Jesus in all you do – becoming as the good tree that’s rooted in God and naturally bears fruit, building your life on the rock of Christ and his words, not the shifting sands of circumstances (Matt 7:13-27)
Do you really want to become this kind of person? You probably have some mixed feelings and some wrestling to do. What is your hesitation or resistance? What do you have to give up to learn to obey Jesus in this area?
If you have a good vision from God then it will compel you to set aside any resistances and to endure the short-term pain of change for the better life that is ahead of you in the Kingdom of God.
What spiritual practices might you incorporate into your life, as your means of grace to help you to become more like the disciple of Jesus you’ve envisioned?
Select a few practices from our Spiritual Disciplines List (being sure to balance disciplines of abstinence and engagement) to train with Jesus to become more like him with the issue you identified. Exercises can be done daily, weekly, monthly, or as needed. In order to grow in godliness we need to learn from Jesus’ Rhythm of Life. When we practice a rhythm of life with Jesus and stick with it for a number of months, adjusting the rhythm as the Lord directs, we will experience profound personal growth.
Here are some examples of fundamental spiritual disciplines that people have found helpful to use in their plan for transformation:
- “Watch and pray” to overcome your struggle by relying on God’s grace (Matthew 26:41). To change you need to anticipate the kind of situations ahead in which you will be tested in this area and then pray specifically that God will help you to turn away from your temptation and to reach out for Christ’s hand of grace. (Relying on your own natural abilities to do what you should when you are stressed will not lead to change! With Christ’s help you need to become a different kind of person on the inside.) Write a short prayer that you can repeat often, perhaps based on a Bible verse that expresses the inner change and deeper trust in Christ that you want to develop…
- Identify a Scripture passage related to your struggle to meditate on or memorize…
- Select a discipline of self-denial (e.g., silence, solitude, fasting, submission, frugality, slowing) that will make space for you to engage more deeply with Christ…
- Pick a trusted and respected soul friend (or group) that you can share with for prayer, confession of struggles, and encouragement…
- Other spiritual discipline(s) to use…
We have a pdf template that you can customize to develop your own personal VIM Plan as a Rhythm of Life, picking disciplines that fit your need.
Is Jesus’ Yoke Really Easy?
In one sense, change isn’t easy. As you can see, it requires that you implement a comprehensive plan over time. But in another sense change is easy, because your whole life will flow much better as you learn to follow Jesus from your heart. I like to say it this way: Jesus’ yoke is easy, but getting into his yoke and learning to stay there is not easy. (See our Soul Shepherding articles on the Easy Yoke.) For instance, in reference to my personal VIM Plan above I have been learning how much easier my life is, including dealing with stress and unfairness, when I’m the kind of person who is consistently grateful to God.
Another way that your life can get easier is that if over time you stayed with your spiritual formation training plan of learning to obey Jesus in one area then you’d see growth in other areas of your character also! That’s because the things that you need to do to really change your character in one area will facilitate improvement in other areas as well.