Can we really make ourselves better?

Each January, the air is full of hope. “This year will be better,” we tell ourselves. We set goals, make resolutions, and vow to be better. Is all this effort worth it? Can we really make ourselves better?

The answer to this question is “yes and no.” There are things we can change. People quit smoking and/or drinking. People develop new healthy eating habits. People make goals and get more of their target projects done. People cultivate a better awareness of others around them, practicing acts of kindness, and working to control their tempers. People dye their hair, get piercings or surgeries to change how they look. There is a lot we can change to make ourselves better in our eyes.

However (and this is a big however), there are some things we cannot change. Some things are just outside of what humans can do. This is easiest to see in other people. We can change things about ourselves, but we cannot change others, not deep down, lasting change. The same thing is true of ourselves if we’re honest about it. Let me explain.

Striving for Perfection

Our inborn desire for better is given by God. We know deep in our souls that life isn’t supposed to be this hard. This is not how God created us to be. When God created the universe and everything in it, He made it good.

God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” Genesis 1:1a (NIV)

What happened? Sin broke the world. Sin is anything we think, say, do, or don’t do that is different from what God says to do.

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” which is God’s perfection. Romans 3:23 (NIV)

When sin entered the world (Gen. 3), it scarred everything. In came the consequences of sin: pain, suffering, broken relationships, and death (Rom. 6:23; Isa. 59:2; Rom. 1:28-2:1). It also scarred the entire human race down to our core. The Bible calls this our sin nature.

Humans are no longer basically good. Even the people we hold up as “good” role models had this sin nature in them. For example, Mother Theresa is lauded by many for her selfless work among the poor. But she wasn’t perfect either. Letters found after her death show she struggled with deep doubts and internal suffering. (Read more here.)

There are lots of ways people try to fix this “bent to make bad choices” or sin nature. People try to improve themselves. They try to make up for the bad they’ve done. They try to do more good than bad, to make the world a better place. They think, “If I just do x, y, z, I’ll be ok and it’ll all work out.” Some try religion, seeking to get on God’s good side. Some simply try to escape from the world and get away from all that bad stuff.

The problem is that none of that works. It doesn’t fix our deep-down sin problem. We can’t reach perfection and the things we try don’t fix our broken relationships with God and other people. So what can we do? How can we make lasting change? I’m so glad you asked.

The Only Way to Lasting Change

God knew we couldn’t fix this sin problem on our own, so He sent His only Son, Jesus, to make things right. Jesus was born into this world as a human just like you and me. The difference was that He was God, so He never sinned and messed up, not even once! (See 1 Peter 2:22 and Hebrews 4:5.) As an adult, He healed people and taught them how to live in a way that pleases God. Then He was killed on a cross, taking our punishment for sin (Rom 6:23). On the third day, He came back to life again, proving He conquered sin and death on our behalf (1 Cor 15:55-57). Now all who confess their sins (tell on themselves to God), and believe in Jesus will be saved (John 3:16; Rom 10:9).

Here’s how the Bible describes what happens at that point.

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.” 2 Corinthians 5:17 NKJV

He has removed our sins from us. He has removed them as far as the east is from the west.” Psalm 103:12 NIRV

“So that’s it?” I hear you ask. “Everything’s perfect from then on?” Well, sort of. It’s what Bible scholars call an “already-not-yet” kind of thing. At the moment you ask Jesus to be your Savior, your sins are completely washed away and your broken relationship with God is restored (made new). God sends His Holy Spirit to live in you to teach you and help you live for Him. This begins the process of sanctification. Sanctification is the process by which God makes us like Jesus. And it’s a process that doesn’t end until we join Him in heaven when we die.

being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Philippians 1:6 (NIV)

How does “sanctification” work?

In the process of sanctification, we are in a bit of a tug-of-war. While we live on this earth, we still have that sin nature within us. The difference is that God has given us victory over it through Jesus. Here’s how Paul described that tug-of-war within believers.

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

“So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Romans 7:15-24 (NIV)

We can live in that victory now as we continue to battle temptation (the pull to want to sin).

“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:1-2 NIV

Sanctification changes what we do when we face sin.

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” Romans 6:1-2 NIV

“No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” 1 Cor. 10:13 NIV

Sanctification also comes through the hard times and struggles of this life.

My brothers and sisters, you will face all kinds of trouble. When you do, think of it as pure joy. Your faith will be tested. You know that when this happens it will produce in you the strength to continue. And you must allow this strength to finish its work. Then you will be all you should be. You will have everything you need. If any of you needs wisdom, you should ask God for it. He will give it to you. God gives freely to everyone and doesn’t find fault.” James 1:2-5 NIRV

Why is this lasting change?

In the health field, you may hear about the difference between treating symptoms and treating the root cause of an issue. The things we try to do which can be found in self-help books merely treat the symptoms. The only thing that can treat the root cause is the Good News of Jesus Christ. Only that addresses our sin nature problem.

God knows us to our inner core (Ps. 139:1-18). He knows us even better than we know ourselves. It is easy to lie to ourselves and say something isn’t that bad. Everyone else can see it, but it’s our blindspot. (I know you’ve seen it in other people. None of us are exempt.) Since God knows us so well, He knows what we need to snap out of it and start living right. He also works in us through the power of the Holy Spirit to bring that change about.

BUT (and this is a big “but”), it only works when we have a relationship with Him through Jesus Christ and listen to Him. Do you? (Learn more here.) If you already have a relationship with Christ, are you listening to Him? Are you seeking to live for Him? (Learn more here.)

Won’t you give the Lord control of your life today?

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