John Ortberg tells of a man in a church he once pastored who, for the purposes of the story, he calls Denny.
Denny was not a happy man. He had attended church his whole life but he had never been happy; not just about church but about life in general. Even the expression on his face was perpetually negative, so much so that one day a deacon asked him, “Denny, are you happy?”
Denny answered, “Yeah.”
The deacon deadpanned, “Then tell your face!”
John attempted to introduce some contemporary music into the church’s services. Nothing radical or outlandish, just a small step towards the twentieth century. Denny did not like contemporary music. He began to voice his concerns by saying that the music was too loud. John tried to explain to him that they were surrounded by people who did not know God and who had never met Christ. Yet, year after year these people drove past the church. John went on to say that, even worse, many of the people in the church weren’t surprised that people kept driving by. They were not even bothered by it. John explained that as Christians they were called to enter into the world of these people, both their cultural world and their intellectual world, and to remove every barrier between them and God except the scandal of the cross. “And that,” John finished, “is why we’re doing what we’re doing.”
Denny looked at him and said, “The music is too loud.”
Denny then began talking to other staff members, the ushers, even strangers in the foyer, saying “Don’t you think the music is too loud?” The leaders of the church addressed the issue. They thought it was settled until a few weeks later when a man came to the church’s office, flashed his badge, and announced that he was an agent from OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Someone had filed a complaint about the decibel levels at the church’s services, and he was under orders to investigate. Who filed the complaint? You guessed it. It was Denny. John and the rest of his staff could only laugh. The agent joined them, saying “Can you imagine the abuse I’ve been getting, coming out to bust a church!”
John’s observation on the entire affair is telling. “Denny is not changing. He is a cranky guy. He has been cranky his whole life. Not just about the church—he does not effectively know how to love his wife, his children cannot relate to him, and he has no joy. He’s been going to church his whole life –sixty years. And nobody is surprised. Nobody in the church is surprised that he stays cranky year after year. No one is particularly bothered by it. It is as if we expect it – that’s just Denny. Nobody is expecting him to be more like Jesus year after year.” (from Re-thinking the Church by James Emery White.)
Now I want to read a Bible passage and then I want you to tell me what you think. READ Galatians 5:13-26.
13 You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ 15 If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.
16 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever[c] you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
19 The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.
What do you think?
Does Denny’s demeanour demonstrate that he is walking in the Spirit? Absolutely not! The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace etc. “Fruit” means “results”. The result of walking with the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. If he had been in the church for 60 years and had been walking with the Spirit for even part of that time, the Holy Spirit would have made changes.
Let’s take it a step further: Does his demeanour demonstrate that he is a Christian? I know that only God can see the heart. I understand that. But if you had to come to a conclusion on the basis of his character, would you conclude that he was a Christian? Jesus did say, “By their fruit you will know them.”
I would say “No” – running the risk of that not being politically correct and some people being offended. Why would I say that? Look at v.24. “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.” Had Denny crucified his passions and desires. No, for Denny it was all about Denny. He wanted the music to suit him. He wasn’t concerned about the effectiveness of the church’s mission. He wasn’t concerned about the eternal destiny of the people in the community. He was concerned about himself. But followers of Jesus are required to die to themselves. Jesus said we cannot be followers without dying to ourselves.
John Ortberg reflected that people in the church excused Denny, saying “That’s just Denny” instead of expecting him to be more like Jesus year after year.
I do not know Denny. I cannot see his heart. But, should the people in his church, when they see his behaviour, be concerned about his salvation? Should they have been making an assessment and have been concerned about his eternal destiny. Should some people have talked to him? We shy away from questions like this. And, as a result, people in our church can die not knowing Jesus.
Denny’s actions fit with the description of the works of the sinful nature: discord, jealousy, selfish ambition, dissension, factions. The passage says, “I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not enter the Kingdom of God.” What does that say about Denny? What does it say about the responsibilities of the people in his church?
But even if he was a Christian, should the people in his church have expected him to be more like Jesus year after year? Do we expect to see transformation? The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Transformation is what the Bible is about. God is able to change people in miraculous ways and there are dozens of examples. We have been talking about the Holy Spirit as God with us. And He is a God of power. Last week, we talked about all of the power God makes available for us. Today, we are talking about the power of God in us – the power of God working in us, transforming us.
Think of Joseph in the Old Testament. At 17 years of age, he was a spoilt brat. It is no wonder his 11 brothers got fed up and hated him (although that does not excuse their actions). Joseph was his father’s favourite, as demonstrated by the gift of the coat of many colours. He told tales on his brothers, to his doting father. He told them all that they were going to bow down to him one day. Joseph had had dreams about that – presumably dreams from God – but he did not have the sense to keep his mouth shut. He could have held onto what God had revealed without annoyingly rubbing their noses in it. Was he blind to the family dynamics? Was he totally self-absorbed? He was immature and arrogant.
But he became a man who walked closely with God, who resisted selfish temptations, who showed wisdom and compassion in delivering many nations from famine, and who was big enough to forgive his brothers for trying to kill him and for selling him into slavery, and who was reconciled to them and, in fact, saved their lives. They had tried to take is life; he responded by saving theirs. He overcame evil with good. God shaped him and moulded him and created a godly man.
Who else can you think of who was radically transformed by the power of God – who started with major flaws but who became a truly admirable man or woman of God?
Galatians 6 contrasts walking by the Spirit, or being led by the Spirit, or living by the Spirit or keeping in step with the Spirit, with gratifying the desires of the sinful nature. In fact, Paul says that the two are in conflict with one another. And we have to choose which will be true of us – being led by the Spirit or gratifying the desires of our sinful nature.
Walking in the Spirit can perhaps be summed up in two things:
- Listening to Him
- Saying “yes”.
As we listen and as we obey, we will be transformed. There are many ways that can happen. Can I suggest three?
- Reading, and reflecting on, the Bible
The Holy Spirit will speak primarily through the Bible – not only through the Bible; we need to be sensitive to His voice speaking directly to us as well, but primarily through the Bible. God has given us the Bible as the primary means of transformation.
When Jesus prayed for the disciples, at the Last Supper, in John 17:17, He prayed, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.” Sanctify them mean “make them holy; transform them.” But note that it is “by the truth; by the word of God”. As we read God’s word, the Holy Spirit is our teacher. Our thinking changes as we increasingly have the mind of Christ. And so we become different people. We are transformed by the renewing of our minds.
Joseph could have remained self-centred. He had been treated badly. He could have resented that and turned inwards feeling sorry for himself and decided that, from now on, he would look after Number One and hurt other people. But, it seems he made a different choice. It seems he submitted himself to God. We are repeatedly told that God was with him. His submission to God meant he chose to do what was right, not what was selfish. And it seems he chose to serve. He served Potiphar very faithfully. It was about Potiphar; it wasn’t about Joseph. He served very faithfully in the prison despite again being let down by others. Which brings us to the third way transformation happens.
- Suffering and failure
Some of the greatest lessons are learned as we struggle with big life issues. The Holy Spirit can use those to change us at our very core. Where did Joseph do his growing? In servitude and in prison – probably struggling with all sorts of questions such as:
- Why me?
- What about that dream of my family bowing down to me? Was that a lie? Has God failed me?
- Should I continue to trust Him? Why would I trust God?
- What does it mean to trust Him?
And when he came face-to-face with his brothers again after they had wanted to kill him and had sold him into slavery:
- They are in my hands. Do I take revenge or do I forgive?
Those are the times the Holy Spirit can change us.
Hebrews 12:10b-11 God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
Do you see anything in yourself that you do not like but have been unable to change? The fruit of the Spirit describe Jesus: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. That is what the Holy Spirit can do is us. We can be Christ-like. But we have to choose which way we will go. Instead of fulfilling the desires of our sinful nature (and we know the power of those desires) walk in the Spirit. Be led by the Spirit every day. Listen to what He is saying and say “yes”.
And you will find that the power of the Holy Spirit is changing you.
2 Cor 4:16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.