Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:17-18)
My kids are growing into adults. I stand by with some amazement as they change and develop into what I hope are the people they are meant to be—the people that God created them to be. My job is to help them reach that goal. It’s not always easy to know how to do it. Christian parents in today’s world have a difficult challenge, trying to impart values and Christlike character to their children. These things count for little, in the world at large. Some parents throw in the towel early, letting their kids run wild, swept along with popular culture and the media which drives its values. On the other side are those who impose strict rules which leave their kids feeling limited and controlled. If the child experiences harsh treatment and arbitrary legalism, they might be forced to comply, but otherwise live in contradiction to the parent’s values, hiding their true behavior and abandoning those values the first chance they get.
The Bible gives us a model for parenting. It’s the perfect model, in fact. It’s the guidance that comes from love. It is the thing that changes not just external behavior, but hearts. It’s not external rules by themselves, but an internal transformation. That’s not just the case for children; we’re all in the process of becoming the people we are meant to be.
My growth as a person didn’t come from rules, though I’ve found that rules can be helpful when I view them correctly. Which isn’t always the case; I’ve had a tendency to rebel when rules have been forced on me. I am not the person I am at today because of rules, but because of a transforming work of the Spirit within me. When I was younger, I didn’t want holiness in my life. I didn’t have an interest in it, and no amount of rules could change that. It is something I came to desire because he changed me, and not because something was pressed on me from the outside.
This has been the impact of Christian belief across cultures over the last 2000 years. People can and do change as they follow Christ, but not because they are told to comply. They change because something happened within them. A case in point is slavery. Once a broad multi-cultural institution at the center of the world’s economy, it has largely been extinguished because of the power of Jesus Christ in the hearts of men and women. I think of William Wilberforce, a Christian whose efforts resulted in the elimination of the slave trade in England. He followed the convictions of his heart—convictions rooted in love. Not because the Bible has a rule to eliminate slavery (though it does in Exod. 21:16; also see Gal. 3:28), but because we inherently oppose it when we share the heart of Christ. In Ephesians 6:9, Paul gives instructions to slave owners:
And masters, treat your slaves in the same way. Do not threaten them, since you know that he who is both their Master and yours is in heaven, and there is no favoritism with him. (Eph 6:9)
Some have taken this to indicate that Paul is in favor of slavery. But if you read his words, you realize that the values he impresses on them (based on the idea that we have the same Lord), if they take root in their hearts, must lead to its abolition. And that’s exactly what happened—first in England, then here in the United States. Not because of external rules, but because we received new hearts. Hearts which have been changed by His power. Hearts which are like His heart.
Paul talks about this transformation in 2 Cor. 3:17-18. The law of Moses was filled with external rules, but it didn’t make people long for the things that God yearns for. It only led to rebellion. In Christ, we don’t have a law; we have the freedom of the Holy Spirit. We don’t have a veil separating us from the presence of God, as they did in the Old Testament; we have His presence within us. But the freedom we have apart from the law is not a freedom to sin; it’s the freedom to choose holiness because we yearn for it, the way He does. It’s the freedom to be the people we were meant to be, because he changes us from the inside out, to become that person.
As a dad, I provide boundaries for my kids, but that’s not my core mission. My mission is to lead them closer to Christ through love. Not to make them conform to rules for their own sake, but to help them become people who are like Jesus in their hearts. When I see them lift their hands in worship, I know that something is happening within them. I know because it happened to me also. And it continues, until the day I am with Him. It will happen to you too. Trust in the Lord; invite the Spirit into your life. Ask him to change your heart, to make it like his heart. It’s what you were always meant to be.