“Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Then may you also do good who are accustomed to do evil.” (Jeremiah 13:23)
Because of the people’s persistence in sin, the Lord spoke through the prophet Jeremiah…can the Ethiopian change his skin that is by nature black, or the Leopard his spots? The Israelites had served an apprenticeship to evil. They had been long accustomed to sin and had shaken off all restraints. Their consciences had been seared, and the habits of sin had been thoroughly entrenched.
How true this is for the men who come to us for help.
Four verses later, the Lord spoke again through Jeremiah, “I have seen your adulteries and your lustful neighings, the lewdness of your harlotry, your abominations on the hills in the fields. Woe to you, O Jerusalem! Will you still not be made clean?” (Jeremiah 13:27) Amazingly, the Lord’s offer of forgiveness and transformation still awaited them if they would only repent and be willing to change.
I can think back on many situations when a hopeless counselee sat in front of my desk, despondent and bemoaning, “I’ll never change” or “I’ve always been this way.” In fact, I once sat in that same chair, thinking the same thoughts, being bound for so many years in my own sin. Now having been set free for almost twenty years, those words don’t hold much water with me.
If we are going to begin this journey to experience God’s transforming power working in our lives, however, we must first understand that we are creatures of habit.
God Made Us Creatures of Habits
My first time behind the wheel of a car, I braved my way onto what we call in New York the Southern State Parkway. The car I was driving seemed as though it was two lanes wide. Fixated on the speedometer, mindful of all the floor pedals, and overcome with everything I had to do, I strained to keep this massive piece of machinery from lurching totally out of control. It was quite an experience to say the least.
Many driving experiences later, I could cruise down 5th Avenue in New York City, cabs darting here and there, an egg sandwich in my hand, coffee between my legs, shifting gears, navigating between the obstacles, not even thinking about what I was doing. How did that happen?
God gave man a marvelous capacity called habit. Whenever we do something long enough, it becomes part of us, or like second nature to us. It becomes an unconscious pattern. We perform highly complex behaviors without even thinking about them. It really is a gift from God. Imagine if you had to think through every little detail of what you do.
Here’s the problem. We are born with a sin nature, bent on pursuing sinful behaviors. Many of us have given over habitually to sin, to where it has become part of us. The Bible talks about a heart that has been trained in covetousness, one that has faithfully practiced coveting so much so that it has become second nature to do it. We sometimes look at what we have become and ask ourselves, how did this happen to me? My answer to you would be, by much practice.
So here now is the good news…it works both ways. We can’t avoid habitual living, but we can apply it to do what God tells us to do in His Word to where godliness becomes natural to us. Paul tells us to discipline ourselves for godliness. (1Timothy 4:7)
We Can Practice Godly Habits
Next, we must understand how to develop new godly habits. Consider Ephesians 4:22-24 which commands that we “put off, concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.” The process of change is begun by putting off sin and putting on godliness.
Just because we stop doing something doesn’t mean we have changed. A thief isn’t a thief anymore just because he isn’t stealing. He’s just a thief who isn’t stealing at the moment. Given the right circumstances and pressure, he is likely to revert back to his old habits. To commit to real change he must go out and get a job, and learn how to become a giver of what he has instead of being a taker.
As we obey God’s Word in this way, the Holy Spirit promises to “renew our mind,” the final and most decisive step in the journey of change. Over time, He will “renew” the way we think, what we think about, and, in fact, even what we desire. A proper word for all of this is sanctification, the process by which the Holy Spirit transforms our sin nature into Jesus’ glorious nature. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (Galatians 5:22-23)
Developing New Habits Take Time
The problem a lot of us have with this process is that it takes time and perseverance. My advice to you is don’t grow weary while doing good, for in due season you will reap if you don’t lose heart. (Galatians 6:9)
Allow me to share an illustration. A stone cutter hammers away at a rock. He might hit the rock a hundred times without so much as a crack showing. Then suddenly, at the 101st blow the rock splits in two. Was it the one blow that split the rock? Only in an immediate sense, as that one blow would have accomplished nothing if it were not for all that had gone before.
For some of you, sin is like a massive rock that blocks any growth you might otherwise have in the Lord. It seems impossible to break or even move. But the Lord promises a breakthrough and a renewing of our mind if we will only keep going.
Change is hard and takes endurance. Hebrews 10:36 says, “For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise.”
I know how it feels to be bound to the old man. Sin had become an unbreakable rock and an immovable mountain in my own life. But now, it fills my heart with thanksgiving and joy to proclaim from the mountaintops that there is an almighty grace that is able to change the leopard’s spots. And that grace is available to anyone who sees their need and seeks it earnestly through prayer and repentance.
The same prophet Jeremiah declares, “Ah, Lord GOD! Behold, You have made the heavens and the earth by Your great power and outstretched arm. There is nothing too hard for You.” (Jeremiah 32:17) Jesus Himself assures us, “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God.” (Luke 18:27)
Hallelujah! That’s not just hype; it’s the reality of what Jesus accomplished on Calvary for all who are bound in sin. Be encouraged, beloved, God is in the business of changing people.
Jeff Colón is a minister of the Assemblies of God. He held various positions during his 22 years with Pure Life Ministries. Jeff holds an MDiv and BA in Biblical Counseling from Master’s International School of Divinity. He recently branched out on his own, launching Lighthouse Biblical Counseling Center in Dry Ridge, Kentucky.
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