Book Review – You Can Change, by Tim Chester
First published 25 January 2010
When I saw Tim Chester’s book, You Can Change (IVP 2008) on the church bookstall I was intrigued. It touched a nerve. There are things in my life I am not proud of that I would like to change. It seems sometimes like I have been trying to change them for years without success. And here is a book that offers some encouragement. You can change!
I already had some sense of Tim Chester’s penetrating insight into human nature through part-reading The Busy Christian’s Guide to Busyness. But I did not expect the seismic impact You Can Change has had.
I can honestly say that You Can Change is one of the most refreshing Christian books I have ever read – and I have read quite a lot. It ranks alongside Desiring God and The Pleasures of God, by John Piper, and Knowing God, by J.I.Packer, at the top of my reading list. I concur with Tim Keller’s endorsement, when he writes, “A book about Christian growth that is neither quietistic nor moralistic is rare. A book that is truly practical is even rarer. This volume falls into both categories.” Paul Tripp says that You Can Change is, “Shockingly honest, carefully theological and gloriously hopeful.”
My approach to reviewing the book will be to highlight the things that have made an impact on me personally, and will, according to the Holy Spirit’s gracious work, change me. Through sharing the way the book helped me, I hope to commend it to you.
Biblical, doctrinal and practical
Like a well-balanced expository sermon, You Can Change weaves Biblical exposition, careful doctrinal teaching and penetrating practical insight with challenging specific applications. This, it has to be said, is what makes it great.
Every main point is backed up with exposition of relevant Bible texts. So the entire progression of thought throughout the book is anchored in Biblical wisdom.
Perhaps even more surprising, but pleasing in the age in which we live, is the freedom with which doctrines are brought into the argument. Many popular writers shy away from talking about doctrines, perhaps partly on the basis that the modern church is so theologically illiterate and therefore many readers would not understand the meaning of “sanctification” or “justification”. Or perhaps it’s also partly a desire not to be labelled and pinned to any theological school, especially if that happens to be Reformed/Calvinist. Tim Chester does not show any reticence in this, freely showing how the doctrines of justification, sanctification, repentance and faith work together. I will come back to one way in which this helped me later.
But of equal importance is Tim Chester’s supreme gift of understanding human nature and motivation. Chapter after chapter he unlocks the deepest urges that move us to sin, shows they are dealt with in the Bible and gives the Biblical antidote. This is what makes the book so rare. It carries the reader seamlessly through primary Biblical texts and systematic theology through to practical application.
Neither is practical application an afterthought. Not only is there helpful application in the chapter text itself, but the questions for reflection are also extremely helpful. He also has a section of questions at the end of each chapter to help you with your own “change project”. This enables the reader to road test and learn to apply the Biblical principles laid out in the book.
This was one of the main reasons that I took nearly 6 months to finish reading the book, even though it has less than 200 pages. If you are serious about growing and changing into the likeness of Christ, you need to take time to understand your heart and understand how God works in your life through the Spirit, based on Christ’s work. The questions at the end of each chapter are not, as they are in so many popular Christian devotional books, almost superfluous and disconnected. They are a core part of the objective of the book, and I would contend that your progress in the Christian life will be less sustained if you skip them.
Sanctification is by faith
“Sometimes people say conversion is all God’s work, but sanctification is a co-operation between us and God. Neither statement is entirely true. Conversion is all God’s work, but we have a responsibility to respond with faith and repentance. It turns out that faith and repentance are also God’s work in us, his gift to us. God opens blind eyes; God grants repentance (Mark 8:18-30; 2 Corinthians 4:4-6; 2 Timothy 2:25). That’s why conversion is entirely an act of God’s grace. But, at God’s initiative and with God’s help, we’re involved. And it’s the same with sanctification. Sanctification is God’s work. But we’re not passive. We have to respond with faith and repentance. And it turns out that faith and repentance are God’s work in us. So salvation from start to finish is God’s work, in which we are active participants through faith and repentance by the grace of God. We work hard, but then say with Paul, ‘It was not I, but the grace of God that was in me’ (1 Corinthians 15:10, ESV). ‘Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose’ (Philippians 2:12-13).” (pp62-63)
I admit I am one of those people who, for practical purposes, acted as if I had been justified by grace through faith, but had to take personal responsibility for my Christian growth (sanctification). So I was living with severe guilt, wondering if God was punishing me for failing him time and time again. I tried making vows, praying hard, reading more of the Bible. But Tim Chester’s book uncovered the fact I was doing this to try to impress God, to earn His favour when God has already done everything necessary to bring us all His riches without any of our works.
Now I may be a layperson, with no theological letters after my name. But I have read a fair number of books by the likes of Piper, Packer, Sproul, Montgomery-Boice, Stott, Carson, Calvin, Luther and some of the puritans. So these are Biblical truths I should have known, but when I examined the way I was living I discovered I did not live by them.
This was liberating for me, and I expect it will be for most Christians reading You Can Change. I can now look to God, trusting in all His promises, working within me, rather than looking to my own strength (that I patently do not have). It will be a continual refinement of my faith, battling the unbelief that still lies within me, and repentance, killing the sinful desires that still seek to control me.
Exposing the roots of sinful behaviour
One of the other things that makes You Can Change so helpful is that it doesn’t deal only with the sinful behaviour itself. This was an eye-opener for me, but again, something I should have already known.
Supported with Biblical wisdom, the author peels back layer after layer of human psychology until you get a picture of the causes of sinful behaviour. It’s not that he’s saying there are causes of sinful behaviour that remove our responsibility. It’s that our sin runs deeper than we know. The sinful behaviour that we often regret is based on deeper issues, things that we need to expose and deal with.
Layer number one: “There is a twofold problem in the heart: what we think or trust and what we desire or worship. Sin happens when we don’t trust God above everything … and when we don’t desire God above everything… Sin happens when we believe lies about God instead of God’s word and when we worship idols instead of worshipping God.” (p76)
Layer number two: “Behind every sin and negative emotion is a lie” (p81). Knowing and embracing the truth is what sets us free – the truth about God, that He is great, glorious, good and gracious. And let’s be clear this is not about belief that is intellectual or confessed with our lips. This is about what our lives show that we believe about God.
Layer number three: “We desire or worship idols instead of worshipping God” (p109). An idol is clarified as, “whatever you’re greedy for”. These are the “sinful desires” that are spoken of in the New Testament.
Another extended quote will probably help at this point:
“‘For where your treasure is,’ says Jesus, ‘there your heart will be also’ (Matthew 6:21). Whatever you treasure most is the thing that has your heart and controls your life. The process is described well by our English word ‘captivated’. We’re made captive by our desires. Our hearts are captured. We confuse ‘free-willed’ with ‘self-willed’. We think we’re free when we break away from God, but we become enslaved by our own sinful desires. ‘A man is a slave to whatever has mastered him’ (2 Peter 2:19). ‘No-one can serve two masters. Either he will hate one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money’ (Matthew 6:24). We serve whatever our hearts desire most. If that desire is for God and his glory, then God is our master. But if our desire is, for example, for money, then money is our master, and that’s idolatry.” (p111)
Layer number four: We often struggle to change because of love of sin or love of self. Sometimes we struggle with changing because we actually only hate the consequences of sin, but still love the sin. Sometimes we struggle because we are trying to change in our own strength, so our failures hurt our pride. Sometimes we proudly minimise our sin, or make excuses (blaming things like upbringing, context, personality, etc), or we try to hide our sin.
By the time all these layers had been stripped back in my own change project I felt like I was staring at a festering can of worms where my heart used to be! I had exposed an idol worshipping, unbelieving, sin-loving heart, which I could hardly bear to look at. And I had thought I was at least part way along the road of sanctification! No chance! I have hardly begun. I am still taking my baby steps! Oh what grace I need in this race, this battle!
The antidote for sinful behaviour
If you are anything like me, you will find yourself resonating at many points during the almost surgical analysis of the sin-diseases that cause our sin-symptoms. But what becomes patently clear is that much of our failure in purifying ourselves to grow into the likeness of Christ is because we only deal with our sins at the level of symptoms. We need to go to root causes to successfully combat the sin-diseases deep in our hearts.
It is perhaps the right time to again say that this work is as much God’s work as our initial conversion. His transforming power is given in ways and measures according to His will, just as He predestines and calls and justifies according to His will (Romans 8:29). However, we also need to know what actions are our responsibilities, so that we can seek the power of God to work within us for them.
The answer is part of the logical flow of the book, but does not gel very well with the way we are normally taught to battle sin. We are normally taught to discipline ourselves. And therefore rule-based strategies are the natural inclination.
According to Tim Chester, the way we battle sin in our growth as Christians is the same way we battle sin in our conversion. Putting this in more theological terms, our sanctification is not disconnected from our justification. The two are based on the same foundation of Christ’s death on the cross, and victorious resurrection and ascension. Our part in that is to repent and believe. We are converted and are justified through faith. We are sanctified also through faith.
And repentance is not something additional to faith. It is part of the same action. Repentance is turning from our sin and unbelief. Faith is turning to the one true God through the only mediator, His Son, Jesus Christ.
So the book helps us to think through Biblically practical strategies for killing sinful desires and battling residual unbelief. We kill sinful desires by a) avoiding things that provoke them; b) avoiding things that strengthen them; and c) saying ‘no’ to them. We battle residual unbelief by strengthening our faith in the truth. And we do that through a) the Bible; b) prayer; c) community; d) worship; e) service; f) suffering; and g) hope.
You may think those practical strategies sound very much like the standard, discipline and rule-based approach. But listen to what the author has to say in You Can Change:
“Sometimes people call them [the seven things suggested to reinforce faith] ‘spiritual disciplines’. But I believe this is unhelpful terminology. It can make Christian growth seem like an achievement on our part. In reality, it’s God who changes us through his grace. The only true spiritual disciplines in the Christian life are faith and repentance, actions that direct our attention to God’s gracious activity. So instead I prefer the traditional term: ‘means of grace’. These are ways in which God is gracious to us and by which he strengthens his work of grace in our hearts. They are the means God uses to feed our faith in him.” (p153)
For me this gives a fresh motivation for the things I do as a Christian. Again, I should have known these things, but somehow they had been lost amidst the busyness of just doing stuff because that’s what Christians do! Now I am freed from just doing stuff. I now know these things are feeding my faith, which will strengthen my desire for God and joy in Him.
We need each other
Here we come to an area that will take me time to absorb and practically accept, even though I am now convinced that it is essential. It calls for an openness that is, for me at least, scary!
For years I have read in Christian growth books that we must makes ourselves accountable to close Christian friends, so that we ask them to make sure that we are continuing in the way we should go. I have always resisted that, partly for right reasons (at least I can rationalise them), partly for wrong reasons.
The right reasons for not going along with the accountability approach, I would argue, are that a) we can never be truly accountable to another person that has not been appointed by a higher authority; and b) it encourages us to put other mediators between us and God. In truth we are accountable directly to God for our behaviour, and Christ is our only mediator. The accountability approach is just another part of the discipline that deals only at sin-symptom level, but does not get to the sin-disease.
However, what You Can Change has made me realise is that really I am just making excuses. “Why don’t we look to one another for support in change? What don’t we open up to others? Why do we avoid messy relationships? No doubt there are many reasons. We’re too busy, too independent, too fearful, too self-absorbed. But if we truly believed that Jesus has given us the Christian community to help us change, then we would make it a priority.” (p179)
With Biblical arguments I already knew (yet again!) the author establishes that the Christian church exists in order to encourage and build each other up in repentance and faith in the truth. Rather than thinking about accountability to others in the church we should look to receive the grace of God through our brothers and sisters. And we receive that grace as we ask for their help, confessing our sins, allowing them to pray for us, allowing them to share their experiences and to challenge us. And we ourselves can be a channel for God’s grace to others as we help them.
When you see it like that it becomes difficult to come up with a reason for not asking for help! But for me, I confess that one of the things that the whole “change project” exercise highlighted was that I care deeply what other people think of me. Whatever my sinful behaviours and negative emotions are when they manifest themselves, beneath it all are the sinful desires for the approval of others. I crave desire, love, respect and attention. And therefore one of the consequences is that I find it difficult to admit my faults to other people. This is what Tim Chester says in the “change project” questions at the end of chapter 7: “Have you asked someone to hold you accountable in your struggle? If not, then either you fear exposure more than you desire God or you still want to keep open the option to sin.” Ouch! (Incidentally, I am still not very comfortable in principle with the language of “accountability”, but I got the point… sharply!)
I have gone almost the whole of my life as a Christian, thinking that I would be able to grow by individual effort (with God’s help) alone. I have failed to realise practically that God uses means. He does move supernaturally and miraculously in our hearts and wills directly, but most commonly he uses means such as preaching, worship, suffering, music, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Christian books… and all these within the community of the church. I cannot neglect seeking the help of my Christian brothers and sisters any longer if I want to grow more like Christ, who is our Head.
The book is rounded off with the Biblical hope that we can change, because God has secured the victory for us over sin and death in Christ. It also highlights that change is not a one-off project, but a lifelong daily struggle. It’s a battle, a race. Progress is made normally through winning small daily battles to press forward day after day, not gigantic struggles to make giant leaps forward.
I was left with the impression, rightly I believe, that this is what the Christian life is all about. It addresses the fundamentals of our hearts, our sinful nature and the way God works in us from conversion to glorification. And because of that I count You Can Change as no ordinary practical guide to growing as a Christian. It lays forth clearly the Biblical keys that will enable many otherwise ordinary struggling twenty-first-century Christians to become closer to the likeness of our glorious Christ. And only God knows what kind of change in the church and society that might usher in.