If you’ve been a Christian for longer than a week you know that you can’t transform your heart through sheer determination and willpower.
The Bible talks about sin as a condition so deeply ingrained in the heart that it works its way out through the body (Ro. 7:5). Jesus spoke of this as well when he said that “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” He was addressing the external righteousness of the Pharisees, telling them that “every careless word” will reveal the true nature of their heart (Matt 12:34-36).
In other words, what is inside will always come out. If you are full of anger, full of lust, full of bitterness, no force of willpower and determination will keep the heart from being revealed.
There’s two typical ways we go about dealing with this reality: the first is to try harder and do better, give will-power another try. The second route we take is to believe that there is nothing we can do so we must idly wait for change to happen automatically. In the meantime, thank God that you are “objectively” righteous, and soon enough the real righteousness—the change of heart Jesus spoke about so often—will eventually come. These are the two options: will-power or idleness, and both are wrong.
Paul gives us a third option: learn to be a farmer.
He says, “he who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (6:8). Richard Foster comments on Paul’s farming metaphor and how it relates to the process of transformation:
“A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain” (The Spiritual Disciples, 7).
Paul gives us the picture of the farmer to resolve the tension of transformation, and it's a paradox: there’s physical work you can do that has no power in creating growth, yet is necessary for maturity. Like the flourishing garden of a farmer, transformation takes bodily discipline. When the Christian practices of prayer, study, solitude, silence, service, and many others become a regular part of our diet, we are creating the right conditions to experience something supernatural.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that there is some kind of power inherent in the disciplines, there isn’t.
No seasoned farmer will boast about what grows from his garden, he is well aware its mystery, and thankful to be invited into the process. The disciplines simply create “the right conditions”—they create the environment for God to do his work. They are his chosen means of grace for transformation—for taking what we believe in our heads, and webbing it deeply into our hearts.
Transformation happens not through willpower nor idleness but by learning the skills of the farmer who takes the time, the patience, and the effort to cultivate, plant, and water, creating the conditions for God do his mysterious work. It is a slow, long, but life-giving process.