can a leopard change her spots? 1 Corinthians 3

read 1 Corinthians 3.    She’s strolling down Madison Avenue.  She sees the shoes in the window.  She passes by.  The end!!!!

Okay, okay.  The real story.

She’s strolling down Madison Avenue.  She sees the shoes in the window.  They’re beautiful.  She pushes open the door.

“Can I help you,” a male voice asks.

She turns, looking for the source of the voice.  She smells the assistant’s cologne before her eyes adjust to the dark.  Yes, yes, she tells him pertly, quieting the plain vanilla voice that tells her to flee.  I‘d like to try on those shoes, yes, those, the ones in the window.  She sits.  She slips her tired swollen feet out of her own shoes.  She tries on the new ones.  She glances at the price tag and gasps. She stands and admires them in the mirror.  She pulls up her jeans, surveying what the heels have done to the shape of her calf. She notes how she can just see the red heel at the close of every step.

“You look like the model in the Look Book,” the assistant exclaims.

She slaps her purse down on the counter and flings open her wallet.  She wears them that very night.  She can’t walk in them.  They’re taxi shoes, she tells herself. Callouses form.

A week later, she’s walking down Madison Avenue. She sees new shoes in the same window.  She hesitates.  She pushes open the door.

Can anyone really change?

It’s a question we ask about other people and ourselves all the time.  Can our spouses stop lifting the newspaper up to their faces the moment we start talking to them?  Can our parents stop worrying about us?  Can our children start laughing at our jokes instead of informing us we are Not Funny?  Can we stop minding?  Can we stop trying to be perfectionists?  Can we not care that we’re not the prettiest, most handsome, smartest, funniest, most athletic and most popular?  Can we learn to enjoy our lives instead of beating ourselves up all the time?  Can we lose our temper less?  Can we stop being jealous?  Can we actually listen when other people speak?  Can we never repeat some dumb story about other people that we heard once and have no idea if it’s true or not?  Can we care deeply about other people’s tragedies?  Can we read the newspaper and pray for the heartbreaks we see in black and white?  Can we give more and spend less?  Can we never tell another lie?  Can we never have a bad thought?  Can we love other people, really love them?

Some people say no one can change.  Other people say we are all changing all the time.  And sometimes those two people are the same.  We can change our minds about even whether we can change.

So what does the Bible have to say about all this?  Well, here is God in a famous passage in the Hebrew Scriptures telling his prophet Jeremiah that we humans can never change:  “Can an Ethiopian change the color of his skin?  Can a leopard take away its spots?  Neither can you start doing good, for you have always done evil.” Jeremiah 13:23.

It’s not very heartening.  But wait a minute.  Why should an Ethiopian want a different skin color?  Why should a leopard want to lose its spots?  Those are integral and beautiful parts of each.  Is the same true of our evil?  Is there something about our evil natures that can be viewed as an integral and beautiful part of ourselves?

Don’t get me wrong.  God hates evil.  But He doesn’t hate skin colors or spots.  So why does God compare evil to color and spots?

The first reason is that God loves us just as we are.

We could read that a thousand million times, however, and still not take it in.  There is something in our nature that resists accepting God loves us.  Perhaps, gasp, it is our evil nature that resists the knowledge of love.  So if we can’t change our evil nature, according to God, how can we take in that we’re loved?

It’s a conundrum.

Because we have to accept we’re loved.  We need it.  We thirst and hunger for it.  Not only that, God’s love for us is the wellspring from which change begins.  We tend to look at our flaws with self-hatred.  The Bible says God weeps over our flaws in love.  Our evil grieves His Spirit because of His love.  He is always watching, waiting and hoping that we will return to Him.  He loves us as we are.  So how how how do we take that in???

Here is where we get to the transcendent part.  Here is where we leap into the fire. Here is where the fact that we can’t start doing good becomes the very thing that brings on the refining fire.  Here is where we find the freedom of surrender.

The answer is that we can’t quiet the storms inside ourselves.  We can’t stop wanting to be God.  We cannot wrestle away our pride.  We can’t quench our thirsts.  We need God to do it all for us.  Discovering that reality is where change happens.

When we run up against evil in ourselves we feel powerless to change, our hearts break.  The more our hearts break, the more room there is for God to come in.  We finally get humbled enough to remember to ask for God’s help.  He’ll come in with His hardhat and excavate our evil.  He’ll bring it up to the light of day.  He’ll perform alchemy.  He’ll weave our straw into gold.  His sacrificial love on the cross means that His nail scarred hands can take the nails out of our coffins.  He helps us out and releases us into freedom.  He frees us from the lie that we can be God and opens our lives to the joy of serving the real God.

The thing is if we could stop being evil all by ourselves, we actually WOULD be God.  So the reason our evil nature – the desire to be God – can be seen as a beautiful part of ourselves is that our flaws make more room for the real God.  Our helplessness allows God to bring beauty from our ashes.  He is the potter and we are the clay.  If we invite Him in, He takes us just as we are – lumpy, unformed and grey – and crafts us each into vessels of His glory.  What God can do through us, despite us, serves to glorify Him more.

The purpose of our lives is to bring glory to God.  It’s not that God is vain.  It’s that He really IS God.  So to glorify the most glorious is the way it’s supposed to be.  Think about it.  We glorify beauty all the time.  We glorify supermodels.  We glorify movie stars.  We glorify That Guy on the street.  But those humans all disappoint us eventually.  But when they do, that’s where we find true glory.  We discover God.  He alone is full of glory.  Praising Him with our voices and arms lifted high floods us with transcendent joy.  We find that the most joyful thing we’ve ever experienced on this planet is to allow ourselves to be a part of God’s master plan for redeeming our world.

So the more our evil natures roar, the more room there is for God’s grace to bring peace and quiet.  Whenever we discover we’re leopards who can’t change our spots, we cry to God, who comes to our rescue.

That’s the thinking that underlies this helpful chapter of 1 Corinthians.  Paul starts by telling the believers in Corinth that he can only feed them with milk not solid food because they’re acting as though they still belonged to this world, as though they were infants in the Christian life.  He says they’re still letting themselves be controlled by their sinful nature.  They’re still jealous of one another and quarreling with each other.  The implication here is that while we can change if God’s Holy Spirit is inside us, the only way that happens is if we let the Spirit control us.

A Christian has the same sinful nature as everyone else.  That never changes.  It’s a part of our make up, the same as our skin color and markings.  That’s why there’s no room for self-righteousness.  We can be a Christian and act the same as we ever were, if we let our sinful nature be in charge. The only way to change is to admit we can’t.  We grow the same way we’re saved – by grace alone.  That’s what the Bible calls maturity.  It’s where we stop reacting defensively, and where we can let God’s gentleness reign in us when people criticize us.  It’s where bad things happen to us, things we don’t like, and instead of ranting, raving, railing against others, projecting, lashing out, blaming and cursing – we get to weep and trust God.  The more we trust Him, the more He changes us from the inside out.  1 Cor. 3:1-4.

And for anyone who takes pride in trying to change other people, Paul gives this liberating advice.  He says that some people plant seeds.  Other people water those seeds.  But only God makes faith grow.  While our pride thinks it wants to be responsible for other people, it’s so much better to realize only God is responsible.  Other people’s journeys are their own.  It’s between them and God.  This is stuff that should make us kick up our heels and shout for joy.  You mean we get to be just US?  We’re not responsible for other people’s choices?  Yes, and the wonderful, loving, kind, patient, caring God is on the case.  He is in charge, so we can relax and do what He asks of us.  He wants us to plant and water and leave the rest up to him.  1 Cor. 3:5-9.  In other words, other people can change the same way we can: if they let God’s Spirit come inside them and move them.  It’s not up to us.  Again, our only job is to trust Him.

For both ourselves and others, Paul is clear here that the only foundation for growth is Jesus Christ.  Here is where we get back to the cross, as we always will.  The foundation for growth is to know we’re all so stuck in our pride, sins and evil that God died for us.  No man can change the color of his skin or his spots or his evil nature, but God can.  God took on the skin of man.  God took the stripes we deserve.  And by His stripes, we are healed.  “Only God is good,” Jesus once said.  He was talking about Himself.  And the only good person who ever walked this earth took the punishment we deserve, so that God can see us as “without spot or blemish.”  That’s our foundation.  That’s liberating.  And discovering that – really taking it inside of us – is what changes us.  It melts us down from hard gold to soft wax.  That’s grace.  That’s God’s free gift of salvation.  It’s the truth that will survive any storm.  1 Cor. 3:10-15.

Paul says here that when we become Christians, we become the “temple” of God.  That is what changes.  The change is that the Spirit comes to live inside us.  When that happens, we become “holy.”  We’re not holy because we’re God.  God makes that clear.  Being holy doesn’t mean we are good.  We are not good.  We’re holy because God lives in us.  His Spirit is holy.  He is holy.

God here says we have to stop deceiving ourselves: “if you think you are wise by this world’s standards, you need to become a fool to be truly wise.”  1 Cor. 3:18.  The wisdom of this world is foolishness to God.  This world’s so-called wisdom is what makes us feel the need to defend our every action.  God’s wisdom says lay it all down.  Stop pretending.  God knows we’ve all messed up.  He knows.  He loves us.  He forgave it all.  There’s no room for boasting.  Everything belongs to us, and we belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.  1 Cor. 3:23.  Accepting this wisdom changes us.

Here’s the one thing that will never change: God’s love.  Our evil is ugly. But Jesus paid the price for it on the cross.  He bought our leopard coats.  We get to see our evil, hand it over to Jesus, and walk through the fires unscathed.  He makes our evil beautiful, redeemed by His sacrificial love.  So all the bad that rises up in us like Sylvia Plath’s terrible fish, becomes just more trophies to display how much God loves us, just as we are.

The good news is that we don’t have to change first.  We get to invite God in without changing.  It’s liberating to realize we can’t change.  And all we do from then on is receive grace.  Receiving grace is what changes us.  We can start to smile when people pick up newspapers during our long stories.  We can wind down those stories.  Maybe we are being boring.  We can agree when our children say we’re not funny – and discover that makes them laugh.  We can thank our parents for worrying about us.  Maybe we do need help.  We discover our humility ends up calming their fears.  We can laugh when we realize we want to be the best at everything – and discover that laughing brings out the best in us, after all.  We can notice jealousy rise up in us and ask what changes we need to make in things we CAN control in order to live more satisfactory lives.  We can be so delighted with the freedom of serving God that we take pride and joy in the achievements of others.  It’s the opposite of what we thought.  If we focus on grace, all good things follow.  We find the love we always wanted flows to us without our having to change a thing, and that, in turn, enables us to love others without their needing to change, either.

Love never changes.

posted by Caroline Coleman in a chapter a day on can we change?

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