Reading: The Principle of Replacement
In The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader,” the third book in the Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis tells the story of the transformation of the difficult little boy Eustace. Eustace is a passenger on the Dawn Treader, which is sailing under the command of Prince Caspian. Being nasty, a complainer and generally obnoxious, Eustace alienates his fellow travelers. When the ship docks on an island, the passengers get out to explore. Eustace intentionally separates himself from the rest, sensing that he is not welcome. He soon comes face to face with a frightful, fire-breathing dragon. Much to Eustace’s relief the dragon expires right in front of him, but after a dream-filled night Eustace awakes to find that he himself has become a green, scaly dragon. This was Lewis’s way of saying that Eustace became on the outside what he was on the inside.
Eustace sobs when he realizes the meaning of the symbol. How can he rid himself of the scaly skin and be recognized and accepted by those he has estranged? Another night passes full of dreams, or so he thinks. In his dream he is approached by Aslan—a lion and the Christ figure in the story. Aslan takes Eustace to a bubbling well, shaped like a round bath with marble stairs descending into it. The water is deliciously inviting, but Aslan says that before Eustace can get into it he has to undress first. Eustace knows that this means he must remove his scaly surface like a snake sheds its skin. He strips off his skin as if peeling a banana. He steps out of the skin and walks over to the edge of the pool, only to see that his reflection still shows the same rough and wrinkled skin. Two more times he attempts to remove his outer coat with the same results. No matter how much he strips away, he does not change.
Then Aslan says, “You will have to let me undress you.” Even though Eustace is afraid of Aslan’s claws, he is desperate by now. Eustace lies on his back and allows Aslan to have his way.
The very first tear was so deep that I thought he had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling that stuff peel off. After he peeled off all the skin, I was as smooth and soft as a peeled switch. He caught hold of me and threw me into the water. At first it smarted, but then it became perfectly delicious. I’d turned into a boy again. . . . And after a bit the Lion took me out of the water and dressed me. New clothes and all.1
God intends to make us into new persons who reflect his image. To do so he must remove the old skin that represents our old way of life and clothe us with new skin made in the likeness of him. The image of undressing and re-dressing serves as the frame for Paul’s teaching. “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires . . . and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Ephesians 4:22, 24). Paul is saying that the Christian life is a lifelong process of taking off the soiled, tattered garments of our sinful nature and being dressed with a fresh set of clothes that will transform us into beings reflecting God’s holiness and righteousness.
Let’s put the process of transformation in very practical terms. We are creatures of habit. Habits are practiced ways of thinking, feeling or acting. They become so much a part of us that they are second nature. For example, do you button your blouse or shirt from top to bottom or from bottom to top? So well ingrained are our habits that we can master complex behaviors and perform them without conscious thought. Do you remember when you first sat behind the wheel of a car? There were so many things to think about—put the key in the ignition, fasten the seat belt, move the seat into position, keep your eye on the speedometer and the rearview and side mirrors—just for starters. Everything was a conscious effort. But thousands of hours later we can slip into the car in the darkness, find the slot for the key and buckle the seat belt without thinking.
Life is full of good and bad habits. We have habits of thinking, feeling and acting that both honor God and displease him. To follow Christ is to commit ourselves to putting off the old and putting on the new. The Lord desires to build God-pleasing habits into our character. The word “habits” is derived from the Latin word habitus. A priest wears a habitus, a piece of clothing that represents a commitment to a holy life. We too are to put on habits that are formed in practice so that godliness is a builtin instinct.
In Ephesians 4:17-24 Paul focuses on four steps in the process of removing God-displeasing habits and putting on those habits that re- flect God’s character.
Know the Old Life from Which You Came
According to Paul Christians are to live in stark contrast to the dominant culture out of which we have come. In order for us to see the person we are to be, Paul in broad strokes paints the picture of a pagan culture in rebellion against its Creator. Paul’s concern is contrast; he makes no effort to balance his description with noble qualities. He wants the believers to see that they are to live a life that stands out in bold relief. “So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. They are darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts. Having lost all sensitivity, they have given themselves over to sensuality so as to indulge in every kind of impurity, with a continual lust for more” (Ephesians 4:17-19). Paul notes three stages of descent into darkness.
1. Wrong-headedness. Paul says that darkness begins with faulty thinking. Notice the three words in verses 17 and 18—thinking, understanding and ignorance. Paul says that our entry into darkness occurs with the decision to reject the proper starting point for all of life.
Paul uses three phrases to capture this wrong-headedness. He speaks of the “futility of their thinking.” The word futility is related to idolatry. Paul is saying that rejecting the true God doesn’t mean ceasing to have a god. If one’s god is not the true God, then the Lord is exchanged for a lie. Second, “futility of . . . thinking” leads to being “darkened in . . . understanding.” If we start with the wrong premise, it makes no difference how impeccable our logic might be, because we will always come to the wrong conclusion. Finally, Paul describes wrong-headedness as the “ignorance that is in them.” This is not innocent igno-Walking in Obedience 211 rance but a willful ignorance that leaves us accountable to God. We are without excuse. God will hold us accountable for our ignorance because it is chosen blindness.
The result of this wrong-headedness is that we are “separated from the life of God.” Not only are we cut off from the life source that made us, but we are also in rebellion against and at odds with our Maker.
What form does this take in our society? A sign of our wrong-headedness is a rejection of absolutes. We worship the god of relativism. The prevailing attitude is that we should be faithful to whatever is true for us. This is the cultural air we breathe.
2. Hard-heartedness. The descent into darkness moves from wrong-headedness to hard-heartedness. Paul says that our thinking is wrong because our heart is calcified. Wrong-headedness is “due to the hardening of their hearts” (v. 18). The word for “hardness” is derived from the idea of stone that becomes harder than marble. It is comes from a medical term that refers to deposits of calcium between the joints that become harder than bone. They have lost all sensitivity (v. 19), a word meaning “ceasing to care,” dulled to the point of making right and wrong indistinguishable.
3. Permissiveness. Paul writes that the Gentiles “have given themselves over to sensuality” (v. 19). The Greek word for “sensuality” means shamelessness. When a society can no longer be shocked or no longer has a healthy shame, it is at the point of Paul’s description. The second phrase that captures permissiveness is to “indulge in every kind of impurity,” that irresistible desire to have what we have no right to have.
Paul goes into a detailed description of pagan culture, for in order to practice godly habits, we must be able to recognize the soiled garments which must be removed.
Don’t Underestimate the Grip of the Old Life
One of the reasons we fail in our attempts to change bad habits is that we don’t respect the power of a habit to hold us. It’s like removing a tree stump. We might say at first, “This isn’t a big job. I’ll have that out in an hour.” We show up with our shovel and ax to cut the roots. Three hours later we are ready to give up because we have dug a five-foot trench around the tree and exposed the root system, which was far larger than we ever imagined. We have considerably underestimated the task.
Endurance and discipline are key elements in changing habits. Any new habit takes a minimum of three to six weeks to become part of our routine. Most of us get washed out long before that time. We must know the strength of the battle that is ahead so we can call on the Lord’s grace for the change.
Practice the Principle of Replacement
Paul gives us an often overlooked but necessary step for changing a habit. Our usual approach to change is to stop a habit of thinking, feeling or acting: we reduce our food intake, we try to stop being critical, we try to stop drinking. We do fine for a while. We may even think, I have this licked. But then our will crumbles and the former behavior is back, stronger than ever. Jesus tells the story of the man who had a demon cast out of him. The demon finds no place to lodge, so it returns to the place from which it was cast, bringing seven more demons along (Luke 11:24-26). When you simply stop doing an old behavior without putting a God-pleasing one in its place, you create a vacuum that is filled by an even stronger version of the same problem.
Paul says that we must practice the principle of replacement. When we “put off “ we must “put on” as well. The first step is to identify the habit of thinking, feeling or acting that needs to be put to death or nailed to the cross. Then we must make a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves and admit to God, ourselves and other people the nature of the wrong. Then we must prepare ourselves to remove all defects of character. The Holy Spirit’s transformation will not be complete until we practice the principle of replacement.
Keep in Mind God’s Intention for You
God’s intent is for you to reflect his image: “Put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (v. 24). Athletes often attain their goal by visualizing their success. A high jumper sees the bar and her body safely flying over it. It is the completion of the goal that motivates her toward what she is to become. We are to see ourselves with the defects of character removed from our lives as Jesus shines through so that we are what God intends us to be.
We must be patient with the process. Richard Lovelace gives us good insight into the process of sanctification: “God will proceed at a rate and follow a course which is ideally suited to the individual, raising successive issues over the years and making a point of the need for growth in one area after another. He seldom shows us all of our needs at once; we would be overwhelmed at the sight.”2 In other words, there is no such thing as instant godliness. To live in a way that is contrary to society, we need to commit ourselves to a lifetime of change under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is God’s tailor: he is ready to give us a new set of clothes and discard the old, threadbare wardrobe. But the old way of life dies a slow, bitter, bloody death. It does not want to give up its grip. Yet the new set of clothes are so much more becoming.
As in Eustace’s story, it is the Lord who must be given the permission to dress us anew. We can’t remove the scales ourselves. Our prayer should be, “Lord, do what it takes, reach as deep as you need, go after the wrong thinking, wrong feelings, wrong behaviors. Go straight to the heart with whatever pain it will take, because our desire is to be made over in the likeness of God.”
1 C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the “Dawn Treader” (New York: Macmillan, 1952), p. 90.
2 Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1980), p. 111
- What habits have you tried to dislodge? If you failed, what do you suppose was the reason for the failure?
- How would you put each of these steps to enact the principle of replacement into effect? a. habit to be replaced b. the biblical “instead of” c. visualize what God intends you to be