Holiness is a process, which means that it takes time and continual effort. It doesn’t happen all at once. It is a process of transformation by renewal (Rom. 12:2). Renewal starts with the mind and then works into the character. The objective of renewal is always to renew the whole person: spirit, mind and body (complete renewal, however, will come after this life on earth; read 1 Cor. 15:51).
Have you ever seen an old building being renovated? All the old rotten material is removed and new material is put in its place. Sometimes it is found that the entire building must come down and be replaced. And so it would be a process of starting over. That is the picture of what renewal is. It is a renovation process. The old comes out and the new is put in its place. Hence, with us, all uncleanness and all sinful thoughts and behaviors must be removed; then new thoughts and behaviors will take their place.
This work of renewal is a work of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5), not something we can do on our own. He is the carpenter and we are as tools in his hands. Therefore, as He works on us to build us up, we as His hammer and saw must willingly give ourselves to Him so that His work on us will be complete and unhindered. Thus He does the actual work of renewal and we work to support His work. Our work is the work of consecration and prayer, the work of service and obedience. Such is the process of renewal that brings us to holiness. Here are three things we must work at to be holy:
1. We pray. First of all, we must pray. Let us pray with understanding and with persistence and faith. As to understanding, when we pray for holiness, I believe it would be especially beneficial to understand how our sinful desires come against us; that is, to understand our weakness and how Satan takes advantage of us. Thus we should look back to consider how he has tempted us and what desires he has appealed to—so that we can pray more intelligently.
Then, in all our praying, let us pray with persistence and faith, understanding that prayer is part of the hard work of holiness, which takes time and effort.
2. We work at renewing ourselves. Another part of the work we do, besides prayer, is we actually participate in His work of renovation. As I can see from Paul’s writing (in Colossians 3), we do two basic things: (1) We work to put to death and to take off the things of the earthly nature (referring to the sins of the body) and of the old self (referring to the sins of the spirit and the mind); and (2) we work to put on a new self (referring to the character and behavior) and a new mind and spirit (referring to the thinking process).
Now when you renovate a building you always tear out the old material first, and then put in the new. But for human renovation, we do both things at once. We take out the old and put in the new at the same time.
The way we take out the old stuff of our earthly nature—fornication, uncleanness, covetousness, etc. (Col. 3:5)—is to put it to death, or destroy it. And the way we do that is to starve those evil desires in us, so that they are deprived of their power and die. But how do we do that? Well it’s really quite easy; we just reduce our exposure to those sins. For example, if you have a problem with sexual lust you just stop going to movies and watching TV shows, and looking at magazines, etc., that have a sexual content to them. And if you have a problem with fornication you will also stop doing those things that I have just mentioned, but you will also stop dating or even talking to those you know you will be tempted with. Hence, by reduced exposure to sin, those sinful desires will die.
In addition to putting to death our earthly desires, we must also put off the deeds of the old self, such as anger, wrath, and malice, etc. (Col. 3:8). These, as I mentioned earlier, are the sins of the spirit and the mind. But how do we get rid of these things? Well, here is where it helps to put in the good stuff at the same time, because when we set our mind on things above, that is, to meditate on Gods Word and His love to us etc., He gives us the power to quit those bad things and to put good things in their place, such as tender mercies, kindness, and humility (Col. 3:12). These are the things of the new self, which every Christian has within him. This new self is the very nature of Christ who dwells in you.
3. We work to form holy habits. The work we do in this process of holiness (the process of renewal) cannot be done without the discipline of habits. That is, His work of holiness in us will not be complete and effective, unless our work is done right, as we learn how to stop bad habits and form good habits.
But why are habits important? Can’t we just pray for God to help us be holy, and then won’t He help us do those things that we should do? Doesn’t the forming of habits suggest that we are doing it in our own power without His help?
No, not at all! In fact, it is natural and created in us that when we do something over and over again, a habit will develop. Romans six tells us that when we present ourselves as slaves to obey something, either to obey sin or to obey righteousness, we become a slave to that thing. That is what a habit really is—becoming a slave to something. And Paul tells us that when we become a slave of sin (when we have sinful habits) those things lead to spiritual death (Rom. 6:16, 23). But when we become a slave of righteousness (when we have good habits) those things lead to holiness (Rom. 6:22). So good habits are good! It is good to build habits of righteousness.
But how do we develop these good and holy habits? And how do we stop the bad habits? Well, both can be gained the same way: first, by prayer and commitment, second by determined repetition. In regard to bad habits, we must pray and plan to quit them, and then to continually say no to them. Likewise, in regard to good habits, we must pray and plan to do them, and then continually say yes to them. The thing about habits that is encouraging is this: the more we reduce a sinful habit the less power it has over us, and the more power we have to discontinue it; and the more we are able to increase a good habit the more power we have to continue to do that good thing.
The power of a habit is real! And it works! But it will only work if you are committed to making it work and will trust God in prayer to help you make it work. Yes, if you believe God in prayer that He will help you discontinue or continue a habit, and if you are determined yourself to do it, He will help you, and you will do it. Isaiah 50:7 says, “Because the Lord God helps me, I will not be dismayed; therefore, I have set my face like flint to do his will, and I know that I will triumph” (TLB).