“Put off the old man who is corrupted according to the desire of error, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind: and put on the new man, who according to God is created in justice and holiness of truth.”
These words in Ephesians 4:22-24 are what Dietrich von Hildebrand describes as “inscribed above the gate through which all must pass who want to reach the goal set us by God.” Further, he says in his book, “Transformation in Christ,” “All true Christian life, therefore, must begin with a deep yearning to become a new man in Christ, and an inner readiness to ‘put off the old man’ — a readiness to become something fundamentally different.”
What does it mean for the Christian to become fundamentally different? It is a call to be something wholly other: to throw off the old man, who is a slave to our narrow world view, our prejudices, our vices, to sin itself and the will of the Evil one. It is a change in us that draws us back from bondage to sin into the glory of the Lord who has created us in love.
What allows this difference to happen? The answer is key, because often we want to change ourselves.
Recently I was listening to a podcast about forming new habits. One of the points the speaker made was that when we go about forming new habits, it’s important that we start to think in a new mindset. So rather than thinking, “I don’t do that anymore” when it comes to, say, watching six hours of Netflix, it is more effective to think, “the type of person I want to be does not watch six hours of Netflix on a Tuesday night.”
I think this points to a reality that is deeper than wanting to change bad habits. The change that Jesus Christ effected in the world by His passion was clear, effective and permanent. The world can never be the same. God has suffered, died and rose from the dead. Sin has lost, the battle won.
We are called to life in Christ, to an encounter with a living God who desires to draw us ever closer to Himself. Because of the victory won for us, we cannot just simply say things like, “I don’t do that sin anymore,” or even “the saint I want to be wouldn’t do that sin.” The change that God wants to effect in us is deeper and more powerful than any habit change.
We are adopted sons and daughters of God. We no longer live for ourselves, but rather Christ lives in us. Our readiness to change really rests primarily in our readiness to die to self so that Christ might live in us.
We know when this doesn’t happen in ourselves, and we certainly know when it isn’t happening in others. But we are presented with a great opportunity in the season of Lent to foster this readiness to change. That is the beauty: God does the changing, we just have to be ready.
Through self-denial, exercises of temperance and changes in our daily routine, we are not trying to earn holiness or even do penance, in the strictest sense — although yes, they are penitential practices. Rather, I think it is more helpful to see all of the things we do during Lent as ways that stretch us to be ready, like the wise virgins, for the coming of the Lord into our life.
Once we are ready to change, to die to self, then He can come in freedom and accomplish His good work in us. According to Hildebrand: “The readiness to change is an essential aspect of the Christian’s basic relation with God; it forms the core of our response to the merciful love of God which bends down upon us: ‘With eternal charity hath God loved us; so He hath drawn us, lifted from the earth, to His merciful heart (Antiphon of Praise, Feast of the Sacred Heart).’ To us all has the inexorable yet beatifying call of Christ been addressed: Sequere Me (“Follow Me”). Nor do we follow it unless, relinquishing everything, we say with St. Paul: ‘Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?’ (Acts 9:6).”
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