A close family friend came by a few days ago, with her 9-year old son and asked if I could speak to him.

Ellen, I don’t even know what to do with Caleb (name changed). He argues about everything and taunts his siblings all day long. Last night he tried to cheat when we were playing a family board game and then lied about it. What is going on with him?
I had no idea how to respond to this distraught mom, a friend I knew so well. She and her husband set high standards for their four children and held them accountable for their actions. They prayed with their kids and taught them Biblical truths. I believed that Caleb wanted to please his parents and be a positive role model for his siblings.  I knew he held great aspirations in his heart. Yet, from the sounds of things, little in his recent behavior indicated these desires.
As I silently prayed, the Holy Spirit moved my thoughts in a different direction. Kids like Caleb, who are being raised in devoted Christian homes, likely know the basics of faith. But knowing does not necessarily equate to understanding or application to their daily lives.

I asked Caleb if he would be willing to sit down with me and chat.

Having had many honest conversations with this young boy, I didn’t mince words and got right to it.  “I understand you have been behaving poorly with your family recently.”  Caleb nodded in agreement.
“How does that make you feel?” I asked him.
“Bad,” he whispered.
“What do you think you need to do now?” I pressed further.
“I need to try harder to do the right thing,” Caleb said effortlessly.  I wondered how often he gave this same answer.
“What makes it so hard to do what you know is right?”
“I don’t know. I just can’t,” he said fighting back the tears.
“I believe that’s the truth, Caleb.”

He looked up at me with a puzzled look on his face. 

“None of us can bring about heart change in ourselves just by trying harder,” I continued. “It’s God who gives us a new heart and a new spirit” (Ezekiel 36:26).  I grabbed my Bible and opened it to Colossians 3.  “Look what God’s Word tells us, Caleb. We first set our minds on Jesus.  Then with His help we stop doing what’s wrong and follow His example instead.”
I really think Caleb had tried to obey but each time he failed, he just grew a bit more discouraged with himself. Plus guilt over wrongdoing made him feel outside the arms of forgiveness.  At that point, he would give up and take his frustrations out on family members.
I shared with him times in my own life when I had done just the same thing by trying to change my behavior so that Jesus would accept me. I wanted Caleb to understand that obedience and change were vital to his growth, just like they were to mine, but that neither of us would be able to consistently do what’s right without first turning to Jesus and seeking His forgiveness and help.

It’s easy to forget this foundational element of our faith, the process by which we build our lives on the rock. 

Jesus spelled this out in the end of his sermon recorded in Luke 6:
We come. We hear. We do.
The steps are each essential but so is the order.

Luke 6: 47-48

Everyone who comes to me and hears my words and does them, I will show you what he is like.  He is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock.  And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it because it had been well built.