…I am learning from Jesus to live my life as he would live my life if he were I. I am not necessarily learning to do everything he did, but I am learning how to do everything I do in the manner that he did all that he did. (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p. 283).
The purpose of losing control, of becoming yoked to Jesus, of submitting to him as Lord as well as Savior – terms I have used interchangeably in this series – is to become more and more like Jesus. Note that I did not say to become Jesus. Becoming like someone else is what students are doing when they study under a particular teacher. They are not simply learning information about a particular subject, they are also learning from the teacher’s character and habits how to use appropriately, in their future endeavors, the knowledge they are gaining. Knowledge without character formation is useless, even dangerous.
One could say that the Christian life is a life-long course in “Christ-likeness.” In a sense, we are students and Jesus is our Teacher. Therefore, we are not simply learning about our faith – or about Jesus as an abstract subject – we are learning how to live our life in the way that Jesus would live it if he were in our circumstances, both good and bad, with our unique gifts, talents and opportunities. In becoming like Jesus each of us is becoming our own unique self, as God intended, formed in his image (Genesis 1:27). Sin is responsible for the degree to which we do not currently “resemble” God. But through the Holy Spirit we can regain what was lost to sin; we can come to resemble our Father as we become, more and more, like his Son.
The apostle Paul is saying the same thing about becoming like Jesus when he writes about “Christ being formed in us” (Galatians 4:19). In his letter to the Romans he puts it this way, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters” (8:29). Therefore, losing control is about cooperating with the Holy Spirit so that the resurrected life of Jesus takes hold in our lives replacing the death-dealing effects of sin. We begin to resemble him, more and more, as we become fully “ourselves.”
Contrary to what some people assume, a personality constrained by sin is one that is quite boring. It’s primary motivation is to serve the self. What could be more uninteresting than that?
A personality that is conformed to Christ, however, is endlessly fascinating because it is turned outward, engaged with the world, reaching out in Christ’s love. It no longer feels compelled to focus upon itself. It begins to perceive and experience life from God’s point of view, which is utterly magnificent, something the sin-conformed personality just cannot do.
However, until Jesus’ life takes hold, our natural tendencies are shot through with sin. Therefore, the characteristics of Jesus’ personality, which Paul refers to as the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and continence (Galatians 3:22-23) – do not come naturally to us because they are not a part of our nature. This doesn’t mean we cannot be loving or patient or kind. It means, though, that we must intentionally choose this kind of behavior and sustain it over time only through effort. Yet, our efforts to sustain it will only reinforce our pride, ultimately undermining any advance in virtuous living. We will always revert to what comes “naturally.”
Apart from Christ, what comes naturally to us is pride, envy, hatred, discord, anger, selfish ambition and immorality (Galatians 3:19-21). But when we allow the Holy Spirit to renew our sin-riddled personality, with all it’s broken and sinful habits and inclinations, we begin to manifest the characteristics of Jesus’ personality. Therefore, in being conformed to Christ, what was natural for him becomes natural for us. The converse is also true: what was formerly natural for us (sin) becomes increasingly un-natural.
The Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5, 6 and 7) comes to mind when I think of behavior that is unnatural for anyone not conformed to Christ. In fact, I freely admit that Jesus’ instructions in the Sermon have never appealed to be, until now, that is. I could never imagine myself living this way – turning the other cheek to someone who has just offended me, going an additional mile with someone who has already forced me to go a mile already, loving my enemies and praying for those who persecute me. Whenever I’ve attempted to try to do these things I didn’t get very far – and I only ended up disgruntled and exhausted. Now, however, as I become more and more conformed to Christ, the way of life Jesus proscribes for his followers seems increasingly more inviting – and possible.
There is no way the person conformed to sin can live as Jesus instructs without exerting tremendous will power – at great cost to him or herself. There is also no way anyone could find joy in living this way without first being conformed to Christ. To those yoked to sin and pride the Sermon on the Mount seems like a bitter pill.
However, to those who are “losing control,” Jesus’ words begin to make more and more sense. Why not forgive our enemies, give away what we have to those who are ungrateful, and love and pray for those who abuse us? With Jesus as our Lord, we are continuously compensated for the price of such actions. This is the reason the apostle Paul was able to rejoice, even while in prison (Philippians 4:4). There is no lasting and eternal harm that can be done to us. More than that, it is even possible to experience joy and peace while loving and giving and praying in this manner, as Scripture affirms. This is what can come naturally to those who are being conformed to Jesus.
Next week: Surrendering even our talents and virtues.