Letter No. 6: Why Becoming Like Jesus is What’s Best for Us

Introduction

Confessing Jesus as your Savior involves more than uttering a statement of belief.  It’s about letting yourself be transformed into the likeness of Christ.  In essence you’re handing over your life to Jesus and allowing him to begin in you a thorough renovation of your character.  The apostle Paul calls this being “conformed to the image of Christ.” (Romans 8:29)

However, to some people this may sound like a form of brainwashing or cult indoctrination.  But that’s not what goes on when we make the choice to allow ourselves to be transformed into Christ’s image.  Instead, our authentic, unique personality is able finally to emerge, free from the encumbrances of sin.  As I wrote in a previous letter, Why Jesus Was Born on Earth, we are not truly ourselves when we are held captive by desires that are misplaced or out of control.  Under the power of sin, our character and personality are warped.  We do things we don’t really want to do and we can’t break free of self-preoccupation.

So, when we submit to Jesus’ Lordship we end up gaining our freedom instead of losing it.  We are free to be the joyful, loving, generous, kind and faithful people God created us to be.  But, until we let Jesus be Lord of our lives, our lives will be vandalized by sin.

For many Christians, mistakes must be made in life until this realization makes sense and becomes compelling.  Some of us need to experience the futility of trying to be a good person on our own or to find how empty a self-indulgent life can be before we are ready to hear Jesus’ call as a release from such futility and emptiness.

This is a difficult topic to explain to a teen-ager, who hasn’t had all that much life experience.  I concluded the best way to frame the subject of this letter is to describe what my life was like before I let Jesus become my Lord and the ways in which I am so much happier now that I have.

Dear Caleb,

I’ve looked forward to writing this letter, and the next one, even more than the others.  The topic, “becoming like Jesus,” is something I’ve pursued with all my heart and mind for the past nine years.  I’m eager to share with you what I’ve learned and how awesome Jesus is.

I had confessed Jesus as my Savior when I was twenty-four but it wasn’t until twenty-two years later that I seriously began the journey of becoming like him.  I started on it when I realized I hadlost my way in life. Sometimes we have to reach a low point in our lives before we’re able to see what’s wrong and want something better.    Here’s how I had lost my way: I was more interested in having people think well of me than in seeking and doing whatever Jesus wanted me to do.  I had made being a success in ministry my highest goal, far ahead of being faithful.  I had stopped relying on God and was relying on my own strength, which had completely run out.

It took a while for me to realize what had gone wrong in my life.  God eventually revealed to me that even though I had confessed Jesus as my Savior, I had stopped allowing him to be the boss of my life.  Instead, I had resumed being in control, which was not a good thing.  Sin had regained a hold over me and I was only interested in getting my own way and in making a good impression.   This was making me very unhappy, but I couldn’t see it.  I had even fooled myself into thinking whatever I wanted was what God wanted.

What happened to me is not unusual.  Many Christians lose their way, at some point in their lives.  We forget that confessing Jesus as our Savior also means we are allowing Jesus to be the Lord of our life.  The Greek word for “Christ” means the following: lord, master, owner.  So when the apostle Paul says we are to confess that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9), he means we are to declare Jesus to be the owner — the boss of us — for the rest of our lives.

In writing this particular letter, I’m hoping to spare you the years I wasted by not truly allowing Jesus to be the Lord of my life.  I don’t want you to miss out on the same joy, wonder and peace I am now experiencing, every day, as I say to him, “Thy will be done.”  This is the same declaration Jesus made to his Father:

Not as I will, but as you will.  (Matthew 26:39)

But, before I go any further, I want to explain why it is necessary (and a blessing) to seek what the Lord wants in our lives instead of what we want.

As I explained in my letter entitled, “Why Jesus Was Born on Earth,” what God wants for our lives is really what is best for us.  But we all have a natural tendency to resist what God wants and we call this “sin.”  Even if we say we want what God wants we can’t really follow through with it under our own power.   Paul explains why in his letter to the Romans:

I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.(Chapter 7, verses 18b and 19)

Do his words make sense to you?  Have you ever tried to do something you think God wants, such as doing a good deed or giving up something that mattered to you for someone else’s sake, only to discover you were also doing it to receive attention or to feel better about yourself?  This happens to all of us.  On our own, we do not have the ability or strength to do good things without being self-serving in some way.

As he lived on earth, Jesus was able to do what his Father wanted, perfectly.  He carried out faithfully his Father’s will and he was never self-serving.  He did not trip himself up in any way and no one else was able to trip him up.  Jesus is the perfect model of what our lives should be like and he wants to help us be like him – to be fully what God intended us to be like.  Only then will we be truly happy and finally free to be the delightful and holy people God created us to be.  Jesus says in the gospel of Matthew:

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.  (11:28-30)

In case those verses do not make sense, let me explain: Jesus often made reference to common, everyday activitieswhen he spoke.  Since most people in his day were either farmers or shepherds he used farming or sheep-herding terms in his teachings.  A yoke was a crossbar, made out of wood or iron, which joined two animals so they could work together, plowing a field or pulling a cart.   Two animals together could work more effectively than just one.  What Jesus is saying is that if we are willing to be “yoked” to him, in a metaphorical sense, he can help us to do what would be impossible for us, on our own, to do.

In the gospel of John Jesus says:

I am the vine; you are the branches.  If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (15:5) 

In both of these passages Jesus is indicating the same thing: If we turn our lives over to Jesus, by saying “You are my Lord and Master.  Live through me so that your will is accomplished,” he can begin to bring out in us the good that we could not do on our own.  Paul describes what this is like in his letter to the Galatians:

…It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.   (Galatians 2:20, Revised Standard Version translation)

Paul’s life is a great example of why becoming like Jesus is what’s best for us.  When he turned his life over to Jesus, it changed, dramatically, for the better.  Here’s how it happened: While on his way to do much harm to Christians in Damascus – about three years after Jesus was put to death and raised back to life – a heavenly light flashed around Paul (at that time he was known as “Saul”) and he fell to the ground.  He heard a voice saying to him:

Conversion of St. Paul; Bartolome Esteban Murillo (1618 – 1682)

Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”  “Who are you, Lord”? Saul asked.  “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.  Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” (Acts of the Apostles 9:4-6) 

From this moment on, Paul stopped persecuting Christians and became one himself.  He immediately allowed Jesus to become the Lord of his life and he went on to convert thousands of people to faith in Jesus.  To this day, his writings in the New Testament help people become more like Jesus.   They help me, continually.

However, if you are thinking at this point that allowing Jesus to be Lord of your life does not seem like a very pleasant way to live, I understand.  It does sound, at first, as though you will stop being “you”; that your friends will start to think you’re strange and you won’t have fun anymore.  But that’s just not true.  Only when you give Jesus complete control of your life can you begin truly to become the delightful, kind-hearted, and contented guy you were meant to be.  This is the only way you’ll ever find real happiness in life.

Pride, idolatry and fear are what kept me from truly turning my life over to Jesus.   I was prideful in wanting my own way.  By making “success” my highest goal I was being idolatrous.  And, by worrying about what people thought about me, I was operating out of fear.  These negative forces in our lives can also be called “strongholds”.  Anything that has a grip on our life, that has control over us, is a stronghold.   So, in truth, I was not in control of my life, nor was I happy; these strongholds had control over me.

Jesus understood how strongholds such as pride, fear and idolatry make it impossible for us to be truly free and happy.  He was able to overpower them in his life and he can do the same in our lives, too.   In the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke we hear that Jesus was tempted by the devil after he had reached adulthood and just before he began his ministry.  The temptations were designed to trip Jesus up so he would fail in his mission to set us all free from the power of sin.

Jesus tempted in the wilderness, James TISSOT, 1886-94

First the devil tempted him with fear and unbelief.  Jesus had been fasting and praying for forty days and he was hungry and without food at hand.  The devil tried to instill fear,about having enough resources, and doubt, about whether God would provide them, by tempting Jesus to take matters into his own hands.   The devil challenged Jesus to command the stones to become bread.  Jesus responded:

It is written, ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4) 

Jesus did not give in to the strongholds of fear or doubt about whether he was going to get to eat or not.  He chose to rely on God to provide what he needed most.  He knew God would never let him down.  God promises us in the Bible that we, too, can trust Him for what we need.  (See Luke 12: 22-31 for the teaching of Jesus on the subject of trusting God for food and clothing and the things we need most.) 

Next, the devil tempts Jesus to prove he is the Son of God by throwing himself down from the highest point of the temple.  Jesus responds:

It is also written, “do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” (Matthew 4:7)  

Jesus does not allow pride to get in the way.  He feels no need to test God’s patience by showing off, trying to prove to the devil he is the Son of God.  He is secure in his relationship with his Father and is confident of his Father’s love.  So Jesus doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone.  Nothing anyone can do or say will change his sense of identity and worth.

Temptation on the mountain, DUCCIO di Buoninsegna, 1308-11

Finally, the devil took Jesus to a very high mountain and pointed out the great kingdoms below.  He said:

All this I will give you…if you will bow down and worship me.”  Jesus responds, “Away from me, Satan!  For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’” (Matthew 4:9-11) 

Idolatry is the worship of something, or someone, other than God.  It is about making the pursuit or attainment of someone or something more important than God in our life.  Jesus was not interested in acquiring power and wealth or popularity.  He had no longing to control kingdoms and amass fortunes.  His only pursuit, his only yearning, was to do the will of his Father.

Can you see from the result of these temptations that Jesus was truly happy?  He felt totally secure in his Father’s love and care.  He didn’t need to prove anything.  He trusted in God to provide what he needed most and fear had no hold on his life.  He was truly happy because he had completely turned his life over to his Father.  In the same way, turning our lives over to Jesus is the only way we can find lasting happiness.

I mistakenly thought I had freedom and that I’d lose it by submitting to Jesus’ will.  Finally, it dawned on me that I was neither free nor in control.   At that point, nine years ago, I said to Jesus, “From this moment on, I only want what You want.  I trust You with my life.  I want to spend the rest of my life listening to You and following Your direction and giving You the glory.  I give up on my other pursuits.  From now on You are my only pursuit.”

Now, Caleb, I am finally happy.  My heart has found its home.  Through Jesus I lack for nothing.  Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians:

I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.  I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” (4:12-13) 

Only by submitting to Jesus can we be set free from the things that make us miserable, from the pressure we all feel to fit in, be a success, to have lots of money.  We are not losing our lives when we turn them over to him.  We are finally gaining them back.  Jesus is the model for how human life was intended by God to be.  Jesus’ relationship with his Father (“Not my will, but Thine”) is the model for our relationship with Jesus.  We find our freedom in becoming like him.  It all begins when we are ready to submit our lives to Jesus and let him be the boss.

I’m eager to continue this train of thought.  In my next letter, I’ll be writing about how to become more like Jesus.  Here are the most important things to remember from this one:

  • Happiness is not found by being in control of our lives. 
  • Even if we think we are in control of our lives, we are not.  Strongholds like pride, fear and idolatry have us in their grip.  For example, to want what we want is evidence of the stronghold of pride.  This actually makes us miserable.
  • Jesus did not succumb to any strongholds and only he can set us free from ours.
  • Freedom is found by allowing Jesus to be the boss of your life.

I hope my story is of help to you.  Even though I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my life, Jesus assured me he won’t let any of it go to waste.

Love,

Mom

This is the last letter  for 2011 from my book, Bringing Home the Faith.  I will post the remaining four letters and epilogue next year.  

Discussion Questions for Letter No. 6: Why Becoming Like Jesus is What’s Best for Us

1)      What does the Greek word for “Christ” mean?  As we confess our faith in Jesus Christ what else should we be doing?  Why?

2)      Why do some Christians lose their way in life?  Has this happened to you or to someone you know?

3)      Can you put in your own words this statement from the apostle Paul?: I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out.  For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. (Chapter 7, verses 18b and 19)  What does he mean?

4)      Can you think of an example from your own life when you did not do the good you wanted to do but did what was wrong instead?   Why couldn’t you do the good you wanted to do?

5)      What does the phrase, Thy will be done, mean to you?

6)      What does Jesus mean when he says, “…Take my yoke upon you…? (Matthew 11:29)  Why would anyone want to do that?

7)      Why would going through life wanting what you want be an unpleasant way to live?

8)       What can we learn from the life of St. Paul about becoming like Jesus?

9)      Why can’t you become the person God created you to be without Jesus’ help?

10)      Describe how the devil tempted Jesus and why Jesus responded the way he did.

11)      What is a stronghold?  Do you recognize any in yourself?

12)      How do we find true freedom?  Have you experienced this?  Please explain.

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