Mar 172010
 

Last time, I answered a question from a reader who wondered why there are so many hardships in the Christian life.  I said that, according to what the Bible teaches, everything (good or bad) that God allows into our life is for the purpose of making us more like Jesus.  But I didn’t anticipate an even more probing follow-up question:

“Why do we need to become more and more like Jesus? Is it good to be like that? And what is the definition of good?”

Another commenter voiced a similar concern, in a bit more detail:

“Is it good to be like Jesus?  I mean it sounds kinda nice to feel an urge to pray for people, but gosh, I wonder if it’s worth it to have to be spitefully used by people at my church in order to feel that way.  Think I'd rather forgo the bully treatment and risk not having to pray for my enemies. I really want love…and yeah, I guess I don't mind giving it out (and that sounds like an upside of being like Jesus), but only if I get the love I need.  Does that sound selfish?”

This takes us right to the heart of the matter.  Sure, the Bible says that God wants to make us like Jesus.  It also says that the process may involve suffering, pain, confronting the reality of our sinful nature, not doing things we want to do, doing things we don’t want to do, and if all goes well, perhaps ending up by getting the same warm reception from the world that Jesus got.  If I’m going to have to go through all that (it’s perfectly natural to ask), will it be worth it?

To get to the heart of the matter, we have to get to the heart of Jesus.  On the night Jesus was betrayed, He had one last supper with His disciples, and He used the opportunity to make sure they got the message of what His life and teaching was really all about.  This message (known to theologians as the “Upper Room Discourse”) is recorded for us in John’s gospel; you can find it online here, or better yet, look it up in your own Bible (read chapters 13-17).  I wish I had time here to fully examine what Jesus teaches, but that would mean making this article last for a lifetime.  (If you’re interested in further reading, Andrew Murray’s book The True Vine is a great place to start.)

Jesus began by doing something that shocked the daylights out of everyone who was there, and most people who read about it afterward.  He got up from the table, took off His shirt, wrapped a towel around his waist, filled a bucket with water, and proceeded to wash the dirt off everyone’s feet.  To get your mind around this, consider that 1) washing people’s feet was a job reserved for the lowest, most menial servants, kind of like scrubbing toilets would be today, and 2) Jesus was not only the most respected person at the table, He was God.

Then Jesus sat back down, and said this:

“Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet.  For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”  (John 13:12-17 NASB)

That makes perfect sense: if we call Jesus our Teacher and our Lord, then we have to let Him teach us, and we have to obey what He says.  The lesson Jesus teaches us, and the command He gives us to obey, is to follow His example and do what He did.  The message of Christianity is that we should trust in Christ, and, as C. S. Lewis once remarked, it’s no good saying you trust someone if you’re not prepared to take His advice.

And there are no shortcuts.  If you want to become like Jesus, then it has to happen the way Jesus says.  “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (Matthew 16:24).

There is no quick and easy way for you to learn to be patient, for example, because waiting through something hard is the whole point of patience.  If you want to learn how to forgive, you have to experience mistreatment, because that’s the whole point of forgiveness.  You can’t serve like Jesus did without doing work that other people don’t want to do, because that’s the whole point of serving.

It’s the same with anything else in life: If you don’t want to practice for an hour or so every day, you’ll never become a good musician.  If you don’t want to work out long hours in the gym, you’ll never become a good athlete.  And so on.

Of course, you could always say that practicing or working out isn’t worth it—that the end result of being a concert pianist or an Olympic athlete just isn’t for you.  Not everyone has the talent to be a good musician; I don’t have the talent to be an athlete.  And not everyone wants to be, or has to be.  If you decide athletics isn’t your thing, you can find another hobby that makes you happier, and still enjoy cheering for Michael Phelps doing what he does best.  Good for him; it’s great that somebody can do that stuff.  Me, I collect stamps.

The problem is that that strategy doesn’t work with the tasks Jesus gives us to do.  If you decide not to work out, you’ll just become another non-athletic person, who might be perfectly happy in every other respect.  But if you decide not to forgive, you become an unforgiving person.  If you decide not to serve others, you become a selfish person.  If you decide not to have patience, you become an impatient person.  If you decide not to love, you become a hateful person.  You’ll be resentful, self-centered, bitter, arrogant, and spiteful.  I used to be like that, and I didn’t even want to be around myself.

Philip Yancey shrewdly observed, “The only thing harder than forgiveness is the alternative.”  If you think it’s a pain to forgive people who hurt you and to love and pray for your enemies, as Jesus would, you’re right.  But just try holding onto a grudge and letting resentment poison your life for the next twenty years.  By trying to avoid the pain of learning to forgive like Jesus, you’ll only fall into the even worse pain of bitterness.

So what Jesus wants for us is not just a good thing, or even the best thing: it’s something that’s absolutely necessary if we want to be truly happy.  That’s what Jesus said Himself, back in the upper room:

“If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love, just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. These things I have spoken to you, that My joy may remain in you, and that your joy may be full.”  (John 15:10-11)

If you want to have true joy, the kind of joy and peace that Jesus had, then you have to let God fulfill His purpose in your life.  You have to become like Jesus.

So, how does this happen?  Do we just figure out (as the slogan says) “What Would Jesus Do,” and then try to do it?  A worthy intention, but not very practical.  R. A. Torrey pointed out the problem (I’ve quoted this before, but it bears repeating):

There is nothing more futile that we can possibly attempt than to imitate Christ in the power of our own will.  If we imagine that we succeed, it will be simply because we have a very incomplete knowledge of Christ.  The more we study Him, and the more perfectly we understand His conduct, the more clearly will we see how far short we have come from imitating Him.

Does that mean that Jesus is asking us to do the impossible?  Of course not.  It means that Jesus has a better way to bring it about.  And now we really come to the heart of Jesus’ message.  Jesus draws a rich and beautiful poetic metaphor of a vine and its branches, describing the organic, living unity that He and His followers have.  Take the time to read these words slowly and reflect on them:

"I am the true vine, and My Father is the vinedresser.

Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.

Abide in Me, and I in you.

As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine,
neither can you, unless you abide in Me.

I am the vine, you are the branches.

He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit;
for without Me you can do nothing.”

—John 15:1-5

It’s not about working.  It’s about living and growing.  Jesus’ goal is not merely to change your behavior; Jesus’ goal is to transform the very kind of life you have.  His plan is not for you to do or not do certain things; it is to have His life infusing your existence and working itself out in the kind of things that will come to you as naturally as a well-tended branch produces fruit.

Jesus doesn’t say, “Strive to develop the kind of character you see in me.”  He says, “Abide in me.  Rest in me.  Stay with me.  Relax and hang out with me for a while.  Stop worrying about those other things.  Let me do the work—without me you can do nothing anyway.   I’m going to transform you into the kind of person who has the character that I have, but all you need to do is trust me enough to let me do it for you.”

A funny thing happens when you hang out with a person long enough.  I spent several years in college being mentored by one of my professors, Dr. Childs, who is a brilliant composer with a lot of good things to teach.  When I came home one year for summer break, my dad asked me why I was holding the fingers on my left hand in an odd way.  I didn’t realize I had been, and when I did, I couldn’t believe it.  Two of Dr. Childs’s left fingers were partly paralyzed due to a head injury, and, without even trying, I had actually managed to unconsciously adopt his physical mannerism.

I think it’s the same when we abide with Jesus.  The more time we spend with Him, the more we’ll see our lives, our actions, and our attitudes becoming like His, even when we’re not aware of it.  He calls us to be like Him, and yes, the process has its share of trials and growing pains.  But it’s not about working to live up to an impossible ideal.  It’s about trusting and resting in Jesus, letting Him do the work in us, letting His life fill us, letting His actions flow out through us.  It will be good, and it will be worth it.

God says that all things work together for our good, and God says that all things work together to make us more like Jesus when we trust Him.  Those are simply two ways of saying the same thing.

 

First published September 2008.

  • E sher

    also very good points to good questions here. thank you again

    • You’re very welcome! Thanks again for the comment.

  • Erica Herr

    Dear Eric, can you please help me understand Matthew 10:37? I can’t reconcile this with Jesus being loving and understanding. How could I love anyone more than my child? Why would Jesus want us to? how can I?

    • Thanks for your kind words, Erica! You ask a very good question and I’ve been giving it a lot of thought. I don’t have time for a full blog post just now, but perhaps I can get a few words down for you here.

      As I see it, the crucial question is, who is Jesus and why is he saying this? Of course it would be insufferable for any mere human to say “Love me more than you love your own children”— unless that human happened to be, well, God Himself. Since (as Christians believe) Jesus is God in the flesh, what he’s saying here can be seen as simply reframing the First Commandment: “You shall have no other gods before me.” In other words, if we ever have to choose between Jesus and someone else, and we choose someone else, then that proves we didn’t really love Jesus. “No one can serve two masters; you cannot serve God and idols.”

      Of course the application of this commandment becomes a much harder thought when we’re tempted to make an idol of someone we’re very close to, like a family member, maybe especially a child. This is where the context of Matthew 10 helps make a bit more sense of it. Jesus is talking specifically about times when “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child; children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death… a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Matthew 10:21, 36). Obviously, those are extraordinary circumstances that won’t occur for everyone! But if they ever came up—if your child were to say “If you really love me you’ll deny your faith in Christ so I don’t have to turn you over to the Secret Police”—who would we choose? Jesus’ admonition is, “My job here isn’t to improve family unity (sorry, ‘biblical patriarchy movement‘, you’re wrong); I came to ask people to follow me, whether their families come along or not.”

      That said, Jesus is definitely not saying “Quit loving your children.” Far from it; read Matthew 18:1-10 to see just how highly Jesus cares and wants us to care about children! Rather, as C. S. Lewis says in The Four Loves, if our love for our children is greater than our love for Jesus, the remedy is not to decrease our love for our children but to increase our love for Jesus. The more we love Jesus, the more we’ll in fact become able to love others, including our children, the way He loves them.

      I hope that helps you a bit! Please let me know.

  • Erica Herr

    P.s. The section on “how does Jesus love you”…made me cry, and feel hopeful and felt like an answer to a prayer. I have been studying the bible and feeling despair and confusion. I couldn’t have found this article at a better time than now. Thank you for writing this and answering all these questions.