God has a story. It is not a work of fiction, although it defies the imagination. God, not an impersonal force, but a community of personhood with limitless creative power, devised a universe to support the life of a race of beings suited for friendship yet choosing enmity. Then, in the most incomprehensible move, the Eternal decided to rescue His errant mortal creatures – even at the most extravagant and excruciating cost to Himself. To convince the guilty race of His love He miraculously inserted Himself as a human, lived a mundane ordinary life, and as the only being in the entire universe with the ability (by virtue of a sinless human life) to eradicate the tragedy of man’s choice He allowed himself to become sin in our place – the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God (if we allow it). We are poised world wide to celebrate His arrival as a helpless little baby, born into poverty and anonymity rather than riches and celebrity. Christmas hymns so poignantly capture and illustrate the depth of this event.
Where are you in that story? This is a good question for our time. Do you call yourself ‘Christian’ – Christ follower? Please refrain from that label if it means you believe in Jesus enough that you have a ticket into heaven but not enough to serve Him on earth. Does that title mean that you go to church once in a while? Are you politically aligned with conservatism, have a fairly moral lifestyle and a nice family? Does your prayer time consist of occasional shout outs when you need a parking place, someone is sick, or you need a promotion? Do you eviscerate both believers and non-believers alike on social media if they disagree with your perspectives? This caricature is the common perception of a “Christian” in our culture. How on earth has it come to this??
Each of us has a story to tell. We call it a testimony, the way we linked our destiny to Jesus at some point in our lives. The subsequent chapters were determined by our associations, the influences that shaped our relationship and understanding of God. Belonging to Him is certainly an adventure, a call to other-worldly perspective and pursuit, and, although we don’t hear this much from the pulpit, the path is strewn with danger and suffering. The immortal Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan, written from the confines of his jail cell, brilliantly recounts many of our perils in the form of allegory. For the most part we have lost that sense of urgency, the recognition of the spiritual warfare that we are engaged in (or overcome by), and Jesus is relegated to the sidelines – benched until needed for a special play. I suppose there are many reasons for this unfortunate regression, but I hope that as true believers we can reform and return to our high calling.
The urgent need is for repentance, revival, cataclysmic change in church practices. Sermons that lull us into spiritual complacency or incite us into political activism must be replaced with Jesus’ call to ‘come and die’. Death to self assertion, self promotion, self pity, rationalization for sin, and a call to turn away from me so as to unlock care for others – these are the prevailing themes of the first disciples. And it was a literal death for most of them, the ones that ‘upset the world’. We upset the world too, but in a dismally different way! Christianity today statistically produces a group of people whose outward lives look the same as those of unbelievers – the same divorce rates, the same social media vitriol, the same self-excusing individualism, the same business corruption, the same immorality, the same rejection of real or perceived enemies. No wonder our culturalized version of Christianity is mocked and rejected. And whether your particular brand is ‘live by the law’ (see Life after Legalism) or ‘tips and techniques’ Christianity, the results are similar. God’s story is replaced by our version, misrepresenting Him. So many scriptures have been trampled, ignored, or perverted to get to where we are now.
God is infinitely merciful, as the ongoing saga of His interactions with foolish and failed humanity demonstrates. Trust altered the trajectory of many a loser. But He is also supremely just as well, and I tremble at the verse that ‘judgment begins at the house of God’. ‘To whom much is given…” As I throw stones at the current church narrative, I remember that I live in a glass house. I want to learn to walk humbly, do justice, put the needs of others above my own, be unashamed of Jesus, choose the best rather than the good, love with kindness as well as discernment, speak the truth in love, and above all forgive. I fail miserably! I welcome both the rebuke and support of my companions on this heavenly journey. We need each other desperately. God’s story begins and ends with community. The church was His idea. Let us together be open and vulnerable to God’s promptings – willing to hold opinions, relationships, possessions and doctrine with an open hand to Him. I am a miserable failure, but He is relentlessly forgiving. Let us each say like our Leader “Not my will but Yours”. Nothing less will do. It may cost us everything here to gain everything there! Our stories, enmeshed in His will be retold for all eternity. Without the eternal connection the tales will be erased when time itself is obliterated. His life or ours, He dignifies us with choice. For now.
To fulfill the high calling that God has placed upon us in creating us and redeeming us, we must have the right inner substance or character. We must come to grips with who we really are, inside and out. For we will do what we are. So we will need to become the kind of people who routinely and easily walk in the goodness and power of Jesus our master. For this, a process of “spiritual formation”—really, transformation—is required.
Spiritual formation for the Christian is a Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self—our “spiritual” or invisible aspects of human life—in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself. In the degree to which such a spiritual transformation to inner Christlikeness is successful, the outer life of the individual will become a natural expression or outflow of the character and teachings of Jesus. We will simply “walk the walk,” as we say.
Christlikeness of the inner being is not a merely human attainment, of course. It is, finally, a gift of grace. Nevertheless, well-informed human effort is indispensable. Spiritual formation in Christ is not a passive process. Grace does not make us passive. Divine grace is God acting in our life to accomplish what we cannot do on our own. It informs our being and actions and makes them effective in the wisdom and power of God. Hence, grace is not opposed to effort (our actions) but to earning (our attitude).