Becoming God's Spiritual Person
With God's Help . . .
We live in a scary world. Leaders of small countries toy with nuclear power to put themselves on par with nations much bigger and wealthier. Impoverished countries practice genocide in an effort to produce a dominant people. People are shunned, neglected, and persecuted for their beliefs. Civil wars seek to gain control. Coup d’etat determines leadership. Poor people are exploited, then deliberately are subjected to suffering. The politics of denial are practiced as culture clashes with culture within a region.
We often say, “But . . . not within our country!” This is not an effort to say that people are not blessed by living in “advanced civilizations” that are governed by the rule of law with rights extended to all. Yet, how often does murder occur, or do people live in fear, or is justice based on whom you know rather than what you do, or is that which is right determined by what gives sensual pleasure, or does greed trump compassion, or does the cycle of abuse shatter lives, or does power determine what is correct? These things do not begin to touch tragedies caused by accidents, the supplanting of personal judgment by rage, or the occurrence of the unthinkable through the void of moral values. Though we live in a society of laws, stalking happens, slavery exists, and exploitation is real. When was the last time you nervously were cautiously afraid? Why? How many locations do you avoid? When? Why?
No matter how wealthy you are, what forms of security you acquire, or what protection surrounds you, the bad still can occur. Why? That which is evil is not merely “out there.” Evil is in all of us. Thus we must look within as well as without. Every day on numerous occasions in our society, people say of a man, a woman, or a child, “I never thought he (she) would have done that!”
Power in every form intoxicates and deceives, but ultimately becomes frustratingly ineffective in issues that matter the most. Pleasure distracts and deceives, but is significantly limited as age dulls physical senses. The gates of opportunity close as the limitations of life’s realities are encountered. Faster than anyone cares to recognize, what “is” becomes what “was,” and what “was” never presents itself again as our physical age grasps physical reality. That is not a matter of bitterness, but a matter of accepting the fact that physical existence is incredibly brief as it passes quickly. The “forever” experiences that always will exist in life at age 25 are a “momentary flash of the past” at age 70.
It is jarring to live in a society at age 33 and know the average life expectancy in that society is age 40. To be surrounded by women that did not know about menopause because they never knew women who lived long enough to have menopause catches your attention. To rarely see a grey-headed man (I saw one in four years) is thought provoking. To hear people accept early death as an inescapable reality is sobering. As someone I knew put it, “If I live I live; if I die I die.”
Whereas power is stumped by limitations, pleasure’s distractions become harmful addictions, and opportunity ceases with aging, influence lives on and on. No matter how young or old a person is, influence continues. It is exerted with or without a person’s awareness—it can even exert itself when the person dies! Perhaps the sobering reality is—whether good or bad, constructive or destructive, helpful or harmful, desirable or “the kiss of death”—the person’s influence exists. Our influence either encourages a person to build or to waste life. The impact of our influence will cause joy, sorrow, or both.
The only way a person can have zero influence is for the person not to exist. No higher compliment can be given than for someone to declare, “I want to be just like you.” Ironically, no greater curse can occur than for a person to say, “I want to be just like you.” Usually, whether our influence is a blessing or a curse depends on (a) if we were seen in a moment of triumph or failure, and (b) what the person thought he (she) saw in our moment of influence.
“Did you see me at my best or at my worst? Did you accurately understand why I was doing what I did? Did I influence you in the direction I would like for you to take?” Quite honestly, how do you feel about someone wanting to be like you?
Perhaps the most frightening aspect of influence is found in those moments we represent someone else. “I will never do business with that company because I personally knew an employee who said . . . . And do you know what that employee did in that company?” “I will never buy that product because I personally knew someone who made that. Do you know what that person used to make the product?” “I will never go into that place because I knew some someone who worked there. Do you know what he (she) told me?”
Or . . . “If that person works there, I trust him (her)!” “If he (she) makes it, it has to be good!” “That place is dependable—and so is anyone that works there!” “That is more than a piece of paper from a company who wants your money—it is a promise you can depend on!”
Is any task more sobering than representing God? Representing the God who is the source of life? Representing the God who sees beyond misery? Representing the God who is touched by repentance? Representing the God who forgives the horrible? Representing the God who makes family out of offenders? Representing the God who looks at the penitent with grace and mercy? Representing the God who resurrects? Representing the God who does what He says and keeps His promises? Representing the God who refuses to get discouraged? Representing the God who gives hope to the hopeless? Representing the God who selflessly sacrifices to show love to the unlovable?
If someone formed their view of God based on your personal reflection of God in your behavior, attitude, and worship, how would that person see God? Do you realize someone you associate with says, “God is . . . and God does . . . .” based on your behavior, attitude, and worship? To someone, you are the closest that person has come to a view of God yet. To that person, in truth, you represent God. May one of the powerful insights that person gains from you be “imperfect people actively place their hope in God’s grace.”
Do You Need To Alter Your View?
If your view of first-century societies is that they (a) existed in a Christian-accepting/friendly circumstance/situation, you need to examine that view carefully. When Christianity began in the Jewish society and in gentile societies, becoming a Christian involved complex choices.
For example, in the Roman empire (that was centered in Italy and existed primarily in the Mediterranean vicinity), the primary forms of religion were idolatrous. Christianity with its views/teachings was “the new kid on the block.” Since it was a “new” religion, the government considered it dangerous and socially undesirable. The adherents of idolatrous religions had quite different beliefs from people who decided to be Christians. Those devoted to the majority of the forms of idolatry had a different concept of deity, a different view of how deity acted, a different view of ethical responsibility, a different concept of moral behavior, a different concept of indulging sensual desires, a different view of what it meant to be religious, and a different concept of how to gain a god’s attention.
People and their societies change slowly! There commonly are relatively few who are willing to think regardless of the consequences. However, the majority do not like change and do not seek for understanding. They seek to comply with society’s past standards. At first, this majority is confused by anyone’s desire to change or endure the consequences of change. This majority is of necessity tolerant. However, their confusion and their tolerance usually last for a relatively brief period. Soon this tolerance is replaced by opposition. Change and the understanding it brings are seen as bad and dangerous. People who are a part of change are dangerous and must be opposed!
As examples, first consider that many of the first-century Christians (especially gentiles) did not know how to be Christians. Consider statements like, “You did not learn Christ this way” (Ephesians 4:20), or “. . . trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10). Think concerning statements such as “have this attitude in yourselves” (Philippians 2:5). Consider statements like “you have been called for this purpose” (1 Peter 2:21). Think about John’s statements about those who thought living in Jesus had nothing to do with behaving as Jesus taught (1 John 1:6, 2:6; John 13:15, 15:10). Consider Jude 10. Reflect on the fact that Christians in Rome did not know the practical implications of being a living sacrifice (Romans 12).
This was more than a gentile Christian problem. Did not Jesus himself tell Jewish listeners that following him involved learning (Matthew 9:13, 11:29)?
Second, consider how often those first-century Christians used pre-conversion behavior in their post-conversion lifestyle. For examples, think about 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Galatians 5:19-26; Ephesians 4:25-31; Colossians 3:5-9; and 1 Thessalonians 4:1-8. Paul often referred to conversion as involving the renewal of the mind (consider Romans 12:2; Ephesians 4:23; Colossians 3:10, 11).
The Christian changed the way he (she) behaved because he (she) changed the way he (she) thought. He (she) changed the way of thinking because the person changed the accepted understanding of God’s nature and acts.
God’s Influence on Us
God’s influence on us is dependent on God being in us. God can be in us by our allowing Jesus Christ to be in us. Paul told the Ephesians (Ephesians 3:14-19) and the Colossians (Colossians 1:26, 27) that the key to having God’s influence in our lives is permitting Christ to live in us. In fact, Paul referred to baptism as an act of placing in Christ (Romans 6:3) and being clothed in Christ (Galatians 3:27). Being a Christian is not merely knowing about Jesus Christ, but it is about allowing Jesus Christ to be who we are (Galatians 2:20).
The challenge we as Christians face is found in refusing to oppose God’s influence in us as we seek to be God’s people. The Christians in Ephesus were not to grieve God’s Spirit as God’s Spirit worked in them to produce redemption (Ephesians 4:30). Paul instructed the Christians at Thessalonica not to quench God’s Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). Were I to paraphrase those statements by using words we are likely to use today, I would say, “Do not work against God’s influence in your lives as you seek to be God’s people.” Do not make God’s work in us more difficult for God by opposing His influence on us.
We can make it hard for God to transform us into the people He wants us to be. We can drag our feet, resist His encouragement, fight His purposes, listen to our physical desires instead of His spiritual objectives, and cling to who we were rather than be devoted to who we could become. Paul told those Christians not to do such! He said, “Do not resist God’s influence in your lives!”
If we will cooperate with God’s influence in us, we will be amazed at what God can lead us to be spiritually. If we resist God’s influence in us, we will never be the spiritual people we have the potential of becoming.
An Act of Cooperation
This biblical concept is not difficult to get American Christians to mouth, but it is difficult to get them to understand. As a general cultural attitude, American Christians (and surely Christians in some other cultures as well) tend to view being a Christian as a physical accomplishment or physical achievement. It likely has to do with the stress we place on the concept of obedience.
If we do not exercise care to be biblical, we can decide salvation is no more than a contractual agreement that exists because of human acts given in compliance with directives from God. From that view, we can reason that “God owes us” because we have done “what He requires.” In that view it is easy to think our acts of obedience “earned” our salvation. We fail to see that acts of obedience are a response to God’s love expressed in His grace and mercy. The fact that an obedient response to God’s love is necessary does not mean our physical response deserves God’s grace.
Salvation (God’s redemption expressed in forgiveness and acceptance) is a gift, an inheritance. We qualify to accept the gift, but we do not deserve the gift. We qualify for God’s continuing presence in our lives, but we do not deserve His kindness. We cooperate with God, but we do not earn His acceptance. God gives us the gift of salvation. We serve God’s purposes in genuine appreciation of what He has done for us. We do not (in any sense) earn. We say thanks.
Our salvation exists because of God’s deeds of love combined with our gratitude. God makes salvation possible through His love for us. We respond to that love. In that sense, our salvation involves our cooperation with God.
The Christian must always know that nothing God gives anyone in Jesus Christ is deserved. The Christian must never forget, “I am not nor could be anything spiritually without God allowing Christ to be in me. My hope is based on God’s active presence in me” (Colossians 1:24-28).