While the world pushes us to climb the ladder of success, God calls us to climb a different ladder.
If you’re a Christian, you’re a miracle. Your conversion was a restoration of fortunes, a miraculous release from captivity, and a joyful homecoming. With God, there are no “boring” testimonies. But over time, life gets boring. We wonder how we lost that lovin’ feeling. We want the good times back. More than that, we want a future of greater glory.
Israel anticipated the hopeful restoration of Zion. But they didn’t just hope for a prosperous city—they looked forward to a reigning king, their promised Messiah.
They looked forward to the time when, after the anticipation and the hope, after the promises and the prophecies, Jesus comes. He lives and dies and rises again to save his people from their sins.
But that’s not the end of the story. The Bible concludes not with a deep sigh of rest but cries out in desperate anticipation, “Come, Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20). God’s people aren’t home just yet.
Such is the tone of Psalm 126, a psalm of ascent, filled with what was and longing for what will one day be.
LONGING FOR BETTER DAYS
Even without knowing much of the context, it’s easy to see that Psalm 126 speaks of an Israelite restoration so grand that even the surrounding nations remembered it (Ps. 126:2-3). Maybe it was their return from exile in Babylon. Maybe something else.
Whatever it was, it was like a dream (Ps.126:1). It was the happy day from which all others orbited, evoking laughter and joy, like Job after his suffering (Job 42:10). And the psalmist wanted another hopeful and joyous restoration.
Christians recognize this feeling of elation. Like the conversion experience or a season of personal revival, spiritual restoration awakens zeal for the gospel. These brief moments can stick in our memories for a lifetime, and if you’re like me, are ones to which your heart longs to return.
The psalmist understood that longing. The Lord had done great things for the people of God, and they were glad (Ps. 126:3). But that gladness faded, as it tends to do. We need more than memories of great things done. We need the hope of great things to come.
An initial reading of this psalm can leave the reader with the impression that nostalgia weighed the psalmist down—like remembering “the good ole days” that are now long gone. But that’s not quite the tone.
Nostalgia takes us half-way home; it takes us back to the place of our former blessing, but it can’t take us to future hope. Like the glory days of old, only God can take us to that blessed shore. Only God can gather us together with lasting joy, like Israel bringing in plenty during the harvest (Ps. 126:5-6).
“Nostalgia” first appeared as a word in the 1770s, springing from the combination of the Greek words nostos, meaning “homecoming,” and algos, meaning “pain.” In the 1800s, encyclopedias of medicine listed nostalgia as a disease: “severe homesickness.”
Isn’t that what we all are, to some degree or another? Homesick.
Israel sure was, even at home. So are we. We’re homesick for God, for what only he can provide. We’re homesick for final freedom, forgiveness, refuge, victory, and peace.
Christians live in a world that looks like home without the satisfaction of home. As C.S. Lewis said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” Made for another world, indeed. But we’re in this one now, and we must learn to live here.
LEARNING TO LIVE HERE
Far from a disease bringing one down, the memory of Psalm 126 causes the careful reader to swell with hope. Today may not be like yesterday, but God doesn’t intend to take us back to what was. He intends to bring us forward to what will one day be.
The Garden of Eden was a pointer to—not the culmination of—the glory to come. God’s gift of your future is better than the varied gifts of your past. In the end, even all the revivals of history will pale in comparison to the great revival coming on the clouds. Walking with Jesus is a journey of hope!
So Psalm 126 is not a great and longing sigh as much as it is the first verse of a new and hopeful song. Yes, there is a plea for restoration (Ps. 126:4), but it’s not a cry of desperation. It’s a cry of expectation. It’s a cry for God to do it again, grounded in faith that he will.
The lesson is that learning to live here is more than coping with a happy memory, it’s rejoicing in a coming glory. That doesn’t mean homesickness is easier to bear. It means, given to Christ, nostalgia points us homeward to glory rather than backward to the Garden.
Jesus reverses nostalgia’s direction. With him, as good as our past was, the best is yet to come.
THE GARDEN OF GRACE
No single event of blessing is enough to sustain us forever. We forget. We weaken. We falter. We fall.
We need a resurrection hope. That's why God sent his Sower to sow gospel seeds into our lives (Mark 4:1-20). But that seed doesn't grow instantly. Cultivating takes time we don’t often want to spend. It takes watering when we don’t want to. It takes, in a word, maturing.
Learning to pray our tears is the maturing process by which we prepare for a greater harvest. Psalm 126:5-6 promises “those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy! He who goes out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.” As we weep toward God, he takes our tears and plants them in his garden of grace. They take root and grow. But the harvest comes later—as late as the resurrection.
SHOUTS OF JOY
I imagine Mary Magdalene and the other Mary on their way to the tomb of Jesus, weeping as they walk. What a joy it was to know him, to be by his side as he taught, as he healed, as he filled the world with happiness and hope. But that was yesterday. Today, their tears are with him in the grave, buried in the ground.
As they approach the garden tomb, the earth quakes and the stone rolls away. Someone stands before them. His appearance is like lightning. His clothing is white as snow. He seems to know their tears. “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. He is not here, for he has risen.”
Could it be? Then behold—he appears and says, “Greetings!”
They fall and worship. Then they rise and go, to tell his disciples that they too will see him. (Matt. 28:1-10).
In other words, they’re coming home with shouts of joy (Ps. 126:6).
NO MORE TEARS
Sally Lloyd-Jones captures this joyful mood in The Jesus Storybook Bible. Mary runs,
And it seemed to her that morning, as she ran, almost as if the whole world had been made anew, almost as if the whole world was singing for joy—the trees, tiny sounds in the grass, the birds . . . her heart.
Was God really making everything sad come untrue? Was he making even death come untrue?
She couldn’t wait to tell Jesus’ friends. ‘They won’t believe it!’ she laughed.
She laughed. Oh, she laughed!
Her mouth was filled with laughter (Ps. 126:2) because the Lord had done great things for her (Ps. 126:3). But not only for her. The Lord had done great things for all his people, for all his friends, for all of us.
Those great things of the resurrection came by way of death. That’s the Christian life: first the cross, then the crown. It's the planting that produces the harvest, the death that produces life. As Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).
Jesus is the proof that buried hope grows into glorious reality. The tears of the cross bore the fruit of the resurrection. He went out weeping, bearing his life for sowing; he came home with sheaves (Ps. 126:6), bringing many sons to glory (Heb. 2:10).
COMING HOME TO A BETTER STORY
Israel’s story was a good one, but a better one was yet to come. And there’s a better one coming for us, as well.
One day, the Lord will restore our fortunes—untarnished communion with him, coram deo. The first earth will pass away, and the holy city, the New Jerusalem, will come down out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
We will receive our glorified bodies on the new heaven and new earth. On that great and glorious day, God will say to all his people, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man” (Rev. 21:1-4). He will wipe every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more!
No more mourning. No more crying. No more pain.
The former things will have passed away.
We’ll finally be home.
David McLemore is an elder at Refuge Church in Franklin, Tennessee. He also works for a large healthcare corporation where he manages an application development department. He is married to Sarah, and they have three sons. Read more of David’s writing on his blog, Things of the Sort.
[i] Timothy J. Keller, “Praying Our Tears,” February 27, 2000, City Life Church, Boston, sermon, The Timothy Keller Sermon Archive.
I once survived a season of life when three of my daughters were ages three and under. It was nonstop sippy cups and naptimes and potty training and diaper changes and “Hey, that’s mine!” and “Share that toy right now or Mommy is going to take it away” My husband was pastoring a community of young adults at the time; he was gone almost every night. My best friend’s husband was a youth pastor and he also was gone almost every night. Her three kids were each two years ahead of mine. So nearly every evening was spent at the park, where two moms wrangled a total of six kids, running the children into exhaustion until we moms crossed the bedtime finish line.
Because my best friend was just ahead of me in the parenting marathon, I had the benefit of watching from behind how she handled the ages ahead. Each evening at the park I saw how she dealt with the fours and fives and sixes of her own kids.
As I watched her interact with her kids at the park, here’s what I heard her say over and over and over: “God will help you.” It was their family’s refrain, her motherly chorus.
A PARENTAL REFRAIN
“But, it's my turn!” God will help you.
“She pushed me!” God will help you.
“No! I don’t want to go home!” God will help you.
It probably sounds a little silly out of context like that. Of course she said many other instructive and helpful words. Of course she gave commands, doled out discipline, lavished warm hugs, and physically removed her children from harm.
“God will help you” wasn’t all she said. But she always said it.
I heard this truth so often that I began picking it up, too. It stuck in my mouth and sunk into my heart because nothing is truer. It’s no pithy, “Be nice . . .” or, “You can do it!” or, “Just obey, kid.” It’s real, robust truth.
There’s nothing I could say to my child, age one or twenty-one, that would be truer than the statement, “God will help you.” It turns out my friend was following the example of the Israelites.
Where Israel’s Help Came From
“God will help you” is the banner of Psalm 121, a Psalm of Ascent, which was corporately rehearsed by the Israelite pilgrims as they ascended the hill to the temple mount in Jerusalem for feasts three times a year.
Together, they sang, “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth” (Ps. 121:1-2).
As they climbed, they confessed. The Lord—and the Lord alone—was the source of their help. He was there, in the temple above, and they looked up, seeking him, and remembering how he made heaven and earth and that he would help them, too.
Their confession of need and call for help morphed into a reminder of truth to each other. They moved from speaking in the first person to the second person, and proclaiming to each another,
“He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not strike you by day nor the moon by night” (Ps. 121: 3-6).
It’s as if the pilgrims were first reminding themselves, and then one another, this is who our God is! He is our helper. He made the earth. He keeps our feet on the path. He never sleeps. Day and night he keeps us. God will help you.
The benediction is future-focused: “The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore” (Ps. 121:7-8).
Those ascending the hill were rehearsing these truths truth to one another. The Lord has kept you. He is keeping you. He will continue to keep you. He’s not changing. God will help you.
Where Does Our Help Come From?
My friend knew that her children needed the Lord’s help. She knew they were like the Israelites, helpless on their own. She knew that they most centrally needed help from God above, their maker, sustainer, and redeemer.
She knew that if she only demanded good, achievable behavior, then she would raise pharisaical children—children who would become adults who would rely on their own efforts to produce outward results rather than inner change. She knew their human efforts would eventually ring hollow, that they would be unable to do more or try harder. She rehearsed to them from a young age the truth that they would need God’s help. She taught them their help must come from the Lord.
We live in an age of self. Self-help, self-empowerment, do-it-yourself. We want to be self-made men and women who reach down and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.
In this self-absorbed and self-reliant age, we need to be reminded that this same reality applies to us. You and I need to return to the truth of Psalm 121. It is God who made us. It is God who made heaven and earth. It is God who keeps us. It is God who will help us.
Self-esteem psychology says look within. The psalmist says look up.
Jesus says, “Come to me and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28-30). He harkens back to the psalm. The Son’s offer of rest reminds us that he is God saying to us, “I am the maker of heaven and earth. I hold your feet to the path. I keep your life. I never sleep. Come to me.”
Good News for a Weary Age
What do we need help with right now? Where are we striving after with our own efforts and energy? Where have we run dry, come to the end of ourselves? Where do we need to stop looking within and start looking up?
God, through his Son and by his Spirit, will help you.
The words “God will help you” never grow old and never fall short. They are true and they are able.
To the woman in my church whose husband is unfaithful: God will help you heal. To the young man oppressed by addiction: God will help you be free. To the adult daughter whose mother is dying: God will help you let go. To the pastor whose faith feels burnt-out and dry: God will help you be refreshed. To the lonely single: God will help you rejoice. To the poor, the sick, the needy, the sad, the desperate: God will help you.
As you and I ascend, as we climb, as we journey like pilgrims in this life, let’s remember Israel and her song. Let’s lift our eyes to the hills. Let’s remember that God made heaven and earth. He holds our feet to the path. He does not sleep. He will keep us. He delights to help his children.
In this age of self, let’s return to the rhythms of the covenant community ascending the temple mount. Let’s confess that we are not enough on our own, but the Lord is. Let’s remind ourselves and each other, God will help you.
Jen Oshman is a wife and mom to four daughters and has served as a missionary for 17 years on three continents. She currently resides in Colorado where she and her husband serve with Pioneers International, and she encourages her church-planting husband at Redemption Parker. Her passion is leading women to a deeper faith and fostering a biblical worldview. She writes at www.jenoshman.com.
[i]I am indebted to Jared Wilson’s book The Imperfect Disciple for this phrase.
It was not enough for God to make us his children. He wants us to know that we’re his children. He wants us to experience his love. And that’s why he sent the Holy Spirit. Galatians 4:6 says, “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts.” The reason why God sent the Spirit is so that we can experience what it is to be sons and daughters loved by our Father. And notice how the Spirit is described. Most of the time in Galatians Paul simply refers to “the Spirit.” Often in the New Testament he’s described as “the Holy Spirit.” But here Paul calls him “the Spirit of his Son.”
Our experience of the Spirit is the experience of the Son, for the Spirit is the Spirit of the Son. The Spirit enables us to experience what Jesus experiences.
God Sent the Spirit of His Son So That We Might Know That We Are Sons
So the Father has given us the Spirit of his Son so that we can enjoy the experience of his Son, so that we know what it is to be sons like the Son, so that we can enjoy the love the Son experiences from the Father.
God gave his Son up to the whip, the thorns, the nails, the darkness, and the experience of forsakenness so that you could be his child. No wonder he sends the Spirit of his Son. He doesn’t want you to miss out on all that the Son has secured for you. This is his eternal plan: that you should enjoy his fatherly love.
The world is full of people searching for love and intimacy. Many sexual encounters and affairs are a desperate attempt to numb a sense of loneliness. Many people who seem to have it all feel empty inside. The actor and director Liv Ullmann once said, “Hollywood is loneliness beside the swimming pool.” We were made for more. The reason why we yearn for intimacy is that we were made for intimacy: we were made to love God and be loved by him. And this is what the Father gives us by sending his Son and by sending the Spirit of his Son.
What Does This Intimacy Look Like?
We Can Talk to God Like Children Talk to Their Father
“The Spirit . . . [cries], ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4:6). The Spirit gives us the confidence to address God as our Father. A number of our friends have adopted children. And it’s always a special moment when the adopted child starts calling them “Mom” and “Dad.” God is infinite, holy, majestic. He’s a consuming fire before whom angels cover their faces. He made all things and controls all things.
Can you imagine calling him “Father”? Of course you can! You do it every day when you pray—most of the time without even thinking about it. How is that possible? Step back and think about it for a moment, and you’ll realize what an amazing miracle it is that any of us should call God “Father.” But we do so every time we pray, through the Spirit of the Son. This is how John Calvin puts it:
With what confidence would anyone address God as “Father”? Who would break forth into such rashness as to claim for himself the honour of a son of God unless we had been adopted as children of grace in Christ? . . . But because the narrowness of our hearts cannot comprehend God’s boundless favour, not only is Christ the pledge and guarantee of our adoption, but he moves the Spirit as witness to us of the same adoption, through whom with free and full voice we may cry, “Abba, Father.”
Think of those adopted children saying “Mom” and “Dad” for the first time. What must that feel like for them? Perhaps they do so tentatively at first. They’re still feeling their way in the relationship. And that’s often what it’s like for new Christians, feeling their way in this new relationship.
But think, too, what it means for the parents. It’s a joyful moment. It’s a sign that their children are beginning to feel like children. It’s a moment of pleasure. And so it is for God every time you call him “Father.” Remember, he planned our adoption “in accordance with his pleasure” (Eph. 1:5 NIV).
We Can Think of God Like Children Think of Their Father
“So you are no longer a slave, but a son” (Gal. 4:7). Slaves are always worried about doing what they’re told or doing the right thing. They fear the disapproval of their master because there’s always the possibility that they might be punished or sacked. Children never have to fear being sacked. They may sometimes be disciplined, but as with any good parent, it’s always for their good. God is the best of parents. And we never have to fear being sacked. You can’t stop being a child of God—you’re not fostered. You’re adopted for life, and life for you is eternal!
The cry “Abba! Father!” is not just for moments of intimacy. It was actually the cry that a child shouted when in need. One of the joys of my life is that I’m good friends with lots of children. Charis always cries out, “Tim!” when she sees me. Tayden wants me to read his Where’s Wally? book with him. Again. Tyler wants me to throw him over my shoulder and swing him around. Josie wants to tell me everything in her head all at once in her lisping voice. They all enjoy having me around. But here’s what I’ve noticed.
Whenever any of them falls over or gets knocked, my parental instinct kicks in, and I rush to help. But it’s not me they want in those moments. They run past me looking for Mom or Dad. They cry out, “Dad!” and Tim won’t do. That’s what “Abba! Father!” means. When we’re in need, we cry out to God because the Spirit assures us that God is our Father and that our Father cares about what’s happening to his children.
We Can Depend on God Like Children Depend on Their Father
“And if [you are] a son, then [you are] an heir through God” (Gal. 4:7). When Paul talks about “sonship,” he’s not being sexist. Quite the opposite. In the Roman world only male children could inherit. So when Paul says “we” (“male and female,” 3:28) are “sons,” he’s saying that in God’s family, men and women inherit. Everyone is included. And what we inherit is God’s glorious new world. But more than that, we inherit God himself. In all the uncertainties of this life, we can depend on him. He will lead us home, and our home is his glory.
What could be better than sharing in the infinite love and infinite joy of the eternal Father with the eternal Son? Think of what you might aspire to in life—your greatest hopes and dreams. And then multiply them by a hundred. Think of winning Olympic gold or lifting the World Cup. Think of being a billionaire and owning a Caribbean island. Think of your love life playing out like the most heartwarming romantic movie. Good. But not as good as enjoying God.
Or let’s do it in reverse. Think of your worst fears and nightmares: losing a loved one, never finding someone to marry, losing your health, not having children. Bad! But Paul says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18). The only time Jesus is quoted as saying, “Abba, Father,” is in the Garden of Gethsemane as he sweats blood at the prospect of the cross (Mark 14:36). Even when you feel crushed by your pain, God is still your Abba, Father.
Where does joy come from? It comes from being children of God. How can we enjoy God? By living as his children. How can we please God? By believing he loves us as he loves his Son.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, Library of Christian Classics 20–21 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 3.20.36–37.
Content taken from Reforming Joy: A Conversation between Paul, the Reformers, and the Church Today by Tim Chester, ©2018. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.
Tim Chester is a pastor of Grace Church in Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire, and a faculty member with the Acts 29 Oak Hill Academy. He was previously research and policy director for Tearfund and tutor in missiology at Cliff College. Tim is the author of over thirty books, including The Message of Prayer, Closing the Window, Good News to the Poor, and A Meal with Jesus. Visit Tim’s website and read his blog or follow him on Twitter.
When I was entering junior high, my mom bought me a book I found irrelevant and a little rude. Although I don’t remember the title, it would be hard to forget such a cheesy cover illustration—a smug-looking teen girl with a cartoon planet Earth orbiting her head. The point of the book—and the message my mom wished to convey—came across clearly: Don’t think and act like the world revolves around you.
Although younger generations often are accused of self-centeredness, we’re all guilty at any age. An adult who talks incessantly about his or her achievements or problems is just as absorbed in their own affairs as a tyrannical toddler who calls everything “mine.”
As with my mother, the sins I see in my children—wanting to get their way all the time, and expecting others to cater to their demands—are a proximate illustration of my own egotism. In matters such as parenting, or even minor inconveniences like hitting all red lights when I’m in a hurry, I expect my will to be done and throw a grown-up temper tantrum when it’s not.
When I think and act according to my pleasure instead of God’s glory, I elevate myself above my creator. It’s both sinful and absurd, like a clay pot trying to commandeer the potter’s ceramic studio.
Stealing the Spotlight
Unlike more cut-and-dry sins like envy or murder, self-centeredness can be deceptively nuanced. We only have one pair of eyes through which to view the world, so we’re limited in our scope and ability to understand God, others, and even ourselves.
We’re also hardwired for self-love. It’s a survival instinct. We exit the womb crying to be cared for. But this basic urge is corrupted by our sin nature. Like Adam and Eve, we become dissatisfied with the role of steward and, despite our abundant provisions, crave greater wisdom, authority, and attention.
Paul warned his son in the faith, Timothy, about the temptation of self-centeredness, along with other sins that will abound in “the last days”: “For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy” (2 Tim. 3:2).
Paul isn’t referring to innate self-love here; he’s talking about self-idolatry. He’s cautioning Timothy about the root sin from which the others grow: the desire to be God.
The Bible pulls no punches when addressing this attitude. God commands: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3)—including ourselves.
He promises to assert his rightful position as King: “The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day” (Is. 2:11).
And he issues severe warnings to the proud: “Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord; be assured, he will not go unpunished” (Prov. 16:5).
God cares about his own glory and opposes those who try to steal his spotlight. Of course, we don’t usually see it in those terms. Pride deceives us, cloaked as desirable gifts like fulfillment, peace, and pleasure. Although we already possess these benefits in Christ, we forget our true identity and look for worth by measuring ourselves against others.
C.S. Lewis comments on this tendency in Mere Christianity: “Pride gets no pleasure out of having something, only out of having more of it than the next man. It is the comparison that makes you proud: the pleasure of being above the rest.”
What We Really Need
In addition to battling the comparison trap and our fleshly desires for self-glorification, we face a barrage of cultural messages encouraging personal gratification through attention to self-care. “Take time to make your soul happy,” the inspirational memes suggest. “Find what fills your cup.” “Be your own light.”
While taking care of one’s physical and mental health is appropriate and necessary, this train of thought can sometimes lead to harmful overthinking about our needs, and incorrectly pointing to ourselves as supreme problem-solvers and soul-fulfillers. We also confuse needs with desires, resulting in frustration and disappointment when we don’t get what we believe we need.
That mindset reflects the age-old pattern of defiance first formed in the Garden of Eden. As Edward Welch describes in When People Are Big and God Is Small, “In the garden, man began repeating a mantra that will persist until Jesus returns. Adam said, ‘I want.’ ‘I want glory for myself rather than giving all glory to God.’ ‘I love my own desires rather than loving God.’ This came to be known as covetousness, lust, or idolatry.”
Any road that follows self for satisfaction will ultimately lead right off the cliff of insecurity into the chasm of despair. God made us not so we could make much of ourselves or our needs, but to praise him. When we fail to complete our primary purpose, seeking instead our own lust fulfillment, we’ll inevitably wind up disappointed. As Solomon laments in Ecclesiastes 6:7, “All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied.”
We were created to delight, but not in our own accomplishments or self-actualization. Rather, we were created in his image to reflect God’s son, the light of the world. “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Eph. 5:1-2).
Imitating God involves prioritizing his will above my own, seeking his pleasure more than my happiness. It means I must die to self so I can live for Christ to be seen and known—to be a light for his glory.
Dying to be Raised
If sin predisposes us to look out for ourselves first and foremost, how do we combat these impulses and reprogram our desires and subsequent actions? How do we shift our perception of the Earth’s axis from ourselves to its rightful place as God’s footstool?
We aren’t left to our own devices to deal with our pride; we have the founder and perfecter of our faith to model after and join with:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5-8).
Jesus taught, healed, worked, rested, and broke bread with others all for the glory of God. In every facet of his life, he didn’t exalt himself as Lord but rather submitted to “the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). Because we share Christ’s position and purpose through his redemptive sacrifice, we can also empty ourselves of selfishness by humbling ourselves before our mighty God.
For me, this emptying involves releasing my death grip on expectations. I have to make plans built on the knowledge I’m not in charge of whether or not they’re accomplished, trusting God’s sovereignty to prevail. I must die to the desire to see my will done and have my needs met, preferring his will and pleasure instead, just as Jesus did in submission at the cross.
Dying to self is a necessary part of sharing in the suffering of Christ. But the benefits of being raised with Christ far outweigh the costs of following him. We’re pardoned from sin and its punishment, free to enjoy the fruit of the Spirit alive in us, and filled with the hope of eternity spent with our Savior.
The problem of thinking too much about ourselves must be solved by thinking about Jesus. We can transform our self-centered attitudes by renewing our minds with the truth of his humble heart, and how he, for the joy set before him, endured the cross to obey and bring honor to his Father (Hebrews 12:2).
When we look up and fix our eyes on Christ, we realize the world and everything in it exists from him, through him, and to him—not us.
Jenn Hesse is a writer, editor, wife, and mother of two sons. She co-founded a ministry that supports women walking through infertility, infant loss, and adoption, and has a passion for equipping others to know Christ through his Word. She writes at jennhesse.com and can be found on Twitter @jennmhesse.
I resent my childhood nickname. My childhood wrapped up in the 1980’s, so naturally, the film Karate Kid enthralled me. Convinced I could take on the bullying hordes of my second-grade existence, and wanting to establish that you shouldn’t mess with me, I began to parade around the school playground chopping, kicking, punching, and yelling, “Hi-yah!” as loudly as I could. Instead of warding off would-be attackers, all these antics did was earn me the name “Chuck.”
This was not what I had hoped for. In trying to imitate Daniel Larusso’s training from Mister Miyagi, I thought I could take up the role of school hero and karate champion. Instead, I was the class weirdo, and, as a cool as being called “Chuck” today might seem, to a second-grader, it was decidedly not cool.
Ever since, the idea of imitating someone worries me. I’m afraid it will backfire and give me a bad reputation. What if I earn another odd nickname that will make me the butt of more jokes and ridicule? I think that’s why many people struggle with growing as a Christian.
WHAT’S IN A NICKNAME?
We are, so to speak, trying to become who we are not. And it’s obvious—we are not Christ. We don’t behave like Christ, we don’t love like Christ, we don’t sacrifice like Christ. And that makes it difficult for us because if we are not Christ then becoming like Christ seems foolish and doomed to failure. In the big picture, no one wants to earn the life-long nickname “loser.”
Yet, that’s the reality of the name that we possess by faith. If you are a follower of Jesus, then you have been given a nickname that speaks to your identity: Christian. The name itself is so familiar today we might forget it was used as a derogatory term for the earliest disciples. “Christ-people,” or “little-Christs,” was what the on-looking world used to call those first followers of The Way who were looking to imitate Jesus in all of life. And it is in that name we find who we are really are becoming—Christ-people.
The name “Christian” stands as the doorway into this new identity. True spiritual formation must recognize this reality. To be truly “Christian” means entering through the door of Christ (John 10:7). For the Christian, growing spiritually requires that we grow in Christ. So not only is Christ the entry-point of our spiritual journey, but he is also the culmination of our spiritual path.
WHAT IT MEANS—REALLY MEANS—TO BE A CHRISTIAN
In perhaps the clearest job description of a pastor, the Apostle Paul sets out the goal of the Christian life. Within the church we labor together “until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness” (Eph. 4:13). True spiritual formation is marked by maturity in Christ. Another way to say this is the goal of spiritual formation is to become like Christ.
This goal of spiritual formation, to become like Christ, is spoken of throughout the Scriptures. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18, “we all, with unveiled faces are being transformed into the same image [Christ] from glory to glory.” The writer of Hebrews exhorts us to “run with endurance the race that lies before us, keeping our eyes on Jesus, the source and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:1-2). The identity of Christ will firmly and forever be fixed on the people of God.
This is nothing new within the teaching of church history. Christianity has long taught that true maturity and development is contained in becoming like Christ. Athanasius, one of the early church Fathers declared that Christ became a human so that humanity could become like Christ. Calvin said, “the end of regeneration is that Christ should reform us to God’s image.” In more recent days, one Biblical scholar has stated, “The glorified Christ provides the standard at which his people are to aim.” Our trajectory, as Christians is to be conformed to the image of Christ (Rom. 8:29).
We must start with Christ as the entry point to truly being Christian, and the goal is to be like Christ as the culmination of his work within us. So how do we get there? What are the means by which cultivate the image of Christ within us?
YOU BECOME WHAT YOU BEHOLD
Paul writes in Colossians, “just as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, being rooted and built up in him and established in the faith” (Col. 2:6). Therein lies the whole arch of becoming like Christ: we begin in Christ, we continue in Christ, we are transformed to be like Christ. The means of Christlikeness is Christ himself. If Christ is the means to growing Christlikeness, then we are only changed inasmuch as we are looking to Christ, or beholding Christ.
The deeper we view, look at, and watch Christ, the deeper we are changed. “We all, with unveiled faces, are looking as in a mirror at the glory of the Lord and are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory; this is from the Lord who is the Spirit,” (2 Cor. 3:18) writes Paul to the Corinthian church. As we look at the glory of Christ, we are transformed into the very same glory we are observing. Christlikeness comes from fixing our eyes on Christ for all of life.
Looking at Christ will devastate us because it will show us how unlike Jesus we truly are. We’ll see our brokenness, our need, our evil and vile hearts. If we’re sensitive to this devastation, we’ll be capable of repentance and crying out for grace. If we’re hardened by the distance between ourselves and Christ, we’ll turn away and fail to behold Christ any further.
Yet as we look and are humbled to repentance, we will also be transformed. We will see the grace, mercy, and goodness of Christ. We will long to follow and trust him. We’ll demonstrate true faith as we embark upon the calling and formation he has for us. As our faith grows, we will look more and more at Christ and at the day of our last breath, when we will depart this life and finally enter into glory alongside Christ.
Beholding turns into Becoming that leads to Being.
PATTERNED AFTER CHRIST
Perhaps, this is the one place we do want to take up an imitation of someone. More than trying to be the Karate Kid, imitating Christ can transform our lives. As we behold, we will receive a new nickname. The name itself might be scandalous to the world, but beautiful to the Savior who gives it to us by his grace.
Maybe as we come to Christ and behold Christ and imitate our lives after Christ we will enjoy fully the moniker “Christ-people” or, simply “Christian.”
Jeremy Writebol is the Executive Director of GCD. He is the husband of Stephanie and father of Allison and Ethan. He serves as the lead campus pastor of Woodside Bible Church in Plymouth, MI. He is also an author and contributor to several GCD Books including everPresent and Make, Mature, Multiply. He writes personally at jwritebol.net. You can read all of Jeremy’s articles for GCD here.
. Paraphrased from On the Incarnation
. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion & 2, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 189.
. F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1984), 350.