When I was a new believer, I was a bit like a deer in the headlights. My story may not detail a dramatic, overnight reversal from ruthless cartel kingpin to a peace-loving pastor, but looking back on it now, at least from my own perspective, it seems like a pretty dramatic shift. I can recognize now how different I am compared to before– down to my thoughts, reactions, and even my vocabulary. That’s definitely not to say I’m perfect now. In another five years, I hope I am just as amazed at the dramatic shift from now to then. I don’t want that to ever change.
My vocabulary and ideas early on were influenced by the buzzwords and phrases I heard from the prayers and conversations of more mature believers around me. I had just started to read the Bible more, so I was still wrestling with other buzzword concepts like “dying to self” and “carrying my cross.” Those ideas were straight from Jesus, so I trusted them. But they were unbelievably intimidating, especially since I generally liked who I was, even before taking that first step to follow Jesus. I was really hoping I could do the whole “Christian” thing without the “die to self” part. It just didn’t seem all that necessary at the time.
One of the ideas that seemed harmless to pursue was to ask God to give me more of Him–to help me grow closer to Him and become more like Jesus.
What believer wouldn’t want that? We may not understand why God allows certain painful things, but if He is God, then His eternal perspective makes everything trustworthy when faith and trust in Him is in the picture. His way is the original template for how life was designed to flourish, straight from the factory. After all, having trust in anyone is a different way of simply saying that their way is better than our way.
I felt like a good little Christian to include this “more of You” request in my prayers. I remember immediately feeling more righteous when the words would leave my lips. But there was a problem with my prayer.
Being so new to the idea of following Jesus, there were a lot of habits, ways of thinking, and priorities that were yet to be addressed from my former way of living– the life where everything centered on myself. I was still unaware of how corrupt and selfish my life really was. I would have even argued that many of the things I did and the ways I lived were just who I was– how I was made. I knew some of the really obvious things had to change, and my readiness and willingness to actually make those changes gave me encouragement that God had already taken hold of my heart. But I didn’t realize that I was still clinging to my old identity, which was rooted in something separate from God.
Every Christian should know that repentance and change is part of the process of trusting Jesus, but how much of our lives should we let Him examine? How constant is this repentance supposed to be?
As I was asking God to make me more like Him and to bring me closer to the man He truly made me to be, I was unknowingly dragging my previous worldview and many of my habits along with me. It honestly didn’t seem like that big of a deal. I thought, Surely God understands me, and He’s okay with the trivial details of life-as-usual.
But that’s the thing. It wasn’t “life-as-usual.” It was life on my terms. It was looking at God and expecting Him to agree with me— to trust in my way of doing things.
It never dawned on me that God wanted me to let all of that go so that He could completely redefine me. C.S. Lewis has a really great illustration of this in Mere Christianity. He says, “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of– throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
I suddenly realized what “dying to myself” and “carrying my cross” really meant. And Jesus’ message for what life should be like as His followers as well as Paul’s encouragements are each dripping with this idea.
“For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35).
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).
“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).
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
“I have been crucified with Christ. 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).
You can’t get new unless you give up the old. But we are so often unwilling to give up our old selves because we think the gospel can fit in just fine with the way we’ve always lived.
In a way, it’s like having a pair of Oakley sunglasses on while asking the optometrist to help you see better. The doctor can’t get started on giving you new vision until you take your old specs off. That’s when you offer true access to your eyes.
Oh, how patient God was with me. How patient He is with all of us– unnecessarily so, really. By the way, I still struggle with this. That’s what I mean when I say that in another five years, I hope I’m just as amazed at the progress God has made in my life.
It’s crucial to recognize this extra element to our prayer of becoming more like Jesus. It doesn’t work unless we are also ready to become less like our old selves. God can’t make us more like Jesus without making us less like who we are in that moment. No holding on. No excuses. No looking back.
I think many people wonder why nothing is changing in their lives once they decide to acknowledge that Jesus was who He said He was and did what history testifies that He did. Many of us don’t realize at first that Christianity has to be about more than following Jesus. It has to also be about intentionally walking away from the way we used to do things. James, John, Peter, and Andrew each walked away from their fishing nets. Matthew walked away from collecting taxes. Simon walked away from plotting to overthrow the Roman government. That doesn’t mean their talents of collecting food, managing money, and understanding politics were useless. They just had a fresh motive and a new purpose. Other believers did the same– not just the apostles. Zacchaeus, another tax collector from Luke 19, let go of and made amends for his selfish business practices as a result of his faith in Christ.
We can pray to become more like Jesus all day long, taking pride in the principle and elegant sound of what we’re saying, but no gains will be made in that category until we’re ready for certain decreases in other areas. Becoming more like Jesus means that changes have to be made. It means being confronted with things we are doing wrong and not making excuses about why it’s not a big deal.
The way we justify our anger and offenses; the way we treat our bodies and pursue physical pleasure above all else; the way we only consider ourselves and our own conveniences. There’s no room for those ways of thinking with what Jesus taught. And yet we so often hang onto those things as if they are still part of who we are. In the first chapter of Isaiah, God pleads with the people of Israel who were stuck in their “life-as-usual.”
In verses 16-18, He says, “Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.
“Come now, let us reason together,” says the Lord. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be made as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.”
I find it curious that God says we should learn to do right. Learning takes humility, and an awareness that we don’t have the correct answer yet. It’s a willingness to let go of our previous ideas and take hold of something bigger and better.
As Christians, it’s important for us to never assume that God agrees with us on all of our opinions surrounding politics, relationships, and careers. Our place is to be willing to forsake our allegiance to anything or any idea that is a barrier to representing Him in both a loving and truthful way.