A few weeks ago, I mentioned that knowing God is the definition of eternal life and briefly explored some ways to practice His presence. This week, we look at knowing ourselves—who we are and who we can become. Before anyone can change for the better, they need to see where they are and know where they want to go.
First, See the Big Picture (Vision, Image)
The epic Exodus found in the Old Testament is an eye-opening, big picture of salvation. It isn’t simply “going to heaven” when you die. Deliverance isn’t an airlift where you’re in one place/condition then suddenly transported to another. God didn’t lift the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt into the Promised Land.
Rather, deliverance is passage. Salvation is spiritual exodus from ruin to new life—transformation and restoration while you live. The person you are when you die is the person who steps into the afterlife. Living eternally with God is simply the extension of living your current life with Him, for the present is included in, and part of, eternal life.
Thankfully, God wasn’t waiting on the other side of the Red Sea for the Hebrew slaves to figure it out and arrive on their own. Likewise today, He isn’t waiting on the other side of the pearly gates. God was with the slaves through it all. Although He initiated and master-minded their passage, He didn’t do everything for them. In partnership, He instructed and held them accountable to conquer many things, always with the promise that He was with them.
God still initiates transformation, but doesn’t do everything for you. So practice is to modern Christians what the desert was to the Israelites. It’s about preparation, refinement, mistakes, and correction. By grace, God shows the way of deliverance and offers His presence and support throughout. It’s the great theme of Scripture.
I say all this because the connection between salvation, practice, and transformation is a missing link for many confused Christians. Jesus’ finished work on the cross is really the beginning of an epic process. He parted the sea of death to make passage possible, but the bulk is learned in the desert.
“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1Cor. 1:18)—the same power that held back the Red Sea. Jesus himself draws a parallel between the bread of life (him) and manna from heaven (Jhn. 6:48-51).
Step 1 is knowing God. Step 2 is knowing yourself. Human beings are made in the image of God. In practical terms, it means that you and I are born with the capacity to love, to be kind and generous, to rule and serve safely and wisely (have dominion). We inherited these traits from our Father because we need them.
But they’ve been corrupted like a secret formula in a spy novel. For example, the capacity to seek and pursue God’s beauty is the same trait that causes lust, yet we need it. The capacity for faithful steadfastness is also the prime ingredient of stubborn pride. The ability to discern right from wrong is the very thing that causes self-righteous judgmentalism. The instinct to have dominion also causes selfishness and violence. Yet we need these traits.
We’re torn souls. Biblically, it’s called ruin, death, blindness, and lostness. Our own lack of proper humbleness, patience, generosity, wisdom, and love is what you and I need salvation from. We need deliverance from being the kind of people who hurt and abuse one another and ourselves.
Corrupted ruin is where we are, so that’s where we start. But God’s redemption isn’t about getting rid of your divinely-given human traits, as some teach. It’s about developing the character to use them correctly, as God does. And that takes practice.
It’s not enough to try hard to not be ruined. And God won’t simply make you Christ-like. Instead, you practice disciplines that make Christ-like qualities more available to draw upon from deep inside. I think of them as crossover training.
For example, think of a boxer who jumps rope. He doesn’t do it so he can be a champion at jumping rope. He does it so he can be springy and agile against opponents. Defeating them is what makes him a champion; jumping rope is a crossover skill. If he merely tries to be agile, he’ll fail. If he asks his trainer to make him springy, the trainer will smile and hand him a jump-rope.
Spiritual disciplines are God’s exercises to get you from torn and ruined to right and good. Last week, we looked at the discipline of meditating on God’s Word. The discipline of prayer is the practice of interacting with God. Fasting is a way to practice not doing things for show. Jesus practiced these and more.
So if you want to be spiritually agile with opponents (love your enemies as Jesus loves his), you practice what builds spiritual agility and reduces hostility. It brings a whole new life of freedom and power.
Mental Practice for a “Mind of Christ”
Consider Jesus’ two commands to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. First, it’s a reminder that these are the original, God-given commands that ultimately matter. Second, notice that he prescribes a specific sequence here. By using “as yourself,” he not only gives permission, he assumes you see your own value and treat yourself well. If you don’t, how will you consistently do the same for anyone else?
The God-self-neighbor sequence lifts a burden and enables love. If you go out of sequence and don’t put this into practice, you’ll crash from the uphill battle of trying hard. (Mat. 7:26-27)
In my experience, loving ourselves is the last thing Christians do, if at all, because we confuse it with self-worship. But consider that being human is a gift from God, not a crime, and all it means is to develop the human qualities He gave you so you can use them the way He does. If having a human spirit were a crime, Jesus would be a criminal.
Practice seeing and knowing yourself—the good as well as the faults. But don’t reject yourself; Jesus never said to do that. Self-denial doesn’t mean self-rejection. It means to deny the negative inner qualities that own you, dictate your behavior, and keep you in ruin. Be on the lookout for willful anger, contempt, grabbiness, anxiety, addiction, lust, and more.
You want to reject the tendency to figure everything out and rule the world by yourself. In a word, pride—the predisposition to insist on having your way. Love is in the opposite direction—God’s way. And what started with Hebrew slaves now extends to all humanity, for God so loves the world. Anyone can pass from lostness to a sense of place with God, from death to life while we live.