Continuing from last week, transformation from death to life starts with the realization that we’re jumbled, broken souls, but not worthless souls.
You and I can humbly acknowledge our ruined condition without self-contempt, for that’s a seed that lays deep roots and grows into a spirit of contempt for others.
It creates double-mindedness and a divided heart instead of an undivided one. How can you love neighbors consistently or be spontaneously kind to enemies when you’re not even prepared to love yourself?
The person you are inside is the person you are when your guard is down—like after you’ve had too much wine. Everyone knows the happy drunk or the belligerent drunk, and it’s common to hear, “That was the alcohol talking last night.” But it was really the true person sneaking out when alcohol put the guard to sleep.
A member of my family was married years ago to a charming guy who became verbally and physically abusive when he drank. When he was sober, he was always deeply, genuinely, terribly sorry. He tearfully pleaded for (and received) forgiveness. But he never changed.
The fact is regret alone has no transformative power. Forgiveness alone won’t move you into the promised land of wellness. While these are necessary components of Christian repentance, the driving force behind transformation is a clear vision of who you can become, the willing choice to change, a sensible, knowledgeable way to do it, and then following it. God supplies everything but the willingness and the following.
If Christ-like love is to be genuine, it must flow naturally from love for self. Don’t confuse this with self-worship or egotism. Healthy self-love flows from a healthy image of God. Love of God, self, and neighbor is thus the core foundation of well-being in Christ-likeness. Without it, we’re lost.
If I’m lost, it means I’m out of place, like a block of stone fallen from its foundation. To have little sense of place with God is lostness for a human soul. Instead of organizing life primarily around God and love, I organize it around possessions, or perhaps pleasure, guilt, rules, or other substitutes for experiencing Him.
Recall that, biblically, to know something means to experience it, and that knowing God is Jesus’ definition of eternal life. So transformation isn’t an add-on bonus after salvation; it’s the path I move along to experience a new, eternal kind of life with God.
God’s grace makes it possible to move back into place, to restore “normal” life to His kingdom way of living. Grace is more than unmerited favor! Grace is movement and power. Action. And don’t confuse “unworthy” with “worthless.” Biblically, unworthy means untrained, unfit, unprepared. God’s action combined with human practice can re-train the mind, heart, body, and behavior to walk in step with the movements of God’s love.
Dying to Self—Losing Life to Save It
The biggest step toward self-love is to let go of pride, anger, and contempt. These aren’t the only source of human evil and suffering, but they’re the deepest. Pride is the pre-disposition to insist on having one’s way. Love is the opposite, to not insist on having one’s way.
When I’m filled with pride, every little offense that denies me my way (or expectations) will keep me angry and disgusted with the world. I’ll complain miserably and feel it’s up to me, not God, to set everyone straight. So I impose my will because the relentless burden shifts to me. I have little sense of God taking care of things, at least not the way I would.
When I’m mad, I lash out—a snippy remark here or a kick in the gut there. Even if I do it only in my head, it’s a cancer in my spirit as well as my body. Love and pride simply can’t co-exist, for love isn’t proud, isn’t angry, and keeps no record of wrongs (1Cor. 13:4-6). But double-mindedness and a divided heart always produce hot and cold reactions.
By contrast, turning the other cheek (as one example) presupposes that pride is dead or dying. While not flawless, it’s how a healthy, loving soul reacts most of the time, even when the guard is down.
Now, this isn’t something imposed by Jesus in hopes of changing behavior. Behavior modification without inner transformation is like dressing a wolf in wool hoping to get a sheep.
Instead, Jesus knows that turning the other cheek happens on its own when I relax and realize I no longer need to insist on having my way. I’ve changed my heart and mind, which automatically changes behavior because it becomes my own will. And once that happens, my will has incrementally shifted (conformed, reconciled) to God’s will easily and naturally.
What an amazing discovery! This is why Jesus says his burden is light compared to impossible rules or systems of behavior with no understanding of human design. God has a more sensible plan for self-control, deliverance, and love that behaves like Christ because it is like Christ. He’ll enable it through a combination of plentiful grace and practice.
Practice: Points to Ponder
1. Euphemisms like dying to self, losing life to save it, or gouging an eye out aren’t literal commands to mutilate yourself in contempt. They convey letting go of cherished but destructive habits of mind and body in order to gain priceless well-being.
2. Letting go is step by step. Expecting to be an instantly new creation in Christ only brings failure. Even the original twelve disciples took three years, working with Jesus in the flesh, to transform. Today’s disciples simply work with Jesus in the Spirit, made possible by his resurrection. Knowing God’s presence, character, ways, and designs is an eternal experience, so the sooner you start, the better off you are.
3. To fix any broken thing, you must know how it should be before you can see what’s out of place or malfunctioning. You don’t just “pull yourself together” without God’s help and knowing how you’re put together. You need to understand the connection between mind and feelings, the will (heart/spirit), the body, and behavior.
4. Is your confidence (faith) in Jesus to save you, or in some other system? Why do you suppose he said to put his words into practice? Explore your understanding of “putting off the old self and putting on the new” (Eph. 4:22), “we who are being saved” (1Cor. 1:18), and continuing to “work out your salvation” (Phl. 2:12). Ask for insight and guidance.
5. Contemplate who sneaks out when your guard is down. (It’s safe to invite Jesus to join you.) Do you despise that person? Like that person? What would you have to cut out and/or add to your life to start loving yourself and seeing yourself as valuable?
6. Try this exercise to develop healthy self-love: Forget good deeds and neighbors for now. Instead, form a mental image of you juggling two balls. It’s you and God, you and God, you and God—mental practice of loving God with all your heart, mind, strength, and soul, and loving yourself.
These are the prerequisites for neighbor love, but you’ll add the third ball (neighbors) later when you’re more prepared. For now, nothing is more important than getting these two balls in motion; and you can ask the Spirit to help you with it.
Know that God treasures the real you—the currently lost version and the future, restored version. No matter what else may happen for evil or good in the universe, there will always be you and God, you and God, you and God. That’s priceless.