In my last post, I asked how a group of believers that have been set apart by God and filled with his Holy Spirit act like everyone else, or even worse. On the flip side, how can so many people that reject God act with such strong moral conviction?
Does this undeniable reality undermine the claims of the Bible? Are God’s people no better or worse than anyone else?
People are People:
If you think the Bible is not presenting a balanced view of humanity, you are not reading carefully. The Bible does not present its heroes and villains like characters in a Lone Ranger movie.
Look at some of God’s favorites—Abraham lies, Moses disobeys a direct order, David kills a man and takes his wife, Jonah runs away from his responsibility, the disciples abandon Jesus. Even Jesus shows fear of death and asks for a way out, though he ultimately follows through.
At the same time, we see Gentiles being honored for their faith—Rahab was from Jericho, Ruth from Moab, Naaman from Aram. Think of all the Gentiles and Samaritans that responded well to Jesus while his own people rejected him.
Jesus actually pushed back against the us-and-them prejudice of the Jews. When he told them the parable of The Good Samaritan, he was challenging them to think about outsiders in a different way. If he gave the same parable in Berkley today, he might have called it The Good Trump Supporter.
The mixed reaction of Jesus to the people around him proves that he judged them individually, responding to the thoughts and intentions of their hearts (Heb. 4:12).
People are people. This is not a mystery. We all have our strengths and weakness. We all have unique personalities and talents, coming from different cultures, different belief systems. But when it comes to our instincts, all humans seem to respond to the same basic things.
Just ask novelists. They don’t write two separate stories, one for the pagans, reveling in sex, money and power, and another for the Christians, reveling in wisdom and goodness. No, they write one story for everyone, underscoring their plot with core values like love, loyalty and sacrifice, expecting the same primal reaction from their readers.
Why Rebirth is Necessary:
If this is true, if people generally smile and frown at the same set of values, why does God insist that people are reborn and totally transformed? Why go through all the trouble of taking on flesh, letting that flesh be crucified and buried, coming back from the dead, then offering a share of your resurrected life to others?
First of all, that sounds unnecessarily complicated. Second, are we really that bad?
I mentioned that Gandhi looked at Jesus, admired his approach, and took on his example. Without rebirth or transformation, Gandhi loved other people, sacrificed his own life for theirs, and did a great humanitarian work, one that ultimately inspired Martin Luther King Jr. to do the same.
Isn’t that not enough for God? The accomplishments of these men should stand as proof that, although it may be helpful, one does not have to be religious to be a good person and do good things.
Now, imagine if someone was standing in your pulpit claiming that Jesus was the greatest humanitarian that ever lived. You might agree, but you would also urge that person not to sell him short. Jesus was much more than that.
Though he encouraged humanitarian efforts, Jesus grew frustrated with people that came to him for nothing more than healing, free food or guaranteed life insurance. He wanted to draw their attention to their true need, to reconnect them with God, restoring them to their natural supernatural state (see what I did there?).
When Jesus left, he told his disciples that they would receive the Holy Spirit and continue his good work in the world. Not just a humanitarian work that could temporarily improve and sustain the quality of people’s lives, but a deep and lasting work that can only be accomplished by the indwelling presence of God.
You’ll notice that Jesus did not only judge individuals. He also judged groups of people, especially his people. He expected the Jews to hold true to the covenant of Sinai, becoming a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3). He expected the Church to be the light of the world, continuing his efforts to work against the slinky-snarl of sin and death that affects all of us at the deepest levels.
Sadly, being set apart as God’s holy people and actually living that way are two very different things.
Why Christians Don’t Change:
- Position vs. Condition
What if I got drafted by the San Francisco Giants? We all know that it would be an act of grace, considering my athletic ability. And even though I would be considered a member of the team, enjoying a nice pay check and retirement program, proudly wearing the orange and black, joining the team would not automatically make me an offensive threat.
I could respond to my major league contract in one of two ways: I could take the contract seriously, start listening to the coaches, put in the work, stay in shape and do what I can to help the team win. Or I could sit back, enjoy my time on the bench, collect my paychecks and wait for retirement.
Take marriage as another example. When I said “I do” in September of 1995, my status legally changed. I was no longer a single man. I had promised to be true to my wife exclusively, to love her, provide for her and protect her. For better or worse.
However, after about 21 days of marriage, I found myself slipping into habits that had formed over the previous 21 years. Even though I knew I was married, and wanted to be married, I caught myself looking around for marriage prospects. Even though my status had changed, my hardwiring was still the same. At least for a while.
We see the same thing with Christians. One would think that conversion should automatically change a person’s heart and mind, but all the evidence proves otherwise. Conversion absolutely changes our status with God, and it should affect the way we see the world, but it may or may not have a lasting effect on how we think and act.
- Our Theology
Jesus loves me. He died for me. He took my place. Now, when God looks at me, he doesn’t see me or my sins, he sees Jesus. By grace, a sinner like me is loved, forgiven and destined to live forever with God in heaven.
For the most part, this is our good news. Is it any wonder that we don’t change? What more do we have to do? He did it all. We’re done!
Imagine if my whole goal of getting married was to be married? Think about how that kind of mentality would affect the quality of my marriage. Why put any effort into it? I already signed the papers. That’s it.
Think of me in my Giants uniform, sitting on the bench, feeling no urgency to contribute on the field or stay in shape. I’m not thinking about the World Series. I don’t even know what that is. I’m just happy to be in uniform, sitting with my teammates. As far as I’m concerned, the game is already won.
- Our Culture
How often does church fall into a category with all the other life enhancers? We go to school, we go to church, go to the gym, go to piano lessons. We’re well-rounded. We want something good and wholesome for our families. We want to be members of a nice congregation, contribute to a good cause.
Sure, we’ve been converted and baptized. Sure, we love Jesus. Sure, we support a kid through Compassion International. So don’t judge us when we drink too much, or watch seedy television shows, or gossip about our neighbors, or swear a lot. That’s our business. God loves us, so keep your nose out of it.
It’s not about us. It’s about me. Right?
- The Cost
The reason the Holy Spirit doesn’t make more of a difference in our lives is because, according to Jesus, the Spirit is a person, not some kind of battery we can just turn on and off. Yes, the Spirit is supposed to live inside God’s people, opening the possibility of sharing his thoughts and emotions, even his power. But like any real relationship, these connections are earned, not assumed.
Jesus describes his relationship with his Father in terms that might seem extreme to us, especially in a society that values personal rights and freedoms. In John, he claims that he did nothing for himself, but only for his Father (5:19). He claims that he did not even speak on his own initiative, but God did his work through him (14:10).
In this same passage, he tells his disciples that just as he lived in his Father, so they would live in him by the Holy Spirit. The analogy he gave should be familiar—the vine and the branches. The vine gives life and support to the branches, the branches abide in the vine.
If the connection is right, the branch should naturally experience life, growth and fruit over time. If not, the branch will dry up and become useless.
What does it mean to abide? Think about a branch. It does not belong to itself (I Cor. 6:19). It is part of a larger whole. For the branch to allow the water and nutrients to enter, it needs to abandon its desire to be the vine, surrendering its sense of independence for the greater good.
If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it. Matt. 10:39
- The Process
Even if we manage to fully surrender our lives to his, releasing our dreams and ambitions, releasing our finances, our loved ones—everything—it still takes time to become the kind of person we’re called to be.
And the Lord–who is the Spirit–makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image. II Cor. 3:18b
Just like a marriage, the right mindset is critical for moving forward, but progress comes slowly, over years and years of effort. Same would be true of me taking on a Giants uniform. If I submit to the trainers, setting my sights on a World Series ring, linking arms with my teammates, I am only beginning a long and grueling process that might actually give credit to the uniform on my back.
So positionally I am a child of God, filled with the Spirit, called to stand with other believers as a holy community on the earth to the glory of God. However, conditionally, I start in a very normal-looking place, and can only move forward with a cross on my back and much stumbling along the way, hoping to grow in a way that produces an unmistakable, undeniable and inspiring difference.