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Growing Up Into Christ
Photo: Christoph Weihs
Once in a while, a secular film will actually capture a deep and biblical spiritual truth. In the story, As Good As It Gets, a broken and dysfunctional man slowly begins to grasp what his severed life is missing. A generous and kind woman works to help him slowly heal, and he finally says to her: “You make me want to be a better man.” 

I don’t want to undo all of the warm, glowing feelings we’ve built up to this point. We’re all happy with the idea that God’s purpose in putting us here was so that He could love us and have us love Him. That pill goes down all right. Secondly, that we’re supposed to nurture a family here, to love one another, to be a safe community of believers. That’s easy medicine to take as well. 

But all at once, here on the third rung of the ladder, the oxygen starts getting a little thin. Because here’s our assigned topic for the day: obedience. Commandment-keeping. Following the law. Sanctification. Most ChristiansAdventists includedare a fair bit better at embracing justification than we are sanctification. We’re happier about faith than we are about works. 

Let’s get right into the Bible—we may as well take our medicine early on—and see what the Word of God has to tell us about Purpose #3. Romans 8:29 says: For from the very beginning God decided that those who came to Him—and He knew who would—should become like His Son. One of God’s purposes for our lives is this: to become like Christ. There’s some risky theology to be found among our Mormon friends, where they teach that human beings can actually become gods. The infamous line is: “As man is, God once was: as God is, man may become.” Now, that is simply not true. You and I will always be human; we will never be gods. We are not deity and never will be. We cannot be gods, but God wants us to be godly. That’s heaven’s third plan for putting us here in this sinful world. Ephesians 4:15 tells us: God wants us to grow up . . . like Christ in everything. Everything we read and know about Jesus in His humanity is an example for us. We can’t go wrong copying Him in all things. 

When we have babies and they drool and coo, we’re perfectly pleased with them. They crawl around on the rug and fill up diapers. It’s absolutely wonderful. We take pictures of it and e-mail them to the whole world. But twenty years from now, if that same kid now has a beard and body hair, and is still cooing and dribbling and going “blither, blither” as they watch Sesame Street, we’re going to be a little bit concerned. Why? Because it’s our goal to have our children grow up. We pray to the Lord that they will become mature, be fulfilled, that they will grow into all that He intended for them when He destinedthousands of years agothat they should come into being. 

A Definition of Discipleship

I want to share two very important concepts that the Church teaches. These are both huge. But first, let’s give this important teaching a name. We call this process of growing up discipleship. Now, let’s not get hung up on the fact that in the Bible Jesus had twelve male disciples. Both men and women can be disciples. Some kid on a Sunday School quiz put down that the epistles were the wives of the apostles, but that’s not entirely correct. You and I are to be followers of Jesus in every respect: doing what He did, living as He lived, valuing what He valued and values. 

Now, here are the two important points. First of all, discipleship is a lifelong process. We see that in the Bible. We see that in the lives of the 11 faithful disciples. We see that in our own lives as parents. Our children grow up, day by day, bit by bit, lesson by lesson, a steady mix of hurts and joys. There’s never a graduation in the School of Discipleship. 

I heard about a dad who was feeling some angst because his little girl was growing up, getting to the teen years and puberty. She announced at supper one night that for the very first time she was going to do her hair up in curlers for the junior high school prom. And that just sent a shiver down the dad’s spine. My baby! This is the beginning of the end. He had a major Steve Martin Father of the Bride anxiety collapse right there; he almost burst into tears. About a half hour later, though, he went by the bathroom, and she was in front of the mirror, carefully rolling up her little-girl locks of hair, and wetting each strand of hair down with a toy squirt gun. That made him feel a little better. 

In our Adventist heritage, we have a famous line from a book called Christ’s Object Lessons. It comes from Jesus’ parable in Mark 4 about how the harvest field brings forth first a blade, then the ear, and then finally the corn in full bloom in the ear. And then this observation: “Sanctification is the work of a lifetime.” We never stop growing and maturing in Jesus. 

You have children you want to reach adulthood. Right now they’re playing with Jolly Jumpers and little toy trains, but you have a dream for them that moves beyond that. Their burgeoning maturity is a very important part of your kingdom agenda. 

However, here’s the point. However fast or slow they grow up is disconnected from whether or not they’re still an accepted part of your family. Some days a child obeys; some days the child fails – but he remains in the family. There are reasons why we call for obedience and direct them in goodness, but qualifying to stay in the family isn’t one of those reasons. 

And in the Christian faith, we teach that salvation is a gift. G - I - F - T. And if I have to qualify for a gift, then it isn’t a gift. If I have to qualify to hang on to a gift, it isn’t a gift then either. Our discipleship is a hugely important part of purpose-driven living, but our salvation is not contingent upon our successful obedience. It’s contingent on our accepting Calvary. 

My own legal savvy pretty much comes from reruns of television programs like Law & Order. But picture this bulging portfolio of compelling evidence: DNA, fingerprints, eyewitness reports, clear-cut time-line corroborated by the videotape off security cameras. And the judge says: “This is all good stuff. It’s meticulously gathered. But it’s simply not applicable here; it’s disallowed in these proceedings.” And you see, our goodness, our obedience, our discipleship – these are all helpful, beneficial, mandated things. We ought to strive for perfect obedience. It simply is not a part of our receiving a free gift. 

Why, then, are we talking about it? What’s the purpose of holiness? I believe Matthew 5:16 tells the story: Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven. We want to be mature disciples because that honors and furthers the kingdom of a God we love and admire. 

This means we can study about obedience and discipleship and growth in an atmosphere of joy, not fear, of security instead of worry. Sometimes students are so afraid of getting an F that an F is almost guaranteed. Others are relaxed and confident when they take a test, and that peace of mind is almost worth 25 percentage points. I want to encourage anyone here today who has never clearly and definitively joined God’s family to do that. Do it today. Will the church call you to obedience? Sure. Will we study the principles of discipleship? Absolutely. But now in a setting of safety, where we want to please this generous Father who has already promised us the keys to the kingdom. 

Now, how does God direct us in this process? Because the Bible teaches that the Holy Spirit’s role is to take us down the road of discipleship; God makes Himself responsible for our growth. Just as you parents do with your children. 

There are several tools God uses. Two of them are the Bible and other people. If we read God’s word, if we meditate, if we memorize . . . we’re going to grow in our faith. We need to grapple with truth and discuss and dialog and even sometimes disagree with our fellow Christians. God challenges us to firm up our convictions against or alongside the theological framework of another human being’s. That’s a healthy process. 

In the small groups I’ve been in, I can plainly see us growing from each other. Sometimes in agreement, sometimes in encouragement, sometimes in discussion and debate. But these several divine purposes definitely feed each other. We join together in a body of believers in order to more powerfully and eloquently worship. And we also grow as disciples by being here among our brothers and our sisters in fellowship.  

But let me borrow three more discipleship tools from our friends at Saddleback. I think it’s very compelling that we find all of them in the life of Jesus. “He had trouble in the garden [of Gethsemane], He had temptation in the desert, and He had trespasses on the cross.” Trouble, temptation, and trespasses. Rick Warren makes the point that this trilogy of trials can either make you holier, or it can make you a little ball of hell on earth. Troubles can make you worse or better, depending on your commitment to discipleship. 

Here’s growth principle #1: God uses trouble to teach us to trust in Him. Now, I love it when things are going great in my life; I’d like to spend my entire existence in an emotional Disneyland. But there’s not much growth spinning round and round in those teacups. We become better disciples when we go through hard times and challenging experiences. 

There was an interesting article in Newsweek by Fareed Zakaria, their brilliant columnist, about why the Middle East has such difficulty politically. The entire region is just a mess all the time; there’s trouble constantly. Why? With all the advantages, you’d think it would be a model of maturity. 

Zakaria pointed out that exactly the opposite had been true all these decades. These are societies built on the billions of petrodollars that come from oil. There’s just always been this gusher of money available. So the citizens have never had to pay taxes. They’ve never had to learn the art of compromise, of building a consensus, of working with other people to get things done. Andalthough this is a simplificationthe region has just stayed stuck in political kindergarten. It is hard to learn democracy. It’s difficult to master the idea of sacrifice. Senator John McCain, at the height of the Iraq conflict, broke with his political party and said: “During a time of war, our nation has never, ever gone with the idea of handing out huge tax cuts then. Other times, sure. But when our soldiers are overseas fighting, you don’t pass out money at home and run up deficits then. No, democracy is built on shared sacrifice.” 

And in our lives, I think we can all look back at some of the spikes of trouble, of hurt and challenge, and we see that this is when we did some of our growing. Romans 5:3, 4 says this: Trouble produces patience, and patience produces character, and character produces hope. 

We need to be clear that many problems are sent to our address by Satan, not God. God never causes anyone to sin, for example, in order for us to be challenged. The insurance companies tell us that God sends the hurricanes, but that simply isn’t true. However, we have a God who is never defeated. God will use the trials of life, even those thought up by Lucifer, as a way of preparing us for heaven. Rick Warren points out that we’re not put here to be comfortable; we’re put here to develop character. Character and family and friends are really the only things we can take with us in a suitcase to heaven. 

It may help us in going through hard times to realize that the problems we face do have a purpose. The late Pastor Adrian Rogers had a line once where his dad disciplined him quite a bit and said, “Adrian, I do this because I love you.” And he wrote, years later, “I think I must have been his favorite.” But God is going to use troubles to help us grow, to make us more like Jesus. 

Let’s go to a Bible scene that’s very familiar. Jesus is in Gethsemane on a dark Thursday night. It’s the pivotal moment in human history as He stays with His decision to go to the cross the next day. Roy Adams, one of the editors of the Adventist Review, suggests that on that evening, every other city of the world was completely demon-free. There were none of Satan’s angels in Nazareth, Bethlehem, Rome, Ephesus, anywhere. They were all in that garden, giving Jesus pure emotional hell. Here’s Mark 14:23-24. Jesus said to His disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” Distress and anguish came over Him, and He said, “The sorrow in My heart is so great that it almost crushes Me.”

Two Important Lessons

We discover two lessons right here. First, even Jesus craved His small group at this time of pain. He wanted His friends with Him. He was lonely and He reached out. So when trials come, we need each other, and we need to be noticing when trials come to others in our group. 

Secondly, it’s all right to cry out and rail in frustration to God! Notice verse 36: “Father,” He said, “everything is possible for You. Please take this cup of suffering away from Me. Yet, I want Your will, not Mine!” So God accepts our anguished howls when we hurt. We can say to Him: “What’s going on? I don’t get it! I don’t see Your purpose here! Give me a break! Cut me some slack! Pick on someone Your own size!” But then in the same breath we need to say, “Lord, I love You. I trust You. If this is what it needs to be, fine. If there’s a lesson I need to learn, I’m willing to learn it. Speak, Lord, for Thy servant heareth.” 

I guess there’s one more principle here. Gethsemane teaches us this one thing for sure. When things are absolutely the worst, we have to trust in God. We can’t just hang onto His hand from one through seven on the ten-point scale of sorrow, and then throw in the towel and give Him up on eight, nine and ten. I stand amazed at how people cope in Baghdad, or after losing their home in a Katrina hurricane. Or when a child dies. But we see Jesus here, in the throes of agony, nothing but screaming, desperate fear . . . and He says: “Thy will be done.” 

One way to develop a steely maturity in our faith is to practice what we call “journaling,” or keeping a spiritual diary. Moses did that, we read in Numbers 33. Rick Warren tells the story of a lawyer who lost his job about ten years ago. It was very hard finding a new job, very much a blow to his self-esteem, and he kept a spiritual journal as he went through the one-year process of getting back to work. Then about five years later, it happened again. And as he traveled that same painful journey, he could look back in his diaries of five years earlier, and be reminded of how God led. He remembered what Bible verses had helped sustain him the first time around. It was a case of: “Here we go again, Lord, but You’re still able.” 

Tool #2 is to simply remember the reward. Jesus had so often told His followers about His resurrection, about heaven, about the coming kingdom. And I’m sure on this dark Thursday night, with the storm clouds all around and Lucifer screaming at Him to quit, Jesus had to look forward to the prize and remember, This is temporary. This is momentary. Soon we’ll all be home. A pregnant mother in the maternity ward might find it temporarily difficult to see her way through to the promised land. At a time like that, a mother will utter vile threats and speak about murder to the kind, self-sacrificing, Lamaze-breathing husband who is so patiently trying to help. Mommy gets her claws around his throat and goes: “You did this to me!” But then she remembers that a little bundle of happiness is about to arrive. 

Here’s the second tool: God uses temptation to teach us to obey Him. Again, temptations come from Lucifer. But God allows them, and overrules for His greater glory. We can learn and grow from our temptations. Temptations involve choices, and choices can lead to growth. A child who never gets to make decisions never grows up to adulthood. 

I heard about a young man named Nicholas Leeson, who was a financial genius. He was working for Barings Bank, headquartered in London, but he was in the Hong Kong branch doing what are called derivative deals. These are high-flying, very speculative investment schemes. And he was just piling up the money for his clients and for Barings Bank. 

Well, there was one week where some of his financial “bets,” these derivative vehicles, went south a bit. Not serious losses, but enough to wake you up. And he faced a decision, a choice. Should he tell Barings and his investors they’d had a bad week? Or should he quietly, on his own, just double his bets and recoup the money? Well, he made the second choice. He put more of his clients’ money out there on the dice table. Unfortunately, there was a second bad week following the first one. Now he was in a double bind. He’d lost more money, plus now if he confessed, he’d have to also admit that he’d fudged in reporting the first downturn. So he plowed even more seed money into the same deals, hoping to still come out on top. 

To make a long story short, the market went into a long bear slide, and this kidwho was only about 28 years old, making Internet deals on a laptoplost all control. He was lying to everyone there was, robbing Peter to pay Paul, scamming everybody. He didn’t mean to, but the whole thing just got away from him. Before it was done, this one fresh-faced boy with an Internet modem had lost, all by himself, a billion dollars. One billion. Barings Bank didn’t survive, and Nicholas Leeson went to jail for six years. 

Habits and temptations are like cobwebs that soon turn into chains. But we can grow from the wrestling process and the triumphant right choice. We can grow from the sorrow of the wrong choice too, but God would love to spare us the accompanying hurt. 

Here are two quick points. Temptations are not a sin. The classic line by Martin Luther, so it goes, is that you can’t keep the birds from flying over your head, but you can stop them from building a nest in your hair. Number two, a temptation is essentially a testing of this question: Do we love God more than this thing? Three times there in the wilderness, Matthew chapter four, Satan put an opportunity before Jesus to submerge His loyalty to His Father, and take a shortcut. For us it’s often a question of: do we love money and affluence most? Or pleasure? Comfort? Affirmation? Sexual gratification and wrong relationships. 

Here’s a quickie little serendipity out of Hollywood. Actor Michael J. Fox, who is suffering from Parkinson’s Disease today, first discovered that little tremor in his pinkie finger back in 1991 while shooting a smallish romantic comedy called Doc Hollywood. And in the many years since then, I’m sure that debilitating disease, that trial, has been very much a factor in Fox turning from a typical spoiled Tinseltown brat into a thoughtful man, a husband and father, a crusader for good causes. God didn’t send that disease, but He permitted it. 

And the serendipity is that this little film I mentioned, Doc Hollywood was one of those rare cinematic moments when a young man in his prime faces a sexual opportunity. An actress named Kelly Warner was just there, available, willing. The door was hanging open, and 99.9% of the time, the story line would take the couple right through and into the bedroom. But somehow these two young actors turned away. No, they said. That would be wrong. And this one unnoticed story exemplifies how God can help us grow in both of these ways. 

Let me share two specific suggestions about facing temptation. First of all, it tells us in Philippians 4:8 to fill our minds with holy and uplifting thoughts. This is the displacement theory, where positive images replace negative ones, where Bible promises replace discouraging attitudes, where the good books we focus our minds on fortify us more than sinful ones do. You can’t think about two things at a time, and if we’re tempted by sin, but quickly flee to higher mental ground, that can be a successful strategy. 

It’s also a blessing to have what we call a mentor or spiritual partner. The Bible has a word about that in Ecclesiastes 4:9, 10: You’re better off to have a friend than to be all alone . . . if you fail, your friend can help you up. A small group can do this. A one-on-one best friend can do this. A men’s fellowship or girls’-night-out group can do this. Rick Warren makes the point that the apostle Paul did better when he took along a Silas, a Barnabas, a John Mark, a Timothy, than when he went it alone. And again, there in Gethsemane, when Jesus was tempted, He craved the fellowship of Peter, James, and John. Here in the wilderness temptations, angels came to be with Him right afterward. 

Our final tool is this: God uses trespasses and mistakes to teach us to forgive one another. To learn to let go of our grudges, our desire for revenge. And the ultimate picture of that is Jesus on the cross. People are verbally crucifying Him, ridiculing Him, cursing Him, spitting in the face of the One who is trying to save them. It reminds me of aid workers, people in NGOsnon-governmental organizationswho go to Iraq, trying to help, trying to redeem, and getting burned in effigy or even beheaded for their trouble. But we grow when we go through the hard, Christlike process of forgiving those that hurt us. 

Rick Warren observes. “Trials are designed by God to draw us closer to Him, temptations are designed by the devil to draw us away from Him, and trespasses are designed by other people to hurt us.” Again, trespasses – other people’s sins against usare not part of God’s plan. But He uses them. They’re vehicles for our growth. And the two points to bear in mind are these. First, remember that God has forgiven us first. We forgive because He forgave. I like to call grace and forgiveness this vast ocean. It’s just a global, enveloping body of cleansing water. And God says to us, “Come on in. It’s free. It’s for you. I created this ocean of My love at the Cross. Only one caveat: if you get in it, you have to let your neighbor get in it too. It’s not just for you.” So we forgive others, according to the Lord’s Prayer, and according to Ephesians 4:32, because God forgave us. He forgave our five billion dollars, so we forgive our neighbors their five-dollar sins. 

Secondly, we remember that God is always in control. The story of Joseph is the classic one. Joseph’s evil brothers sell him into slavery. Then he’s accused of rape and tossed in jail. Finally he has a chance to get out, and a man he helps with a favor forgets to reciprocate. Joseph spends 13 long years in the land of unfairness, being sinned against. He has this long list of people he ought to get even with . . . and when he becomes prime minister of Egypt, he certainly has the tools of revenge in his hot little hand. But when he faces his brothers for the first time in so many years, and his get-even moment is right there, he turns away from it and says: “No, you guys, God was in control. What you did was wrong, but God used even your sin and my trials and my temptations in order to save two whole empires.” 

Every revenge story I’ve ever studied, in terms of theology, comes down to a willingness to let God be God, to leave vengeance to Him. And this is a hard laboratory of real growth, of becoming like Jesus who said as the nails were going in: “Father, forgive them – they just don’t know what they’re doing. Father, keep loving them on My behalf as I hang here dying.” 

If we surrender our selves completely to God, He’s going to take us through these three battlefields. A Gethsemane of trials, where we learn to trust His love. Through a desert of temptation, where we learn to obey God’s commands and do what He asks us to do. And here, a Calvary of trespasses, where we learn to forgive others as God has forgiven us, where we learn to give our thirst for payback to Him for eternal safekeeping. 

Most of you have children. Pause and think of our heavenly Dad considering US as His children. In His great love, He wants us to grow up, to be like His first Son. Philippians 2:5 says it all. Philippians 2:5: Your attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ.

This is part 5 of a 8-part series: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 6 | 7 | 8

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