An Image That Gives Life

There is a question that the host of a podcast I listen to loves to ask her guests: “What is something you have seen, heard or tasted recently that you can’t stop telling other people about?” It is a great question and I enjoy hearing the varied answers. If we were to ask that question to every living creature in heaven, they would say, “The Lamb who was slain. We just can’t stop marveling at the Lamb.”

Indeed, John says that,

“Myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands worship Him with a loud voice: ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing! Every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, cries out: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Rev. 5: 12, 13)

I love these glimpses into Heaven’s worship and it thrills my soul to think one day I will join that choir, singing those same songs with enraptured and undivided adoration to the Lamb who was slain. I am so thankful that one day my heart “will be so consumed with [You] that [I] will never cease to praise.”

But what about the here and now? If someone were to ask me, “What is something or someone you can’t stop thinking about?” and I were to honestly answer it, I would have to say that often I can’t stop thinking about myself. When I suspect sin or failure in my heart, it is very tempting to make it all about me. I want to admire myself, so I spend time in front of the mirror – obsessing.  “Should I have said that?” “Should I clarify what I meant when I said…?” “Did I ask good questions?” “Did so and so feel loved by me?” “How does my daughter feel about our relationship?” “Was I too distracted on the phone today?” Those thoughts are often accompanied by a measure of anxiety when I realize I am not enough and that I fail. Sometimes thoughts go from wondering whether I should have done something, to actually being convicted of pride, impatience, jealousy, lust. Those thoughts come with a sense of dismay and deep discouragement at my propensity to sin and at my lack of progress.

Staring at the mirror, only to find self looking back at me, does not give me life. In fact, the more I obsess in front of the mirror, the less strength I have. It feels like the mirror is crushing me under its weight and I can’t get up. There really is no hope in a narcissistic preoccupation with self.

How about you? Have you ever felt similar defeat, burdened by your sin? How do we fight sin without making it all about us? How do we make much of Jesus in our struggle against sin?

  1. Stop Looking Inward

Paul says in Romans 6: 6 that the old self has been crucified with Christ. Our sin-ridden self is dead. It has no power over us. We have a saying in the Dominican, where I am from, that goes like this: “There are looks that kill.” It means that certain looks we give people are so full of hatred and anger that would kill people if they could. In the same way, “there are sights that kill.” The principle stands true – I become like what I worship (Psalm 115: 8). Looking at my dead self does not give life. The more I am consumed with the life of my old self, the more its death envelops me.

My old self – my narcissistic, fearful, jealous, obsessive, dead self- has eyes but can’t really see God’s glory, ears but can’t really hear of his love for me. The more I stare at it, the more I am vulnerable to sin. So I give in. So I loathe myself even more as I keep staring at the mirror and all I see is weakness and failure.

It is a death-producing cycle. Let’s stop staring at self!

  1. Look To Jesus and Live

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But praise God! When I start drowning in the sea of self-contemplation, there is An Image that gives me life. It is the image of the Living One. The One who died yet is alive forevermore.

He is the One who was raised like the Serpent in the desert, who even though knew no sin, yet became sin so we could become the righteousness of God. The only way we find and continue to taste eternal life is by putting our faith in the Son of Man (John 3: 14-16).

He is truly glorious! John saw the Risen Christ as the Lion of the tribe of Judah who has conquered and as a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain (Rev. 5: 5-6). I can almost hear Handel’s majestic “Worthy is the Lamb” as I see the myriads of myriads falling at His feet in passionate adoration.

This glorious Christ is our life. Because of our union with Him, the Gospel startles us by telling us that in a way, when we now look at the mirror with faith, Christ looks back. He is our new image (Eph. 4: 20, 24). He took our sin and shame and has given us His righteousness (Rom. 4: 24-25). Friend- can you believe this? The real and lasting us is perfect like Jesus. He has given us his honor – we are seated with God in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus (Eph. 2:6).

Life Changing Advice

At the same time, in the already/not yet tension, we are not perfect. Our experience has not yet caught up with the reality of who we are in Christ. We are still in the process of looking more like Christ. Christ-likeness, though -putting to death what is earthly in us- does not happen when we look at the mirror and see ourselves. It happens as we behold the glory of the Lord.  “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor. 3: 18). Thank God the principle is still true: We become like what we worship! Adoring our Risen Savior we find life as He lives in us.

So instead of obsessing over our dead self, the only worthy occupation of our soul is to pursue being consumed with the glorious Christ. A friend gave me this advice that has changed my life: “Instead of spending your day obsessing over your sin, distressed by your fear, pride or jealousy, spend your days obsessing with Christ. Do that by pondering how He is the opposite of your sin. Do you find yourself tempted to fear? Study the Word to learn how Christ is fearless. Pride? Then look in the Scriptures for all the ways where you see Christ’s humility.”

Doing this has opened God’s Word to me in powerful ways. I have tasted more deeply its riches, as it shows me how beautiful Jesus is. There is none like Him! He is emboldening me by Jesus’ fearlessness as I read the Psalms through Christ as the greater David. He is making me hate and neglect my pride as I ponder his humility in the Incarnation. The Lord is melting my cold, self-seeking heart as I contemplate Jesus’ sacrificial, selfless love in Philippians. The Spirit is fueling my service as I see in Hebrews how he serves us through His High- priestly work. He is strengthening my faith as I consider Jesus’ hopeful faith in His Father in Psalms, Acts and Hebrews. And I have wept with joy as I’ve studied Jesus’ relationship with His Father and see it is mine too because Jesus has shared His sonship with me! As Mrs. Campbell says to Katherine in one of my favorite books, Stepping Heavenward – “To learn Christ, this is life!”

Because He is our life, his humility, patience, fearlessness, and faith is ours. Friend – we have no reason to despair and much reason to boast – Christ is our righteousness. It is exciting to think we will spend the rest of our life –into Eternity- learning Him in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2: 4). O come, let us adore Him.

“No other throne endures. No other song remains, but ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was for sinners slain!’” He has already been coronated so we have every reason to join that choir again today, consumed by the praise of the One who alone is worthy. Let’s study his Word and be diligent to learn Christ. May our one obsession become not ourselves, but the Son whom angels adore, the slain Lamb who reigns forevermore: the Risen One who is our life.

 

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On the Incarnation and the Joy of Nurturing Lives

BW-65“You feel like you are swaddled, right?” I was talking with a friend about some of my frustrations during this stage of life. I am a factory of projects and ministry ideas. But entering the world of those I am called to serve and becoming like them has meant saying no to pursuing many of those dreams. It seems like a season of unstarted and unfinished things. I know I am not alone. I have a precious single friend who gave up for now her dream to serve overseas to continue to care for and provide for the unique needs of her family at home. There were many tears as she put her desires on hold. This past few weeks a similar theme has come up as I’ve interacted with other friends who are nurturing lives: the sister in law who is a caregiver to her nieces; the teacher who is investing in children with disabilities; the pregnant mama who is in much physical pain as she carries the life of her baby to full term; my friend who left her home and is getting ready to serve Jesus in another country; the woman who meets to disciple and encourage another woman that she wouldn’t naturally gravitate to; the parents who are releasing their children and grandchildren to live overseas because Jesus is worthy; the foster mom parenting very difficult children. All of them, in one form or another, are limiting themselves and giving up something – time, sleep, energy, personal preferences, dreams, rest, home, relationships – for the sake of another’s joy in Jesus. But limiting self is hard and painful. “Swaddled” -constricted, wrapped around like a baby so tight I can’t move- was a great word for how I was feeling. I was resenting how limiting it is to enter the world of and become like those God has given me to nurture and care for.

Meditating on the Incarnation of Jesus has been a wonderful gift for me the past many months. Turning my gaze from my life to the life of Christ has strengthened me and given me joy for this season.  Through our union with Christ, He lives His life in us. And because we are united to Him, the pattern of His life – suffering, death, glory –is the pattern of our life.

The prosperity of Jesus Christ

Jesus is the blessed Man of Psalm 1 who was fruitful and prospered in everything He did. Yet, Isaiah’s description of the prosperity of Jesus Christ is shockingly counterintuitive:  

“Behold, my Servant shall act wisely [or shall prosper]; he shall be high and lifted up, and shall be exalted. As many were astonished at you—his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance, and his form beyond that of the children of mankind – so shall he startle many nations…He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 52, 53 ESV).  

How is it that for Him to act wisely meant so much suffering? What a paradigm shift to my self-seeking heart! To the earthly mind, the incarnation seems so inefficient. It meant limitation for Christ – dealing with one person at a time, one place at a time. He didn’t seek the most influential or powerful but the weak and needy. People just like me, people just like my children. The Incarnation seems like an inefficient way to be productive, but when Jesus chose limitation, weakness, servanthood and death, much fruit was born (John 12: 23-24). In the economy of the Gospel, embracing humility as a way of life is Jesus’ path to glory (Phil. 2: 5-10). His life shows His glory is to regard the lowly (Psalm 138: 5-6).

I am sometimes bitter by how limiting it is to care for others but I repent of my pride and selfishness as I see the Son of Man to whom belongs all dominion, choosing to be homeless, dusty, exhausted so that we could live forever to the glory of His Father. Jesus joyfully chose all that because He was full of resurrection hope (Acts 2: 26-28). He knew the paths of life went through death yet His Father wouldn’t abandon Him there. Fullness of gladness was certainly coming – He would be raised up and of out the anguish of his soul, His offspring would be born! (Isa. 53: 10-11)

The Path to Life

The Spirit loves to give us eyes to adore Jesus’ beauty. His grace trains us to treasure the pattern of his life so it is not something we despise. I am so encouraged by what my friend Kim wrote: “The fight of faith is to believe that the Gospel, the good news, is true in every little death you face. When you deny yourself that lie, that attitude, that self-seeking life that is so familiar to you and me…and we take up our cross to die to what we could do, could say and feel…and follow Jesus into that grave…do it by telling yourself the Gospel truth: life will come from this death. Joy will rise in the morning.”

So Maia, my 4 year old, wants me to pretend I am an alligator because she wants us to play a game that she made up. I could be a lot more productive washing dishes while listening to a podcast that keeps me in grown-up company. Yet I both find life and give life when I give up my “rights” to a clean kitchen and stimulating conversation and become like a child. I find His life, because it is Jesus’ resurrection power enabling me to choose her. Left to my power, I would always choose me. I give life to her when I pursue fellowship with her and delight in her.

Dear friend – resurrection life is our only hope as we nurture others. Through the power Christ gives us as the Risen One seated at the Right Hand of God we live day by day, knowing we too have been raised and are seated together with Him in the heavenly places. We live today by faith in Christ’s power, but also with our hope fully set on the day when we will be raised to our real life. Just like Jesus Christ, we tell our Father, “You will make me full of gladness with your presence” (Acts 2: 28).  Everything we are giving up now is not only for the sake of another’s joy in Jesus. It is for the sake of our joy – our undiluted, pure joy in Him.

My sister – the pattern of His life-giving life is ours. His Story is our story. His fullness of gladness our very own – forever.