Approaches to living the Christian life
Our naturally developed mind-set and tendencies are opposite of God’s ways. God told us that through Isaiah long ago. “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways,’ declares the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.'” (Isa. 55:8,9).
As fallen, sinful persons we have all developed patterned tendencies to approach everything in life in particular ways. It is called the “flesh” in the New Testament Scriptures. We each have unique action and reaction patterns of selfishness and sinfulness in the soul. When we become Christians, we still have those patterned tendencies of the “flesh.” Paul explains to the Galatian Christians that “the flesh sets its desire against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; for these are in opposition to one another” (Gal. 5:17). To the Romans, Paul wrote, “I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. …I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the wishing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not” (Rom. 7:14,18).
These patterned tendencies of the “flesh” affect our individual approaches to living the Christian life. We have various patterns of thinking, with which we approach our Christian living.
Some Christians approach the Christian life as a “project”
It is a task to be completed; a job to get done. They want to see results in everything. The objective in their mind is to get it accomplished. So they decisively implement the necessary activities to achieve the objective and to reach the goal. “What are we waiting for?” they ask. “Let’s get the job done…now!” They want everyone to assist and to do their part. Focused and persistent, they take direct action to perform what is necessary, and to produce the desired end-product. Should they begin to relax, they feel guilty. They work so hard to achieve what they perceive to be the desired result. They want to do it, get it done, and make a significant change in things. The project called the “Christian life” must be accomplished and be completed in order to “get to Heaven”!
But, what happens when they cannot accomplish the project of Christian living? What do they do when all their efforts are not enough, and their greatest fear of being a failure in getting the job done seems to be evident? It is then that they might conclude, “the Christian life doesn’t work!” They often then respond by saying to themselves, “Maybe I haven’t been good enough. Maybe I haven’t been persistent enough. Maybe I haven’t worked hard enough. Maybe I haven’t buckled down to get it done. Maybe I didn’t attack it with enough effort and commitment.” Back they go to approaching the Christian life as a “project” to be completed!
Other Christians approach the Christian life as a “promotional effort”
To persuade everyone and to get everyone inspired. They want everything to be exciting. The Christian life is measured by the level of enthusiasm, energy, and liveliness. These Christians thrive on spontaneity, emotion, and zeal. They always want to be optimistic and up-beat. The objective is to be excited about being a Christian and living the Christian life, to be “on fire for Jesus.” They want everyone else to get involved and to join in the exciting programs. Everyone should be personable, outgoing, and friendly. Everyone should feel good. Like cheerleaders at a pep-rally, they try to motivate and enthuse by being dramatic, entertaining, and communicative. They want to whoop it up and be expressive. They conceive of the Christian life as a promotional effort for excitement.
But, what happens when life isn’t always exciting? What do these Christians do when the energy level runs low, and when no one responds to the peppy promotion? It is then that they might conclude that “the Christian life doesn’t work!” Their response is often to say to themselves, “I am unacceptable to God and to others,” which is their greatest fear. “Maybe I haven’t been zealous enough. Maybe I haven’t been friendly enough. Maybe I haven’t been personable enough. Maybe I haven’t been convincing enough. Maybe I haven’t been enthusiastic enough. Maybe I haven’t been involved enough.” Back they go to approach the Christian life as a “promotional effort!”
Other Christians approach the Christian life as a “panacea”
They think that the Christian life should be pleasant and predictable. Their expectation is that the Christian life should cause everything to be peaceful and pastoral. With an aversion to conflicts and troubles, they think the Christian life should have no unexpected bumps and no curve balls.
The Christian life should be consistent, laid-back, and traditional. For them security is found in that which is steady and stable and status-quo. In relating to others who are trying to live the Christian life, they want everybody to “get-along.”
They think that everyone in the church should be amiable, accommodating, and cooperative like them. Everyone should be patient, loyal, faithful, and contented, in order to work together as a family and a team. The objective is to have a safe environment of fun and fellowship, for the Christian life is viewed as a pleasant and predictable relief package.
But, what happens when their Christian life is not such a stable plateau? How do they respond when problems and conflicts arise, and when their greatest fears of an out-of-control chaos seem to be realized? It is then that they might conclude “the Christian life doesn’t work!” Their response is often to say to themselves, “Maybe I haven’t been loyal enough. Maybe I haven’t been patient and accommodating enough. Maybe I haven’t been faithful enough. Maybe I haven’t been cooperative enough. Maybe I haven’t been tolerant enough of others.” Back they go to approaching the Christian life as the development of a “peaceful relief package!”
Other Christians approach the Christian life as “propriety”
They view the objective of the Christian life as proper thinking and proper action, issuing forth in correct doctrine and correct morality. These Christians want to get everything figured-out accurately and analytically. They “study to show themselves approved.” In their quest for truth and knowledge, they are conscientious about every detail. They think that if they can get everything down-pat and air-tight logically, systematically, while memorizing enough scripture, then there would be precise procedures, techniques, and formulas by which to lead an orderly and structured Christian life. In the process, they want everyone else to think like they do, and to agree and conform in thought and practice. The objective is to “do it right,” “follow the rules,” and “go by the Book.” Then the Christian life will be successful, proper, correct and right.
But, what happens when their Christian life doesn’t go as planned and the tight structures fail? Inevitably they will find that everything isn’t “proper” in their lives. It is then that they might conclude, “the Christian life doesn’t work!” Their response is often to say to themselves, “Maybe I’ve been wrong.” They hate to admit it. “Maybe I haven’t understood it well enough. Maybe I haven’t been studious enough. Maybe I haven’t been disciplined enough. Maybe I haven’t been exhaustive enough. Maybe I haven’t been moral enough.” Back they go to approach the Christian life as “self-effort.”
All Christians can see themselves in one or more of these misdirected approaches to the Christian life. We have all had a tendency to approach our Christian lives with a degree of self-effort. That is why the Christian life doesn’t seem to work, because it will not work by our “works” of self-effort.
The Christian life works alright
But not because we try to make it work in a certain way according to our selfish propensities. The Christian life works only when Jesus Christ works IN US. That is the way the life of Jesus worked on earth as a man. Jesus said, “the Father abiding in Me does His works” (John 14:10). In like manner, the Christian life works, for the writer to the Hebrews prays that “the God of peace…might equip you in every good thing to do His will, working IN US that which is pleasing in His sight, through Jesus Christ” (Heb. 13:20,21). The Christian life is Jesus working IN US that which is pleasing in God’s sight.
To the Philippians Paul wrote that they should “work out their salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil. 2:12). He did not mean that we should try to work out our Christian lives in accord with our self-oriented mind-set and approaches to life. Rather, those misguided ideas, approaches and orientations must be given up in order to recognize what Paul goes on to say, “God is at work IN YOU both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13).
Christianity is not about you
The Christian life does not work if we try to “pull it off” by our pre-conceived agenda of patterned perspectives and approaches. Paul wrote that “He who began a good work IN YOU will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). To the Thessalonians he indicated that “Faithful is He who calls you, and he will bring it to pass” (I Thess. 5:23). Who is going to bring our Christian lives to pass, and effect sanctification? God by His divine action! The Christian life is really God’s business, not ours! There is only one Name in the word Christian and it’s not ours…It is CHRIST.
In his epistle to the Galatian Christians Paul notes that “it is no longer I who live…” (Gal. 2:20). It is not me trying to live the Christian life by my own self-expression, and my own expectations of what it should be. No one is going to be able to sing Frank Sinatra’s song, “I Did It My Way,” concerning their Christian life. Rather, Paul goes on to say, “Christ lives in me, and the (Christian) life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God” (Gal. 2:20). The Christian life is our receptivity of His activity.
Christianity is Christ!
The Christian life is the life of Jesus Christ lived out through our behavior. The Christian life is not a project. The Christian life is not a promotional effort. The Christian life is not self-effort. The Christian life is not propriety. The Christian life is a Person, Jesus Christ. The Christian life is affected by the ontological Presence and activity of the Being and Life of the risen Lord Jesus.
The Christian life is a process of allowing the Person of Jesus Christ to be lived out in us. It is not a project to get completed and finished. It is not a panacea to arrive at. It is not a promotion to get a “high” of excitement about. It is not a propriety to be properly enacted. The Christian life is the salvation/sanctification process whereby we are “made safe” and “set apart” from the dysfunction of trying to live the Christian life by our own effort and expectations, in order to function as God intended by the indwelling dynamic of the life of the risen Lord Jesus, the Spirit of Christ.
The Christian life is not static
It is not accomplishable. It is not promotable. It is not a plateau of pleasantness. It is not a systematic belief-system. The Christian life is the dynamic manifestation of the life and character of Jesus Christ, who is “the way, the truth and the life” (John 14:6).
In John 15:5 Jesus is recorded as saying, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” Apart from Jesus Christ and His activity in and through us, we can do nothing that will affect the living of the Christian life. We must give up our naturally patterned approaches and rely only on Him. “Not that we are adequate in ourselves, to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God” (II Cor. 3:5). With His divine adequacy and empowering, “we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us” (Phil. 4:13). We can live the Christian life through Jesus Christ, as He lives through our behavior.
Our argument has moved from “why the Christian life doesn’t seem to work,” to the recognition that “the Christian life works” by the out-working of the life of Jesus Christ. Christians must give up trying to make the Christian life work by their own efforts and orientations and allow the life of Jesus Christ to be lived out through them.