Last week we saw that God’s way of thinking, the way that Jesus demonstrated for us while he lived here on the earth and that He wants us to learn to emulate, is directly antithetical to our natural way of thinking. It’s a way of thinking that naturally makes no sense to us whatsoever. Here are some examples from the Bible:
- If you want to be first, then you must be last of all and servant of all. (Mark 9:35)
- The Lord kills us so He can make us alive; He brings us down to the grave so he can raise us up. (1 Samuel 2:6)
- God is strong only in our weakness, not in our strength. (1 Corinthians 12:9)
- Life only comes out of death. (John 12:24, 2 Corinthians 4:12)
- Those who seek after righteousness by obedience to God’s law do not attain it (i.e., the Jews), but those who do not seek it (i.e., the Gentiles) do attain it-–not the supposed righteousness that comes from keeping the law, but by believing that they already are righteous by faith in Christ alone. (Romans 10:3)
- Trying to be obedient and not sin only makes me sin more (Romans 7:8)
- If you want to be free from sin, then embrace the reality of specific sin in your life and repent (1 John 1:7, 9, 2:1).
These verses fly in the face of everything we naturally think. We think in terms of “cause and effect”—the more we attempt to achieve the desired result, the more success we will have. This is man’s natural, intuitive way of thinking, and we are addicted to it. If we want positive results in our Christian lives, we think we must have to focus on and then work at achieving those results. The more diligent we are in our Christian disciplines, the more progress we believe we will make in our spiritual growth.
On the other hand, God’s way of thinking, as illustrated in the above biblical examples, is to think counter-intuitively in terms of opposites—the more we focus on the opposite of the desired result in our relationships with God and with others, the more the desired result appears!
This is a whole new way to think that renders my way of thinking obsolete. It attacks my latent religious aspirations, the unseen spiritual hypocrisy of the old Robert Andrews, that ambitious, spiritual athlete who, for over 50 years, has been out to do his very best to make God’s first team.
However, my way of thinking is over, as God takes the curtain from my eyes and shows me who I really am and the futility of all my efforts to be a starter (really, even the quarterback!) on God’s first team. Then I begin to learn to view life a whole new way, through the lens of the cross. This is what Jesus means by taking up our cross daily and following Him—following Him in a whole new way to think, a way that takes me out of the picture altogether and releases the Holy Spirit to do exactly what God has planned for me in eternity past!
It is not as though we first must experience death and get it over with, so we can then have life and leave that ugly, painful death behind us. Although death and life are sequential (it is true that death always precedes life), it is not as though we can ever finish with death, so we can then have abundant life with no problems forever after. The reality is that both death and life are always a continuous, daily experience. As I learn to first embrace the cross—the death—I then learn that in the very midst of death, death is no longer death but life; in the very midst of sorrow, sorrow is no longer sorrow but joy; in the very midst of losing, losing is no longer losing but winning.
Some time ago I counseled with a man whose wife had left him and taken his children with her. She could no longer stand to live with his constant disapproval, his incessant blame for every difficulty that occurred in their family and his unending displeasure with everything she and the children did. Her decisive action shook him and forced him to look at himself for the first time. He subsequently saw clearly that their family difficulties all lay solely at his doorstep. As he saw it and embraced his sin (his lack of love and leadership) and repented, I will never forget what he said, expressing what he was experiencing: “Robert, I don’t understand. This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me. I may have lost my family forever and yet right now I have joy in my heart! How can this be?” The cross had brought him life in the very midst of death.
Let me list some practical applications that compare our way of thinking with God’s way.
1. My way: “My sin keeps me from an intimate relationship with God.”
God’s way: Sin, as far as God is concerned, has been rendered irrelevant by the cross and actually brings me closer to God as I embrace it and repent. (Col. 2:14; Heb 9:26)
2. My way: “God is glorified by my obedient, righteous life, lived as an example for others to see.”
God’s way: God is glorified in my failures, my weaknesses, as I freely own and freely proclaim them. (2 Corinthians 4:7: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels that the excellence of the power may be of God and not of us.”)
The earthen vessels are according to God’s design. However, we are not satisfied with God’s design and think we have a much better one. Why don’t we just do away with the messy, unseemly, earthen vessel by getting more and more righteous ourselves!
However, there is a problem with our design: If the world sees what appears to be “the power of God” in someone’s life, and they do not also see his sin as well, because he is hiding it by refusing to embrace and proclaim the “earthenness” of his vessel, what do they think? First, they may glorify him as a wonderful Christian who is worthy of glory himself because he has somehow been able to get his act together. Or, if they are at all perceptive, they will see that he is a hypocrite and is trying to hide the reality of his sinful vessel, thereby negating the message of the cross.
So, God whispers to us softly but clearly: “My peace you will find, If you keep in mind, That the earthen vessel, Is My design.”
3. My way: “The law of God is a loving guide God has given me to try to obediently follow.”
God’s way: The law of God is a violent beast designed by God to kill me, as it exposes me as a sinner on a daily basis (Galatians 2:19). It is a mirror to show me my sin so I can repent, not a scrub brush to clean up my face as I try to keep it (James 1:22-25).
4. My way: “God is at work in my life to impart His righteousness to me in order to make me holy.”
God’s way: God is at work in my life showing me the depths of my sin so I can fully own it and repent. (Luke 18:9-14). The only righteousness I will ever have is the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ that God freely gives me, no strings attached, a righteousness I didn’t earn and will never deserve (Romans 9:30-33).
5. My way: “I want to focus on who I am in Christ—what God has done in my life—and not on the sins of my flesh. Away with all this negativity!”
This is the approach of the Pharisee in Luke 18:11, 12. Notice that he is careful to “thank God” for all the positive things God has done in his life. He is not like other men–extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like that poor, sinful tax-collector in the parable. “Let’s not focus on the negative,” he says. “I’m through with all that. God has changed me. Glory to God!”
God’s way: Though understanding clearly and never forgetting who I am in Christ, God’s way of thinking is for me to focus on the sins of my flesh and affirm their ever-present reality, not as mistakes, shortcomings, blunders, gaffes or oversights but as wicked sins, and then repent of them. This is my job—what I am called to do, just as did the tax-collector in Luke 18:13. His entire focus was, “Oh God, be merciful to me a sinner.” It is then God’s job, by His Spirit who lives within me, to conform my conduct to that of Jesus Christ. That is His focus, not mine.
As He does His job, the by-products are, not only unconscious obedience to the law of God, but love, joy and peace in my heart, as with the man in the above example. He gives grace to the humble, the one who remains “the chief of sinners,” not to the proud one, who has left all the unpleasantness of sin behind him, in his mind.
Focusing predominantly on the positive (who I am in Christ) is man’s way of thinking and makes the daily experience of the cross seem to be unnecessary. This mindset is a fig leaf that gives me cover. It causes me to ignore my sin, hide it, be ashamed of it, and not talk about it. That way, I can convince myself that it is not really there, as I desperately try to save my life. Those are all indications that I am a Pharisee; still on the ladder of performance; still trying to save my life; still wanting to present a righteous front to God and to others; still refusing to view all of life through the cross.
This “positive thinking” is a foolproof prescription for blinding myself to the necessity of repentance. There is, therefore, little understanding of the depths of God’s salvation in my life and hence little love for others, for “he who is forgiven much loves much.” This way of thinking (man’s way) is ingrained in me and is my default mode, unless God continues to open my eyes to another way to think.