Last week we discussed the biblical idea of thinking like God thinks—losing our lives to save them, serving in order to lead, being last to be first, and being a sinner in order to be righteous. This is foolishness to the world but illustrated perfectly by the life of Jesus at the cross.
What does that mean to us personally? Generally, nothing. We naturally and without knowing it continue to think as we naturally came out of the womb thinking, by cause and effect. The above ideas sound religious and make good slogans, but the way I personally think never changes. I am stuck, unconsciously, still eating of the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, trying to be “good” and not “evil” according to whatever my particular standard might be—and my conduct follows along behind. “For as (I) think in (my) heart, so (am I),” (Proverbs 23:7).
Then God decides to cut open my heart by the two-edged sword of His Word and apply to me personally what happened at the cross, and all bets are off. I find myself thinking in a whole, new, exceedingly strange way—in terms of opposites rather than by cause and effect. This makes no sense whatsoever, but I can’t help myself, and the love, joy and peace that follows is overwhelming. Have I lost my mind? Here are some examples of thinking God’s way in opposites in real life, contrasted to my intuitive, natural, cause and effect thought process.
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 proclaim them and repent. (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.”).
We “earthen vessels” are perfectly made according to God’s design. However, it seems we are not satisfied with God’s design and think we have a great idea for a much better one. “God, why don’t you just do away with these messy, unseemly earthen vessels by making us more and more righteous ourselves! How about making us into beautiful silver chalices? What do you think?”
However, there are some serious problems with our preferred design: If the world sees what appears to be “the power of God” in my life, and they do not simultaneously see my sin because I am hiding it by refusing to embrace and proclaim the “earthenness” of my vessel, what do they think?
First, they may picture me as a wonderful Christian who is worthy of great glory myself because I have somehow been able to get my act together and be “successful” at this Christian life. Or, if they are at all perceptive, they will see that I am a hypocrite, and I am trying to hide the reality of my sinful vessel, thereby negating the message of the cross. Only if my sin is on full display will God be able to tell me as He told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in (your) weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
3. My way: “The law of God is a 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 my inability to obediently follow it. (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 imparting righteousness to me as I obey Him.”
God’s way: God is at work in my life exposing to 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 that God freely gives me, no strings attached, a righteousness I neither earned by my obedience nor can I ever do so, no matter how hard I try (Romans 9:30-33).
The final example I want to share with you of this new way to think is the most audacious of all:
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. In this passage, he is careful to “thank God” for all the wonderful things God has done in him. 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 clinging tightly to what Christ has done at the cross and who I am in Him, 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.” Genuinely praying that prayer is an indication that God is already doing His job: conforming me to the image of Christ—”But we all…beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Corinthians 3;18). The what, how, when, and how much in that transformation process is entirely His concern, not mine.
As He does His job, the direct results are my unconscious, spontaneous obedience to the law of God and love, joy and peace in my heart. He gives this grace to the humble one who remains “the chief of sinners,” not the proud one, who, in his own mind, has left all the unpleasantness of sin behind him (1 Peter 5:7).
Focusing exclusively 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, not talk about it and to 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 seeing little necessity of repentance, therefore little understanding of the depths of God’s salvation in my life and hence little love for others, for “to whom little is forgiven, the same loves little” (Luke 7:47). This way of thinking man’s way is ingrained in me and is my default mode unless God continues to remind me of another way to think.
This is utter madness to the world and to many Christians; it is totally counter-intuitive. It is foolish to the unrenewed mind that actually seeking the opposite of a desired outcome is the only way to ever achieve it! But God is teaching us to live this way, the way of the cross, as He unfailingly fulfills the perfect plan He has for us all.