My story may not detail a dramatic, overnight reversal from ruthless cartel kingpin to a peace-loving pastor, but looking back on it now, at least from my own perspective, it seems like I’ve made a pretty dramatic shift. I can recognize now how different I am compared to before–down to my thoughts, reactions, and even my vocabulary. That definitely isn’t to say I’m perfect–far from it. In another five years, I hope I am just as amazed at the dramatic shift from now till then. I don’t want that to ever change.
When I was a new believer, you could say I was a bit like a deer in headlights. Trying to soak up everything I could, my vocabulary and ideas were influenced by what I heard from the prayers and conversations of more mature believers around me.
Meanwhile, one request that seemed harmless to ask God for was to have more of Him–to help me grow closer to Him and become more like Jesus. I mean, what believer wouldn’t want that?
I felt like a good little Christian to include this “more of You” request in my prayers. I remember immediately feeling more righteous when the words would leave my lips.
But there was a problem with my prayer.
Being so new to the idea of following Jesus, there were a lot of habits, ways of thinking, and priorities that I had not addressed or even admitted to from my former way of living–that hunky-dory life where everything centered on myself. I was still unaware of how corrupt and selfish my life really was. I would have even argued that many of the things I did and the ways I lived were just who I was–how God made me to be. From that standpoint of complete spiritual ignorance, I reasoned that God indirectly approved of everything I did.
There were some really glaring, obvious things I knew I needed to let go of. Simply recognizing my willingness to finally change in those larger areas was actually very encouraging. For me, it was evidence that God truly had taken my heart of stone and replaced it with a heart of flesh. But I really wanted that to be all God was requesting of me. I can say now that it was more like that was all I was willing to give.
Every Christian should know that repentance and change is part of the process of trusting Jesus, but I genuinely wondered how much of my life I was supposed to let Him examine and change. I wondered how constant repentance was supposed to be, and how much understanding Jesus would show, given things were so different back then compared to now. That biblical idea of “dying to self” seemed completely overboard and unnecessary, especially since I thought I was already an okay dude. I was really hoping I could do the whole “Christian” thing without the “die to self” part.
I was asking God to make me more like Him and to bring me closer to the man He truly made me to be, except I was unwilling to let go of my previous worldview and many of my habits. At the time, it honestly didn’t seem like that big of a deal. I thought God surely understood me, and that He was okay with the trivial details of “life-as-usual” as defined by this amazingly advanced and modern standard of living.
But that’s the thing. For God, it wasn’t “life-as-usual.” It was a life of rebellion, on my terms, which is one of the simplest definitions of sinfulness. It was approaching God only to say “No” to His ways and expecting Him to say “Yes” to mine.
It didn’t dawn on me until much later that God really did want me to let all of that go so He could completely redefine me. C.S. Lewis has a really great illustration of this in Mere Christianity. He says:
“Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of– throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”
Suddenly, it was painfully clear what “dying to myself” and “carrying my cross” really meant. Jesus’ message for what life should be like for His followers and Paul’s encouragements are each dripping with this idea:
- “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.” (Mark 8:35)
- “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)
- “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (John 12:24)
- “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” (2 Corinthians 5:17)
- “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
You can’t get new unless you give up the old. But we are so often unwilling to give up our old selves because we think the gospel can fit in just fine with the way we’ve always lived and thought.
It’s crucial to recognize that a prayer asking for “more of Jesus” in our lives doesn’t work unless we are also ready to become less like our old selves. No holding on. No excuses. No looking back.
I think many people wonder why nothing is changing in their lives once they confess that Jesus is who He said He was and did what history testifies that He did. Many of us don’t realize at first that Christianity has to be about laying down our lives, not just simple lip service. It has to be about intentionally walking away from the way we used to do things.
James, John, Peter, and Andrew each walked away from their fishing nets. Matthew walked away from collecting taxes. Simon walked away from plotting to overthrow the Roman government. Does that mean they rejected their talents of collecting food, managing money, and understanding politics? No, they just had a fresh motive and a new purpose with those gifts.
The way we justify our anger and offenses; the way we treat our bodies and pursue physical pleasure above all else; the way we only consider ourselves and our own conveniences–there’s no room for complacency in those ways of living with what Jesus taught. And yet we so often hang onto those things, unwilling to let Jesus give us a new identity.
We can pray to become more like Jesus all day long, taking pride in the principle and elegant sound of what we’re saying, but no gains will be made in that category until we’re ready for decreases in other areas. Becoming more like Jesus means changes have to be made. It means being confronted with things we are doing wrong and showing a willingness to change without making excuses about why it’s not a big deal or an unnecessary change. It is a big deal, and we will be able to see exactly how necessary it was when we are enjoying a closer relationship with God than ever before.