More Like Jesus
February 9, 2016
by Peter Amsterdam
More Like Jesus
Raising Our Sails1
Anything that we want to do well at in life requires effort. Those who are tops in their field, whatever it may be, in large part achieve what they do because they work hard at it. The same holds true for Christians growing in Christlikeness and becoming the people God intended for us to be. It takes work as we consciously and deliberately develop godly beliefs, habits, attitudes, thinking, and behavior. It also calls for intentionally letting go of wrong beliefs, harmful habits, ungodly attitudes, erroneous thinking, and bad behavior.
Throughout the New Testament, we read about the concept of “putting off” or removing aspects of our lives—both inner thoughts and feelings, and the resultant outward actions—which fight against Christlikeness. Meanwhile, we are to be “putting on” or adding to our lives those things which develop godliness. The idea of putting something off clearly calls for a decision to be made and action to be taken. The same holds true for putting something on. Let’s look at some New Testament passages about putting off, followed by some which speak of putting on:
When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry … you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.2
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor.3 Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.4 Put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.5 So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander.6Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.7
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.8
The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light … put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.9 Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and … be renewed in the spirit of your minds … put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.10
Clearly, doing as these passages advise takes effort. “Put to death,” “put away,” and “put on” are all actions. None of these things—whether putting on kindness, humility, patience, compassion, or putting away anger, malice, covetousness, evil desire—happens naturally. They are the fruit of a life transformed and empowered by the Holy Spirit as we follow what Scripture teaches, as we apply our faith to our life. They have to do with intentional spiritual growth, with the development of Christian character, which, like any kind of training, involves disciplining oneself to do certain things in a certain way. Once one has put in the time and effort to train, to break old habits, and to build new ones, then “putting off” the negatives and “putting on” the positives becomes more natural, as we are gradually changed by the Holy Spirit.
When speaking of putting effort toward disciplining oneself, I don’t mean to infer that this is something we can do on our own, without God’s help or grace—we most certainly can’t. But neither can we expect the Holy Spirit to change us without any effort or action on our part. We struggle with sin throughout our lives, and while God forgives us for our sins, we are expected to endeavor to avoid sinning. We are to “put to death” and “put away” those things which draw us away from Christlikeness, and to “put on” a new self, to live as best we can as the new creature that we have become in Christ.
I think most of us try to do this, and we are moderately successful at it. However, the more I’ve studied and learned about our faith, the more deeply I’ve understood the significant difference that living what Scripture teaches makes in one’s life. Putting in the effort and self-discipline to intentionally work toward growth in Christlikeness brings greater happiness, relationship with God, sense of fulfillment, and joyful living.
I recently read the analysis of a survey by Michael A. Zigarelli, a Christian author, showing comparisons between what the author called low-virtue, average-virtue, and high-virtue Christians.11 He was trying to find out what made high-virtue Christians different. His results showed that of the 5,000 Christians surveyed, most were average-virtue Christians. He then went on to identify the differences between the average and the high-virtue Christians. Those he categorized as high-virtue were those who put effort into doing specific things which resulted in Christian character growth. He also made the point that average-virtue Christians could, with some extra effort, become high-virtue ones.
Zigarelli pointed out that each Christian has a vital, active role to play in his or her own spiritual growth. Some believers might object to the concept of the individual playing a role in their spiritual growth, saying that it is the Holy Spirit who does the work to change us, to transform us into the likeness of Christ. That it is the fruit of the Spirit, not our own efforts, that we see manifested as Christlike character attributes. And there is truth to that.
But as Zigarelli wrote:
The more complete conceptualization of the growth process is that God has a role and we have a role. The interplay of those roles has been likened to the task of sailing a boat from one place to another. To get a sailboat from point A to point B, two crucial elements are required: we need some wind blowing toward our destination, and we need to put the sail into position to catch that wind. You can probably guess the analogy here. God’s Holy Spirit is the wind, seeking to gradually move us toward Christlikeness. We are the sailors, needing to raise the sail; that is, to do something that puts us in the position to catch God’s Spirit, so that the Spirit will move us along toward the desired destination.12
If we seek more Christlikeness in our lives, we need to “raise our sails.” How do we do that? We achieve this in part by doing the things that help to develop Christlike character, and by giving focus to specific attitudes and actions that put our sails into position to catch the wind of the Spirit, which will move us to our destination. Practically speaking, becoming Christlike means altering some aspects of our present character, and such change is difficult. It takes intentionality and discipline. However, being moved by the wind of God is well worth whatever the cost.
Some time back, I wrote a series of articles on the Spiritual Disciplines. These covered Bible intake, prayer, stewardship, simplicity, giving and tithing, wise use of time, fasting, solitude and silence, worship, evangelism, fellowship, confession, learning and studying, journaling, service, and celebration. Practicing the Spiritual Disciplines is one of the major ways of developing Christlikeness. Since I have previously covered this aspect of spiritual growth at some length, I won’t spend time in this series reviewing each of these disciplines, though I will touch on a few of them. But I highly recommend that you read or reread these articles to complement this series, since these two concepts are inseparably intertwined.13
In this series, I’m focusing on developing Christlikeness within us, which entails the serious character-building work it takes to live the teachings of Jesus and the New Testament. This has to do with intentionally living in the kingdom of God. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus taught about the kingdom of God, sometimes referred to as the kingdom of heaven. He taught that the kingdom is both future and present. Living within the kingdom in the present means that we allow God to rule and reign in our lives, acknowledging and honoring Him as the one who created us. It means seeking to live in a way that honors and gives glory to Him, by doing our best to live according to His words in Scripture.
In order to become more Christlike, to live more kingdom-centered lives, we need to put in effort to align our lives, decisions, actions, and spirit with God and His Word. Doing so means “putting off” some aspects of ourselves and our character, and “putting on” aspects of Christlikeness. It means cultivating the fruit of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.14 As we do our part to raise the sails, we grow in Christlikeness.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Many points in this article are summarized from Cultivating Christian Character, by Michael A. Zigarelli (Colorado Springs: Purposeful Design Publications, 2005).
2 Colossians 3:4–5, 8–10.
3 Ephesians 4:25.
4 Ephesians 4:31.
5 James 1:21.
6 1 Peter 2:1.
7 Hebrews 12:1.
8 Colossians 3:12–15.
9 Romans 13:12,14.
10 Ephesians 4:22–24.
11 Zigarelli, Cultivating Christian Character.
12 Ibid., 39.
13 To find more details on these disciplines, I recommend the following books, which I drew from in preparing the “Spiritual Disciplines” series: Celebration of Discipline, by Richard J. Foster; Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, by Donald S. Whitney; The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard.
14 Galatians 5:22–23.