Sunday, April 03, 2011

Do I Define the Jesus Story or Does It Define Me?

Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
Matthew 10:39
So what does this mean: "Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it?" The context, of course, is the imminent persecution of the disciples and indeed the wider church. Those who cling to their life as it is will never receive eternal life. The securities of this fleeting lifespan pale in comparison with the riches of the inheritance that the saints have in Christ. (This is precisely the point that the apostle Paul makes in Romans 8:17-25.)

Such passages speak directly to suffering brothers and sisters in China, India, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia, but what about the rest of us? We like to imagine sometimes that we too share in Christ's sufferings, but we do not suffer in the same way or to the same degree as the martyrs and the persecuted. The suffering that Jesus had in mind is not the general troubles that believers face in common with unbelievers, such as physical or financial hardships. It was suffering for their witness to Christ that Jesus had in mind.

Yet precisely because we do not find ourselves threatened with death for the sake of the gospel, those of us in liberal democracies may be the ones who find it most difficult to accept Jesus's exhortation. Like a cross that is worn around one's neck, Christ can become an accessory. Rather than being commanded at gunpoint to deny Christ, we are led by the devil into the wilderness of consumerism, shopping for identities. Far from being harried and harassed, we are shown the kingdoms of the world that can be ours if we will only turn away from Golgotha. We don't have to become atheists. We do not even have to renounce Jesus Christ. In fact, we can sell everything from rock concerts to coffee mugs with Jesus as the trademark. All that is necessary is for us to cling to ourselves--the securities, aspirations, felt needs, and relationships that define us and that we have chosen for ourselves--rather than to God's saving love in Christ and the identity for which he has chosen us.

To put it simply, Jesus's warning about finding our life by losing it versus losing our life to find it presses us to ask ourselves this question: Do I define the Jesus story or does it define me? Is Jesus's significance objective and universal, which I am simply to acknowledge and embrace, or do I determine his significance in my own life? Paul tells believers, "For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3).

This is more radical than anything we could conceive. According to the gospel, "I" don't really exist anymore. Our self-identity is not a stable "thing," but is defined by the story that we tell--or hear--about ourselves. Of course, the gospel does not obliterate my identity; it comes to save nature, not to destroy it. However, my nature "in Adam" is corrupt, in bondage to sin and death. Even in my moral striving, I am decadent. Even in my craving for spiritual experience, I am an idolater. Another makeover or transformation will not really change my identity. I must be crucified and buried with Christ--and raised with him to newness of life.


The salvation that God promises in Christ requires my death. Here I am, cheerfully going about my daily affairs, picking and choosing the roles I would like to play from the advertisements, movies, and "put-together" people I admire around me. I may even find a role for Jesus, although who am I to say that others are wrong for finding someone or something else more helpful for achieving their goals in life? Then along comes the law, nailing me, telling me who I really am, telling me how this character I have written for myself is doomed. I begin to question the believability of my screenplay. And then God hands me a new script: the Good News that I am no longer a child of Adam, stranger and alien to God's promises, but a child of God in Jesus Christ, stranger and alien to the world's spin. I no longer can see God as existing to make me happy, to satisfy my felt needs, even giving me a sense of well-being and add a few suggestions to improve my life. He comes to kill me and to make me alive. Repentance means I give up my script; I stop pretending that I can write the story of my life. Through faith in Christ, I become a character in God's story, part of the new creation.

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