As believers we have a new identity in Christ. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Cor 5:17 NIV). The problem we face is how to live out that new identity in a world where everything concerning Christianity seems to be under attack. Many churches have classes for new believers where they teach how we are generally expected to live the Christian life. The new believer classes emphasize such things as obedience to God’s commands, correct doctrine, and religious experiences. I agree that God’s commands are to be obeyed, correct doctrine is important, and religious experiences do occur. The problem I see with such teaching is that we still do not know how to be a Christian. Too often we let negative emotions such as fear, jealousy, and anger get us off track and we go into a negative downward spiral. This article is for believers who are seeking answers to the question of how to live out their new identity in Christ.
How can we become highly effective Christians? In other words, how do we emulate Christ more in secular settings and be “on mission” as believers to share our love of Jesus with others? Let’s look at the Bible and see whether we have any examples with whom to emulate. Daniel lived in a foreign land and kept his practices. Job trusted God despite his loss of everything. Paul was faithful unto his death. I propose that rather than trying to obey commands or practice learned doctrines, they developed certain habits which sustained them. Paul wrote about these habits in chapter twelve of Romans and chapter five of Ephesians: do not be proud but maintain a contrite heart, be joyful patient and faithful, keep up spiritual fervor, share with those in need, love sincerely, hate evil but cling to good, and live in harmony with other believers. These habits can make living in the world but not of the world as natural as breathing.
Christianity cannot exist without a humble heart.
The first habit is to not be proud but maintain a contrite heart, have genuine sorrow for the wrong we’ve done. When I write about pride I’m talking about the pride of life, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes. Adam and Eve suffered from this type of pride and it caused them to disobey God. Adam and Eve sought their own will instead of God’s will. They believed the devil when he said, “You won’t really die.” Today, many well intentioned people are guilty of the same sin. We have been tricked into believing what God calls evil is a matter of freedom of choice, in the same way Adam and Eve were tricked. We believe the devil when he says, “It’s not really a sin.” The first habit we need to practice is to get rid of our pride and obey God. The second part of that habit is to maintain a humble heart. Christianity cannot exist without a humble heart.
When we have done something to cause unintentional harm to someone we tend to feel terrible about it and wish we could undo the behavior. We feel badly in our hearts for hurting someone. That feeling is what I call a contrite heart. For example the wise men told Herod about the birth of a king. Herod had all male babies less than two years of age in Bethlehem killed. Had the wise men heard about the murders they would have had contrite hearts. When we realize that our sin put Jesus on the cross and he died in our place, he went to the cross where we should have gone (Rom 5:8); it becomes easy to feel contrite. With a contrite heart we become willing never to cause more harm and will live for Jesus because the only way to appease the feeling is to do right to the one we’ve hurt.
Another habit is to be faithful in prayer. The past year has seen unusual and catastrophic events of nature. I found it interesting to watch people being interviewed who suffered such events. Some of the people were thanking God to be alive and trusting him to provide for them. Other people were cursing the government because handouts were not coming fast enough. Eventually the damage will be repaired. Christians know that good and bad things happen to everyone. Highly effective Christians remain joyful, patient, and faithful despite their circumstances. Our witness to others and our testimony will be revealed by how we respond. What Christian wants God to hear him or her cursing the government because nature destroyed our homes?
Paul wrote that we should never lack in zeal but keep our eagerness while serving the Lord. Last year a local pastor was shot in the head by some youth who were trying to forcefully enter a teen center he supervised. He survived the shooting, returned to the youth center, and resumed his duties. A near fatal gunshot wound would be enough to cause many people to quit, but this pastor maintained his strong desire to serve God. Today, his message to the youth is that if he cared enough for them to risk his life, they should care enough for themselves to risk their own lives in trying to change.
We should walk in love by being imitators of God.
In chapter seven of the book of Acts, Stephen was persecuted but never lost his zeal even up to his death. Compare a shooting star with the North Star in the Northern Hemisphere. A shooting star receives attention but is soon gone. The North Star doesn’t receive much attention but can be counted on to always be there. People who maintain their spiritual eagerness are like the North Star. People can count on them and so can God.
We are daily tempted to place value on things that don’t matter. What matters is how we can make a difference in the lives of other people. Share with those in need, practice hospitality until they become our next habit. Opportunities to share can come unexpectedly. Sometimes we are so busy we do not recognize them. Instead of viewing them as an inconvenience, we need to take advantage of those opportunities when they happen.
From April 2001 to March 2008 I served as the program director for a rescue mission. The mission provided free food and shelter to homeless men and also operated a substance abuse rehabilitation program for homeless addicts.
Normally my day ended at 5 pm. However, one time I received an unusual phone call at 4:45 pm. The man on the phone had come to town that morning to look for work and had run out of gas. For some reason the local police did not refer him to the Salvation Army or one of many non-profit agencies in town whose mission was to minister to families. Some of the over two hundred churches in town had benevolence funds set aside to help people in distress. One of them might have been able to help. But for some reason they referred him to a rescue mission.
At first I doubted whether the police had referred him because I had never received a call like that before. But after listening to his story, I believed him, though I was still puzzled why he was referred to the mission. During the seven years I worked at the mission I never received another call from a stranded motorist.
At first my mind made up several “good” reasons why I should not help. I tried to explain to him that the mission does not have money on hand to purchase gas whenever someone runs out. Then I had the excuses that he was way across town, it was rush hour, he was on one of the busiest streets in town, it would take forty-five minutes to get to him. I did not feel like driving in the heavy traffic to get to him. Besides he was not a homeless man.
Remembering the story of the Good Samaritan, and being observed by several of the homeless men, I decided to help this man. Jesus said if we meet someone who has a need, and we do not help, it is like not helping Jesus. The men staying at the mission were able to collect about ten dollars to help the man, possibly enough for gas for the man to get home.
When I found him I discovered that that his vehicle was stopped in a driveway to a parking lot for a busy strip mall and everyone was driving around him without offering any help. To make it worse, his wife was with him, they were diabetics, they had not eaten since breakfast, and they were broke.
The man explained they were Christians—perhaps why he was referred to the mission, and had come to town looking for work. They spent all their money to get there, believing God would help them get home. After pouring a gallon of gasoline into his tank, I followed him to a gas station quick stop about a block away.
Many of us would like to show brotherly love. Little acts of caring, doing what is right just because it is what Jesus would do, can show love in a big way.
The Holy Spirit filled me with compassion and concern because they had not eaten; reminding me of Jesus having compassion on the 5000 he fed. I gave them the ten dollars to get something to eat at the quick stop while I used my debit card to fill his tank with gasoline. I could have used the ten dollars to pay for the gas, and let them find their own food. But I knew God expected more than that.
I did what God does for us—gave him more abundantly than what he asked.
This story was not about me putting gasoline into someone’s car or helping someone get something to eat. This was about obedience. Jesus said to love your neighbor as yourself. If I had denied help to this man, I would have been like the priest and the rabbi in the story of the Good Samaritan.
There was only one reason why I should help. Jesus went to the cross for me. All I was doing was going to a gas station for the man. In light of what Jesus did for me, it was no inconvenience. We never know when God will make these appointments for us.
The next habit should be easy but for some reason it takes a long time to develop. Love must be sincere, be devoted to each other in brotherly love. You may have heard about the Greek words for different types of love. Eros, romantic love; storge, family love; agape, Godly love; philos, love of everything else, sometimes called friendship love (philosophy is love of wisdom, philharmonic is love of harmony, audiophiles love music). Love “always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres” (1 Cor 13: 7 NIV).
Many of us would like to show brotherly love. Little acts of caring, doing what is right just because it is what Jesus would do, can show love in a big way. A few years ago I cashed my paycheck at the local credit union as usual. When I got home I discovered I had an extra hundred dollars. I recounted the money. Then I checked the receipt. The teller had entered the correct amount on the transaction but had inadvertently given me an extra hundred dollars. There is no way anyone would know that I had received an extra hundred dollars.
Instead of feeling joy, I felt fear. Not fear that I might be accused of stealing, but fear for the teller. I knew she was someone God loved, and at the end of her shift she would be short a hundred dollars. I returned to the credit union and waited in line to go back to the same teller. When I got to the counter I showed her the receipt and returned the money.
In Ephesians chapter five Paul says we should walk in love by being imitators of God. We need to love other people as much as God loves them. By demonstrating God-directed love for the teller, and returning what was not mine, I may have prevented her from losing her job. Little acts of God-directed feelings can go a long way to bless others.
Do not repay evil for evil. Hate what is evil, cling to what is good. This habit is explained in Ephesians chapter five as walking in wisdom. Realizing we are filled with the Spirit we can avoid behaviors such as drunkenness, filthy language and coarse joking. Christians simply cannot drink excessively with their non Christian buddies, and engage in coarse conversation with them. We will never be a good witness of Christ in that way. Instead they may mock us behind our backs and be repelled from Christ. We have a mission to make disciples, and sitting in a bar or other environment getting drunk and telling coarse stories will not accomplish that mission. I had a close friend who when he wasn’t talking about how much he loved Jesus was always using profanity and telling gross stories. When confronted on this dichotomy he exploded into coarse epithets.
The last habit for effective Christians is live in harmony with each other. When we are fully developed spiritually we can see beyond ourselves and consider how what we do may affect other people. The Bible says we can tell who Christians are by our love. We need to walk in unity. Unity does not mean we all agree on everything but it does mean we walk in lowliness toward each other, considering the worth of the other person. We need to be longsuffering, or patient. If we have to forgive someone seventy-times seven on the same day, what is wrong with that? Jesus would do the same for us. We need to have a gentle spirit toward other people. Jesus is a great example. He is God but always put others first. One day while I was at the post office a customer in front of me was confused on what she wanted to do. The postal worker spent several minutes patiently trying to help the person. That postal worker was gentle and longsuffering.
Instead of trying to learn obedience to God’s commands, memorize correct doctrine, and practice religious experiences, we do better by developing the habits listed above. Everything will seem strange as long as we live in a sinful world. Our own flesh is one of our enemies but we can overcome the flesh by developing habitual behaviors.
We need to let Jesus teach us to see him more clearly, know him more intimately, long after him more deeply, and praise him more sincerely. We cannot let anything deter us from our quest to come closer to the heart of God.