“Is My Life Worth Living?”

“The purpose in a man’s mind is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Proverbs 20:5, RSV).

“We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28, RSV).

IT IS OBVIOUS THAT purpose can guide life decisions, influence behavior, shape goals, offer a sense of direction, and create meaning. For some, meaning is defined by what they do—doctor, lawyer, construction worker, teacher, welder, chef. Others seek meaning through spirituality or religious beliefs. Unfortunately, some never find meaning for their lives. I cannot think of a more sad state than existing without knowing why you exist, or where you’re going.

A Matter of Worldview

We are talking about worldview. Everyone holds a worldview, which Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet (2008) define as “the framework of our most basic beliefs that shapes our view of and for the world and is the basis of our decisions and actions.” Sire (2015) says a worldview is a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or unconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic makeup of our world. [Italics added.]

I agree with Phillips, Brown and Stonestreet (2008) that truth is absolute; if not, then nothing is true. They consider (p. 64), “If a worldview is true, we can expect to find at least some external corroborating evidence to support it. This does not mean that something is true because there is evidence for it, but rather evidence will be available because something is true.” [Italics added.] It is critical to note that evidence is always subject to interpretation, and interpretation also can be subject to bias. As it’s been said many times, worldviews function somewhat like a pair of eyeglasses. When you begin wearing glasses, the rims can be quite distracting. In a short while, however, you lose your awareness of the rims and even the lenses. You forget you’re wearing glasses.

Accordingly, we can lose perspective on our assumptions, presuppositions and biases, especially with the passage of time. Entwistle (2015) warns us that assumptions and biases affect data interpretation. He said, “…what we see depends, to some degree, on what we expect and are predisposed to see.” (p. 93) Our ability to know is both dependent upon and limited by the assumptions of our worldview. In my Christian worldview, I recognize God as the unique source of all truth, and that this truth is absolute. In other words, it is not relative, but it is universal and unchanging. Truth is not absolute on its own merits; rather, it derives ultimately from God. I do not believe, however, that the Bible contains all that we need to know: e.g., we don’t consult the Bible to understand how to change a tire or perform brain surgery. Scripture does contain everything we need to know regarding God, the spiritual life, and morality.

We begin developing our worldview as young children, first through interactions within our family, then in social settings such as school and church, and from our companions and life experiences. Increasingly, our media culture is playing a key role in shaping worldview. We are a culture saturated with powerful media images in movies, television, commercials, music, gaming, and social media. What we watch, listen to, and read, impacts the way we think.

The lack of a sound basis for the meaning of life can cause a gnawing sense of being unfulfilled. This perception underlies everything we do. For example, we can be “busy” with many things, yet wonder if what we’re doing makes any real difference. Life, by its very nature, presents itself one day at a time: a random and unconnected series of activities and events over which we seem to have little or no control. If a sentiment of disconnectedness develops in our everyday existence, boredom sets in deep within our soul. To be “bored” does not mean we have nothing to do; it means that we question the value of the things we are so busy doing. Here is the great paradox of life: Many of us are busy and bored at the same time!

Symptoms of a Lack of Purpose

Interestingly, boredom might be rooted in resentment. If we run around all day like a crazy person, doing this and that, yet wonder if our busyness means anything to anyone, we easily feel used, manipulated, or exploited. Is this not often how a parent feels when he or she is constantly doing for their children, but the children appreciate nothing? In this state of mind, we begin to see ourselves as victims pushed around and made to do things by people who do not acknowledge us or take our contributions seriously. An inner anger starts to well up inside us—an anger that eventually settles into our hearts. Left unresolved, this anger leads to resentment, which has an effect on us much like a poison.

Perhaps the most damaging expression of our looming sense of unfulfillment is depression. When we start to believe our life has little or no effect on those around us, we can easily fall prey to sadness, depression, and regret. This can morph into guilt. It must be our fault that no one appreciates us, right? Perhaps we don’t do enough. Maybe we did the wrong thing. We begin to think it’s all our fault. This guilt is not always connected to just one event; sometimes it is connected with life itself. We feel guilty just for being alive. The realization that the world might be better without us becomes a sort-of “sub plot” to our life. We look in the mirror and, “Is my life worth living?”

Boredom, resentment, and depression are all symptoms of our sense of being disconnected. We cannot help but see life as a broken connectedness. We feel as though we don’t belong. Not surprisingly, this often leads to loneliness. This is what is meant by being in a room full of people at a gathering but feeling all alone. We experience this  because we don’t really feel like we’re part of the community. And it is this paralyzing sense of separation from others that establishes the core of much suffering in the world. When in this state of feeling cut off from the community, we quickly lose heart. Ultimately, if we don’t address this sentiment, we see ourselves as passive bystanders. We tend to live life “on the bench.”

Americans Increasingly Turn to Suicide

There is now a potential for us to believe our past, even our present, no longer carries us to the future. Instead, we go through life worried, cut off, without any promise that things will improve. Perhaps this is at the crux of one’s decision to commit suicide. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), suicide was the tenth-largest cause of death in America in 2017, claiming the lives of more than 47,000 people. Suicide was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 54. There were more than twice as many suicides (47,173) in the United States in 2017 as there were homicides (19,510).

No Sense of Roots

Henri Nouwen wrote, “Most of us have an address but cannot be found there. We know where we belong, but we keep being pulled away in many directions, as if we were still homeless.” I had a t-shirt years ago that had a rather interesting quip written on it: I Have Gone to Find Myself; If I Return Before I Get Back Keep Me Here. Does this not address the very struggle we all face when attempting to define the meaning of our existence. This “rudderless” life leads to our being tossed to and fro on the ocean in search of a port—any port—in the storm. For me, this pervasive sense of meaninglessness and loneliness led to some rather damaging behavior—infidelity, job hopping, geographic changes, and addiction. I learned that when we feel an inescapable sense of disconnectedness we will being to lie to ourselves. Not only about what the meaning of life is (or should be), but about the serious damage our addictive behaviors and activities of distraction are causing—both to us and to those around us.

What is the Answer?

If you are familiar with Scripture, you will likely remember that Jesus does not respond to our worry-filled way of living by saying that we should not be busy with everyday activities. Instead, His response is quite different. He asks us to shift the point of our focus—to essentially relocate the “center” of our attention, to change our priorities. Jesus wants us to stop focusing on “many things,” and instead focus on the “one necessary thing.” He does not preach of a change in activities as a means of finding a meaningful life. That would be akin to putting a temporary bandage on a bleeding wound. When we ignore critical wounds in the flesh, we risk developing a puss-filled infection that can spread to our bloodstream, thereby causing a “systemic” infection.

Instead, Jesus speaks of a change of heart. This change is what’s needed to make everything different even while everything appears to remain the way it was. Let me be clear: Many of us are living lives that are in need of drastic change. That’s a given. When we focus on the one necessary thing, we begin to tap into the resources needed to realize an effective change in our direction. This is what Jesus meant by His comment to the disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? …do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well” (Matthew 6:25, 31, 33, RSV).

I believe it is only when we understand the importance of Jesus’s urgent instructions to make God the center of our lives that we can better see what is at stake. We will understand who we are, why we are here, and why things happen the way we do. This cannot be achieve through our human wisdom or understanding. We can’t grasp the things of the Spirit while focusing on the flesh. A heart set first on the Father’s kingdom is also a heart that is properly oriented toward the spiritual life. Thankfully, Jesus provided an exemplar for us to follow when refocusing our attention in this manner.

We see that Jesus was not merely a zealot who ran around the Holy Land espousing some “new wave” approach to life. He was not interested in seeking a “self-fulfilled” life. Rather, everything we know from Scripture is that Jesus was concerned with only one thing: To do the will of the Father. From His very first public utterance in the Temple, He made this abundantly clear. “‘Why were you searching for me?’” he asked. “’Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?'” (Luke 2:49, NIV). The footnote provided for this verse at blueletterbible.org says, “be about my Father’s business.” Jesus was quick to tell his disciples, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever he does, that the Son does likewise” (John 5:19, RSV). In other words, Jesus wants us to understand that without God nothing is possible. Moreover, with God nothing is impossible.

Consider this thought: Jesus is not our Savior simply because of what He said to us or did for us of His own accord. He is our Savior because what He said and did was said and done in obedience to the Father. Paul expressed this in Romans 5:19: “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19, RSV). This speaks of an all-embracing love—for the Father and for us. We cannot understand the impact of the richness of Jesus’s ministry until we see how everything He did was rooted in one thing: Listening to the Father and obeying out of the power of a perfect and unconditional love.

When Jesus said He is the way, the truth and the life, He was not merely stating that everything He said was true. It was, of course, but He meant something much deeper. He was not speaking of an idea, concept, or doctrine, but He was talking about true relationship. I believe that’s why we cannot quash the nagging sense of meaningless alone; rather, it must be understood through relationship with Jesus and with the Father. It is only by first loving God, then loving our neighbor as ourselves, that we can hope to find the connectedness many of us are desperately searching for day after day. When our lives become a continuation of Jesus’s life and ministry, we begin to see the paramount importance of being connected with Him and the Father in order to experience connectedness to our “selves” and others.

Concluding Remarks

It is in and through the Father’s kingdom that we find the Holy Spirit, who will guide us, heal us, challenge us, and convict us. This is the very mechanism for renewal. Moreover, this is not merely hitting the “heavenly lottery.” The words, “all other things will be given you as well” express that God’s love and care extends to our whole being. When we set our sights on Him. we come to understand how God keeps us in the palm of His hand. We learn not to worry, project, or become hopeless. We avoid the trap of emotional upset, including anxiety and depression. We become lifted up into God’s unconditional love and care. A change in our hearts leads to a change in our perspective, and this is the very meaning of developing a Christian worldview.

References

Entwistle, D. (2015). Integrative Approaches to Psychology and Christianity, 3rd Ed. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books

Phillips, W., Brown, W., and Stonestreet, J. (2008) Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview, 2nd Ed. Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing.

Sire, J. (2015) Naming the Elephant: Worldview as a Concept, 2nd Ed. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity Press.

“I’m Not Who I Wanna Be!”

The greatest revolution in our generation is the discovery that human beings, by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives. —William James

Girl in Meadow Sunset Contemplating

KNOWING YOURSELF IS ONE OF the greatest feelings. It has a deep meaning. Frankly, it’s how you enable yourself to move forward. When you are able to clearly and honestly see who you are deep down, you are better equipped to begin working on personal growth. There simply is no growth without honesty. I learned this lesson the hard way—which is an understatement. It took me over four decades to discover who I had become, who Jesus sees me to be, and what to do about it.

Too many Christians today suffer from an identity crisis. Whenever we forget who we are in Christ, we create a void in our spirit that nothing can satisfy, although not for lack of trying—overeating, sex, booze, drugs, gambling, excess shopping, pornography, working eighteen hours a day, whatever. Of course, what’s critical is this: How we see ourselves is our identity. Identity is strongly linked to self-image and self-esteem.

WHO DOES CULTURE SAY WE ARE?

Culture tries to create us as they see fit. Enculturation begins with our first primary caregivers and continues through academia and religious or other “life-defining” practices. Culture influences identity. We are both individuals and members of the human family. Clyde Kluckhohn (1954) wrote “culture is to society what memory is to individuals.” Webster’s dictionary defines culture as “…the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief and behavior that depends upon man’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.” It also includes values and beliefs of a particular group. Because we’re social beings—according to Genesis 2:18, God believed man should not be alone—the cultural influences we’re subjected to play a large role in the development of our identity.

Culture provides a lens through which we view and interpret the world. This is typically called a worldview. It’s been said that culture suggests the way a group of people may appear to an anthropologist; worldview suggests how the universe appears to the group. Accordingly, worldview helps generate our specific experiences. Everyone has a worldview—a window through which he or she views the world, framed by the assumptions and beliefs that color what he or she sees. The basic role of a worldview is to present the relationship of the human mind to the riddle of the world and life. Nietzsche viewed every worldview as a product of time, place, and culture.

Identity is not determined by biology; rather, it is informed by social and environmental influences. For example, language is a large part of who we are—including how and what we speak—is determined from birth by environment and social culture. It is further influenced by academics. Somewhere, in the mix of all this, culture gives us a label for the group to which we each belong. We all “see” the same world, but it will be understood differently. Our “glasses” (worldview) do not shape reality, nor do they ensure a correct perception, but they do determine how we interpret and explain life and the world.

WHO DOES PSYCHOLOGY SAY WE ARE?

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Identity is largely concerned with the question Who am I? Identity relates to our basic values that dictate the choices we make (e.g., relationships, career, academic interests). These choices reflect who we are and what we value. Some believe identity may be acquired—at least in part—indirectly from parents, peers, and other role models. Children come to define themselves in terms of how they think their parents see them. If their mother or father sees them as worthless, they will come to define themselves as worthless. People who perceive themselves as likable probably heard more positive than negative statements.

Standard elements of the word personality include:

  • the state of being a person
  • the characteristics and qualities that form a person’s distinctive character
  • the sum of all the physical, mental, emotional, and social characteristics of a person

Essentially, personality is everything about us that makes us what we are—a unique individual who is different, in large and small ways, from everybody else. Our personality is one of our most important assets. It helps shape our experiences. Personality type can limit or expand our options and choices in life, and can even prevent us from sharing certain experiences or keep us from taking full advantage of them. Accordingly, sometimes personality can vary with the situation. Psychologists and sociologists assume that identity formation is a matter of “finding oneself” by matching one’s talents and potential with available social roles.

WHO DOES PAUL SAY WE ARE IN CHRIST?

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According to Ephesians 1, we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing; we have been chosen, adopted, redeemed, forgiven, grace-lavished, and unconditionally loved and accepted. We are pure, blameless and forgiven. We have received the hope of spending eternity with God. When we are in Christ, these aspects of our identity can never be altered by what we do.

For Paul, union with Jesus is summed up in the short phrase he uses over 200 times in his epistles: in Christ (and other variations of same). This wording is said to have originated with Paul. C.K. Barrett, British biblical scholar and Methodist minister known for such books as The Gospel of Saint John and A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, believed we cannot define the term “in Christ” exactly because Paul does not elucidate or explain the how—i.e. the mechanism—of such a union suggested by the phrase. So, what does the phrase mean?

One of the richest passages about identity in the Bible is found in Ephesians 1:3-14. In this passage, Paul addresses the church in Ephesus, explaining the new identity given to a person when they are in Christ. Unfortunately, often a gap exists between intellectually knowing these truths about who God says we are and living them out. This can be hindered by how we see ourselves, our life experiences, and the ways we allow the world to define us. In order to live out the fullness of our new identity in Christ, we must determine what is hindering us from seeing ourselves as He sees us. Many times, a false belief has wedged itself between how God defines us and seeing ourselves in the same light.

Jesus With Open Arms

For example, the opposite of “pure and blameless” would be “impure, stained or guilty.” Perhaps a life experience has caused you to feel impure, so you believe God sees you this way. You then create and live out of an identity based on your beliefs, which are  contrary to how God sees you. In order to fight against these false beliefs, we must discover the exact belief we are allowing to form our identity.

When reflecting on Ephesians 1, I see some false beliefs we may live out:

  • rejected instead of accepted,
  • in bondage instead of redeemed,
  • under the law instead of covered by grace,
  • feeling orphaned instead of adopted

Instead, we need to focus on who we are and what we have in Christ:

  • spiritually blessed
  • redeemed
  • sealed
  • grace through faith
  • one in Christ
  • joint heirs with Christ
  • access to the Father
  • fellow citizens of heaven
  • boldness
  • new life
  • access to the whole armor of God

Just saying “I’m in Christ” does not make it so. What must come first is the means by which we can be one with the Messiah. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul says, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (NIV) [italics mine]. The mechanism is right there. Christ had to become sin for us, thereby washing us white as snow, before we could become the righteousness of God and be one with Jesus. Paul tells us in Romans 3:22-24, “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (NIV) [italics mine].

Romans 6:11 says, “In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus (NIV) [italics mine]. Further, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:2). Paul addresses our identity in Christ in his Epistle to the Ephesians. In 1:12, he writes, “…in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory” (NIV). Paul tells us in Ephesians 2:6 that He raised us up together with Him by our virtue of being in Christ. Ultimately, we press on to win the prize to which God the Father is calling us heavenward in Christ (Philippians 3:14). John says, “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men” (NKJV).

WHO DOES GOD SAY WE ARE?

God says we are valuable. We are created in His image (Genesis 2:7) and tasked with carrying that image like a torch to light the world. We are woven into the tapestry of all He has created. We’re crowned with His glory and honor as the pinnacle and last act of the six days of Creation.

Perhaps the best way God sees us is redeemed. The truth we have to remind ourselves every day is the fight has already been won. We don’t need to try to fix ourselves. No self-effort will ever save us. We cannot make up for past struggles and efforts. We must remember that grace is already ours. When we die to our old self, we live with Christ in God. The Father no longer sees our sins. When He looks at us, he sees the righteousness of Christ.

We have all this through Jesus Christ.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25, NIV).

 

In Christ

For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. —1 Corinthians 15:22

It is important that we know how God sees us. This can be rather difficult given our tendency to think the worst of ourselves, or to define our lives through the lens of others. One of the richest passages about identity in Scripture is Ephesians 1:7-14:

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

In this passage, Paul explains the many aspects of our new identity in Christ. We have been blessed with every spiritual blessing; we have been chosen, adopted, redeemed, forgiven, lavished with grace; unconditionally loved and accepted; we are pure, blameless and forgiven; we have received the hope eternity with God. When we are in Christ, these aspects of our identity can never be altered by what we do.

Often, we feel the pressure to define ourselves through our jobs, financial status, successes, grades, appearance, what other people say about us and many other means.

As Christians, our true identity is in Christ. We are no longer who we were. Paul calls us saints, set apart by and for God, and invariably addresses us as those who are in Christ. He implores us to live our lives in Christ, as he also lives, saying, “I glory in Christ” (Romans 15:17). In his epistles he encourages us to be in Christ, in him, or in the Lord 160 times. What it means to be in Christ is exactly the opposite of what it means to be in ourselves. In other words, if we are not in Christ, we are only into us. It’s all about us and no one else.

WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?

So what does it mean to have our identity in Christ? It’s not just a matter of claiming Bible verses for ourselves, or starting our mornings reciting key Scripture. To have our identity in Christ means placing our confidence for life and eternity in Christ alone. To be in Christ involves being formed into the image of the Lord. It means wanting others to see Jesus when they look at us. Galatians 3:26-28 says, “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (NIV) [Italics mine].

To be in Christ is to be clothed in His righteousness. If you are in Christ, you are a new creation in Him. Paul writes, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here” (2 Corinthians 5:17, NIV). Prior to conversion, Paul knew “about” Christ merely as another man. At conversion, Paul became a new creation. The old passed away, indicating the definitive change that took place at regeneration. Paul adds, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (verse 21). Being in Christ means having His righteousness. This position is made available to us as a result of God’s grace. Because we have no righteousness of our own, this is of paramount importance in order to stand before God.

According to Scripture, we die in Adam but are born again in Christ (see 1 Corinthians 15:22). In Adam, there is condemnation; but in Christ, there is salvation. In Adam, we receive a sin nature; but in Christ, we receive a new nature. In Adam, we are cursed; but in Christ, we’re blessed. In Adam, there is wrath and death; but in Christ, there is love and life. It’s as if there are two teams in life. We each take to the field with one of them. The decisions made by the team captains affect the entire team, for better or worse. The first team is led by Adam, and the second by Jesus. We identify with Adam and share in his defeat, or we identify with Jesus and share in his victory. In other words, are we in Adam or are we in Christ?

OUR IDENTITY AS BELIEVERS

The main theme in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is identity formation. Union with Christ gives us a radically new identity. Ephesians 4:20-24 says, “That, however, is not the way of life you learned when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (NIV).

The phrase “in Christ” literally changed the world and is the very essence of our identity as believers. In speaking of identity, Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5, NIV). When Paul talks about the new I is he talking about who he was before Christ in combination with who he now is in Christ, or is he referring only to the new creation in Christ? Considering the words of Jesus in John 15:5, it seems he might be speaking of both. We are re-created in Christ, but we are not able to exist as a new creation apart from Him.

Spiritual growth in the Christian life requires a relationship with Jesus Christ, who is the fountain of spiritual life—a relationship that brings a new seed or root of life. As in nature, unless there is some seed or root of life within an organism, no growth can occur. Likewise, unless there is a root of life within the believer (i.e., some core of spiritual life), growth is impossible. There is nothing to grow! This fits nicely with the analogy of vine and branches. Frankly, this is why Paul’s theology is based solely on our position in Christ. He was brilliantly able to point out the constant struggle within himself between doing that which he did not want to do and not being able to consistently do that which he wanted to do.

NEW HEART, NEW SPIRIT

We’re told in the Bible that the center of the person is the heart. Proverbs 4:23 identifies the heart as the “wellspring of life” (NIV). In our natural state of being, the heart is deceitful above all things (see Jeremiah 17:9). Born under sin, we are conditioned by the deceitfulness of a fallen world rather than by the truth of God’s Word. In Ezekiel 36:26 we read, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh” (NIV). From the moment we are born again we are grafted into the vine—sanctified and set apart as children of God.

We have to believe that our new identity is in the life of Christ and commit ourselves to grow accordingly.

We read in Colossians 3:9-10, “Do not lie to each other, since you have taken off your old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (NIV). Biblical scholar and author F.F. Bruce says, “…the new man who is created is the new personality that each believer becomes when he is reborn as a member of the new creation whose source of life is Christ.” But exactly what does it mean to be a new man? Does it mean every aspect of us is changed? After all, we still look the same physically. Our voice sounds the same. We still have many of the same thoughts, feelings, and experiences. Our DNA does not change when we become born again. Our past, although forgiven (and forgotten) by God, is still our past. We carry emotional baggage with us well into our future even as new believers.

The Natural Person

In our natural state, we must contend with flesh, mind, will, and emotions. First Corinthians 2:14 says, “The person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God but considers them foolishness, and cannot understand them because they are discerned only through the Spirit” (NIV). The word flesh typically refers to the body, but theologically it can also refer to the learned independence that allows sin to reign in our lives. We struggle in the flesh with inferiority, insecurity, inadequacy, guilt, worry, and doubt. Our mind is the seat of obsessive, recurrent, distressing thoughts and images, which are often at the root of compulsive behavior, bad habits, and addiction. Our body is the situs for migraines, allergies, asthma, arthritis, heart problems, cancer, and other physical ailments. Our emotions include depression, anxiety, bitterness, anger, resentment, and many other sensitivities.

We are spiritually dead in our natural state—separated from God. Accordingly, we tend to sin as a matter of course. We have a soul, in that we can think, feel, and choose. Our mind, and subsequently our emotions and will, are directed by our flesh, which acts completely apart from God. In our natural state, we tend to believe we are free to choose our behavior. But because we live in the flesh, we invariably walk according to the flesh. Our choices reflect the “deeds of the flesh” we read about in Galatians 5:19-21. Our actions, reactions, habits, memories, and responses are all governed by the flesh.

The Spiritual Person

When we become renewed by the Spirit, we are able to crucify our flesh by recognizing we are now dead to sin. Our mind is transformed. Paul said, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will” (Romans 12:2, NIV). As we present ourselves as a living and holy sacrifice, our body becomes a temple of God. Our soul reflects changes brought about by our spiritual rebirth. We start receiving the impetus for our behavior from the Spirit rather than from our flesh.

Remarkably, we are now free to choose not to walk according to the flesh, but to walk according to the Spirit. When we exercise our choice to live in the Spirit, our lives exhibit the fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22-23). I refer to this as the dichotomy of true freedom. Additionally, our bodies have been transformed. We have become the dwelling place for the Holy Spirit. We can now choose daily to offer our bodies as living sacrifices, which is our reasonable service. Our flesh is conditioned to live independently from God under the old man. Unfortunately, our flesh is still present after we’ve been born again. The difference is we’ve been given the resources to crucify the flesh and its desires daily by recognizing who we are in Christ.

BEING IN CHRIST WILL CHANGE OUR WALK

Becoming a new believer does not anoint us with magical sin-defying powers. We are still spring-loaded toward fleshly behavior. A life of fleshly habits does not just vanish. We tend to go on living according to what we know, and we don’t know much about living a Spirit-filled life. As we grow and mature in Christ, we tend to lean toward the Spirit. We occasionally make poor choices—we’re human after all. However, we are learning daily to crucify the flesh and walk by faith in the power of the Holy Spirit. This walk is built on relationship, not subordination.

Freedom doesn’t just lie in the exercise of choice; it ultimately lies in the consequences of those choices.

Paul defines what it means to walk by the Spirit in Galatians 5:16-18: “So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (NIV). Paul is quick to note what walking in the Spirit is not a license to sin. License, in this regard, is contempt for rules and regulations constituting an abuse of privilege. Amazingly, some Christians wrongly assert that walking by the Spirit and living under grace means I can do whatever I want to do. On the contrary, walking by the Spirit means we are free (from the dominion of the flesh) to live a responsible, moral life—something we were incapable of doing when we were a bond servant of sin.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

I cannot overstate how important it is that we come to understand how God sees us. We must fight the tendency to define ourselves based on our past sins and transgressions, or through the lens of others. In Christ we have redemption; we have the forgiveness of sins. Additionally, we have been blessed with every spiritual blessing in Christ. We are no longer who we were. We have become saints, set apart by and for God. To be in Christ is to be clothed in His righteousness. We are literally given a new identity in Christ. It is through walking in the Spirit that we are able to deny our flesh, but we must do this daily. This is only achievable when we recognize and operate in the truth of who we are as new Christians. 

As we grow and mature in Christ, we tend to lean toward the Spirit. This helps increase the odds that we make the right choices relative to behavior. Paul warns against the practice of sin. Because we still occupy a fleshly body, and still possess a mind, a will, and emotions—along with baggage and past experiences—we are prone to take the wide road rather than the harder, narrow road. Being in Christ is not merely about being forgiven and living under grace. It is not a license to sin. Rather, it is about living a responsible, moral life. It is about being free to choose righteousness over sin. It is about being in right relationship with God.