Now I’m not a pastor or spiritual director. I have no right or authority to speak into anyone’s life and tell them what to do or not do. I won’t tell you how to spend your life, your time or your money – and I don’t have a clue anyway.
Nor am I going to give advice on how to do ‘Christian’ things – how to have the best quiet time, or how to pray, read the Bible, evangelise, or worship. Important though these things may sometimes be, they’re not the heart. And I’m certainly not going to try and tell you how often or how long you should pray, or how much money you should give away. That way lie guilt, burdens and burnout.
The thing is, I’m not sure that God’s all that fussed about precisely what we do – at least, not in the way or to the extent that we sometimes imagine. I’m not even sure that he’s particularly bothered about exactly how we pray or conduct the so-called ‘spiritual’ elements of our lives. At least, I don’t think that’s his primary concern.
Who we are, not what we do
I think that what God cares about first and foremost is who we are. What we do and how we do it matters, but it’s secondary. It follows on from who we are, rather than being what gives us our identity and purpose.
And I further think that what God wants for us is simple and twofold:
- To be fully Christlike
- To be truly ourselves
And that’s it. You can all go home now.
But you know me, I can’t resist woffling on…
Our selves, in Christ
Our culture is always telling us ‘be yourself’, ‘be authentic’, ‘follow your heart’. And that’s all true and good, but it’s only half the picture, and perhaps not the more important half. By itself, ‘be yourself’ tends to lead to narcissism or self-indulgence. It needs to be coupled with ‘be Christlike’.
So God’s primary purpose for each of us is that we be transformed into his likeness, becoming perfect in love and goodness and wisdom and freedom. Jesus is the prototype and model for all humanity; we’re all ultimately destined to be like him.
Yet God apparently loves diversity and endless variety, and in his infinite creativity he has made each of us unique and different. He’s not looking for a clone army of lookalike Christs with identical personalities. We’re destined to be like Christ, but not to be him. Rather we’re destined to be like him in our own individual way. Or to put it the other way round, we’re destined to be fully ourselves, yet in a Christ-redeemed, Christ-filled, Christ-reflecting way. For only in this way can we be completely and truly ourselves.
So we are to be authentically ourselves; our culture hasn’t got it all wrong. But I’d suggest that we can’t fully and truly know what it means to be ourselves until we’re also in Christ.
I think we can further combine both sets of ideas and say that God’s purpose and plan for us is incarnational redemption – or redemptive incarnation. God enters us and fills us by his Spirit, incarnating Christ in and through us. And so we remain ourselves – indeed become more fully ourselves – but also and at the same time become ever more Christlike. It’s “Christ in me, the hope of glory”.
How to be Christlike
So then, what does it mean to be Christlike, and how do we achieve it? There’s no formula, no set of universal rules. It can’t be set out in diagrams or online tutorials. Rather it has to be seen, experienced, and followed. Jesus’ way was to say ‘follow me’, and then show by lived example what he was all about.
And what is Jesus all about? He is beyond description or definition, but he is love, he is light, he is true life; he is deep mercy and compassion and understanding; he is forgiveness and hope and redemption.
If you want instructions on how to be Christlike, the Bible does of course offer some insights. There’s the Golden rule: ‘treat others the way you’d like them to treat you’. There are the Beatitudes – ‘blessed are the peacemakers… the pure in heart… those who hunger and thirst for righteousness’.
There’s the sheep and goats story: blessed are those who see Christ in others and tend to their needs as though they were tending Christ. And this picks up on themes from Isaiah 58: ‘to loose the chains of injustice… to set the oppressed free… to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter’.
There’s Paul’s description of the ‘fruits of the Spirit’ – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness etc – and his celebrated passage in Corinthians about the centrality of love. There’s Micah’s pithy summary: ‘act justly, and love mercy, and walk humbly before your God’. There’s James’s line about religion that God accepts: ‘to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world’.
And above all – and summing up all of the above – there’s the primary injunction to love God with all you are and to show it by caring for your fellow-humans as you love yourself. Which means that we can’t fully develop Christlikeness in hermit-like isolation; it’s something that requires community, and friendship.
If I had to sum up Christlikeness in two words, it would be ‘love’ and ‘goodness’. And if I had to explain how to develop Christlikeness in one instruction, it would be to continuously welcome Christ into ever more of our lives, hearts, minds, attitudes, relationships – and particularly the bits we’d rather hide or don’t want to change.
But it’s a lifetime journey, one day at a time, and one issue at a time. We’re going to be imperfect and un-Christlike in all sorts of ways until the day we shuffle off this mortal coil.
And for each of us the path to being Christlike will look different, taking in different joys and disappointments, hurts and struggles and successes. In following Jesus, we need to chart our own course, which brings us on to…
So what does it mean to be yourself? I don’t think it’s as easy as it sounds. Sometimes we’re just not all that sure who we really are. And even if we are sure, it’s not always easy to be that person in the face of disapproval or blank non-understanding or probable rejection. What if we’re convinced that we’re gay but are told that Christians mustn’t be gay? Or what if our values and tastes seem completely out of kilter with our culture and our era?
So again, I think it’s a lifelong journey of self-discovery and self-acceptance, rooted in God’s full acceptance of us.
I think we find out who we are by a gradual process of discovering and attending to what we love and hate, what we do and don’t care about, what we’re brilliant at and rubbish at, what our deepest desires and needs are, and what are our areas of hurt and brokenness and weakness.
Some people find personality categorisation schemas helpful, others not.
And again, the best way we find out about ourselves is in relationship with others. It’s in our deepest and most intimate friendships that we can come to see the best and worst in ourselves; and perhaps even to have our best encouraged and our worst accepted and redeemed.
There’s a radio sketch by the UK’s nicest comedian John Finnemore in which he ends up changing ‘500 Things You Have to Do Before You’re 30’ into just two: ‘Be kind, and have fun’. It’s perhaps not quite ‘Be Christike, and be truly yourself’, but it’s broadly along the right lines. I think Jesus might say that John Finnemore is not far from the kingdom.
So in short then – as far as you can, seek out whatever promotes the development of Christlikeness and you-ness, and steer clear of those things that militate against them. And seek out good, deep relationships where you can be yourself and become more Christlike.
And don’t pay too much attention to stuff on blogs by people who probably don’t have a clue what they’re talking about 😉