When I was ten my parents decided to give my older sister piano lessons. I asked them why I too could not be taught to play the piano, but they dismissed the idea out of hand. This really upset me! My parents were often out in the evenings for business or church functions and so every time they went out I executed a cunning plan. One of their favourite LP’s was Tchaikovsky’s piano concerto number one, and so each time I was alone I put this record onto the turntable, sat at the piano, and laboriously learned to play two minutes of the first movement. One evening after supper I asked if I could play something on the piano. They smiled indulgently at each other but their smiles turned into open mouthed surprise when I flamboyantly played the first few bars.
Now the truth is that I was no child prodigy, just a brat with a good ear and perseverance. I can’t help wondering what would have happened if my parents had mistakenly believed that I was a master musician in the making, and insisted on three lessons a week and endless hours of practice. How frustrating and heart-breaking that would have been for everyone. No matter how many hours I practiced I could never be like Tchaikovsky; it just isn’t in me.
I suspect that many Christians feel frustrated and defeated by constantly trying to be LIKE Jesus and failing time and again to imitate Him.
They never say so out loud, but inside they often say; “I just can never be like Jesus! I try and try but I keep falling short and it’s frustrating me terribly. I love Jesus and its breaking my heart that I can’t be like Him as He expects me to.” Some people give up when this realisation dawns on them and become closet-Christians, or they lapse into living the Faith life in guilty failure. To make matters worse, these folk often have to endure a regular Sunday dose of moralistic preaching which just serves to make them feel even worse about themselves.
Len Sweet and Frank Viola write the following in Jesus Manifesto; ‘the “good news” is that Jesus doesn’t want us to be “like” Him. He wants to share His resurrection life with us. He doesn’t want us to imitate Him; instead, Christ, the Unspeakable Gift, wants to live in and through us. The gospel is not the imitation of Christ; it is the implantation and impartation of Christ. We are called to do more than mediate truth. We are called to manifest Jesus’ presence. That “we” means you’ (http://www.thejesusmanifesto.com). Are they right? Actually, they are not alone in proclaiming this message. Dr Jim Fowler writes in one of his essays that ‘the Christian life works by the out-working of the life of Jesus Christ. Christians must give up trying to make the Christian life work by their own efforts and orientations, and allow the life of Jesus Christ to be lived out through them.’ (http://www.christinyou.net)
Instead of examining the theology of this, I want rather, in this short article, to touch on some practical implications. If we are oriented to imitating Jesus then will we not end up practicing just another form of works-oriented religion? It sounds a noble idea to imitate Jesus in our daily lives but success will surely depend largely on how well WE can do this. However, if we understand that it is Christ within who seeks to manifest His life through our lives, then the criteria for success will be His initiative and our yielded cooperation. Instead of putting on our faith life from without, we manifest it from within. This is closer to what Jesus himself taught, modelled and prayed for (see John 17:20-23). It seems that we are not called to perfectly imitate Jesus Christ, but to manifest His life through our lives – not imitation but incarnation.
Jesus’ life is loving and kind, and so to manifest His life is to be loving and kind. His life is holy, and so to manifest His life to be holy. Jesus’ life is anointed and miraculous, and so to manifest His life is to live in the anointed miraculous. His life is a life of giving and sacrifice, so to manifest His life is to live a life of giving and joyful self-sacrifice.
For the last 30 years I have taught that the purpose of life is to come to know Jesus, to become like Him, and to help others to do likewise. It is time I amended it to read;
‘the purpose of life is to come to know Jesus, to manifest His life through our lives, and to help others to do likewise’. Know Him and show Him.