I once lived next door to a young couple who loved to collect old furniture. On Saturdays and Sundays they would often set out for local flea markets, searching for bargains. When they returned home, they would unload their purchases, which invariably appeared to me to be pieces of junk, hardly worth even the little they had paid for them. But then they’d set to work: stripping and sanding the wood, reattaching broken pieces, realigning drawers, tightening joints, and finally painting or staining the surfaces. The results were breathtaking. Pieces of furniture that only days before had appeared to be battered, worthless pieces of junk now stood proudly in their appointed places, looking every bit as beautiful as the day they were made.
That image has stayed with me for years as an icon of the transformation God desires to bring about in our lives. Just as my neighbors recognized a hidden beauty in the old furniture they purchased, so God sees in us human beings a goodness and beauty we often can’t see in ourselves or in one another; a goodness and beauty which were imprinted deep within us at our creation, but which have become disfigured and distorted over time. What begins in us as the natural birth and development of “the self” grows into a greater and greater preoccupation with ourselves, a preoccupation that separates us from God and conforms us to the world around us. We gradually become the products of our culture, a culture obsessed with what theologian Marcus Borg calls the “three A’s” of appearance, achievement, and affluence.1 Our identity, our sense of self and our sense of our own worth, become linked to how we look and what we do and what we can afford to buy. We wonder if we are attractive enough, talented enough, rich enough, smart enough, popular enough, good enough. We wonder how others are perceiving us. Do they find us attractive and interesting and worthy of respect? What do they think of how we look and what we do and what we own? This preoccupation with self is the chief characteristic of our fallen nature. It separates us from God and from one another, and leads to alienation, comparison, and judgment – of ourselves and of others. None of us escapes this entirely; we are all tainted by it, to some degree or another.
This preoccupation with self and our ongoing pursuit of the “three A’s” – appearance, achievement and affluence – cause us to live out of our “false self” rather than out of our “true self.” The “false self” is the self which is created and conferred by the culture in which we live; when we live out of this false self, we take on the priorities and values of the culture around us. We become addicted to its expectations and demands, we worry about how we are seen and valued by others, and we lose touch with our “true self”, the self which is made in the image of God and finds its deepest fulfillment in living in union with God.
The Bible uses a variety of metaphors to describe our fallen condition: We are blind and need to have our sight restored. We are hungry and thirsty and need to be nourished and fed. We are lost and need to be found. We have been captured and imprisoned and need to be set free. We are in exile and need someone to lead us back home. We are lost and need to be found. We are sick and need to be healed. We are in darkness and need light. We are enslaved and need to be liberated. We are bound and need to be released. We are dead and need to be raised to new life.
The promise we have from God is that God can and will save us and deliver us from this fallen state. For this very reason God has sent a Savior, Jesus the Christ. God frees us, heals us, saves us, and restores us “in Christ.” Just as my neighbors were able to transform and restore battered pieces of furniture to their original beauty, so God transforms and restores us to our original beauty “in Christ.”
We cannot accomplish this salvation and transformation ourselves through our own determination and effort. We need a new birth, a new identity, a new way of living – and none of these can be obtained by our own resolve. The only way we can enter into this new life, our true life, is by dying and rising, just as Jesus himself did. This is the way of transformation; this is the way to life that Jesus shows us: dying to the old self and to the old way of living, and rising to a new identity and a new way of life.
It begins with baptism. “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?” writes Paul to the Christians at Rome; “Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:3-4). It begins with baptism – in which we are united to Christ in his dying and rising – but this process of transformation continues throughout our whole lives; daily we die to our old self in order to be raised to newness of life.
This is how Paul describes the transformation that has been accomplished in him. Looking back at his old life, Paul says, “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more. [I was] circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless” (Phil. 3:4b-6). I had it all, says Paul – a distinguished family line, a superb education, recognition and respect from my community, a blameless reputation. All that the world values, I possessed.
“Yet whatever gains I had,” he goes on to say, “these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…” (Phil. 3:7-9a). All those gains, all those things I valued so highly before, says Paul, I now count as nothing. Appearance? Achievement? Affluence? “Rubbish,” says Paul. They don’t begin to compare to what I have found in Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ;” Paul claims, “and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:19b-20a)
Paul has a new identity, a new way of seeing himself, a new way of living in the world. He has died to the old self and its ways, and has been reborn into a new identity and a new way of life “in Christ.” “If anyone is in Christ,” he tells the Christians at Corinth, “there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (II Corinthians 5:17)
This is the heart of Christianity. The Christian life is a life characterized by transformation. At times we may experience this transformation as sudden and dramatic; at other times, we experience it as more of a slow, gradual shift in how we see ourselves and how we live. It is a process that continues all our days.
Can we accomplish this transformation ourselves? Can we obtain it by our own efforts? Absolutely not. Only God can save us, heal us, and restore our original goodness and beauty. Our part is just this: to make ourselves available for this transformation by turning to God, and by being intentional about our relationship with God. When we pay attention to our relationship with God, when we seek to nurture and deepen it, we put ourselves in a place where transformation can occur. We open ourselves to the life-transforming work of the Spirit. The work is always God’s; our part is to “let go and let God.”
“Do not be conformed (then) to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
In this is life.
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