We were made to be like Jesus—but how is that different than trying to be like Buddha or Confucius? How is Christianity different from other religions that tell people to imitate a highly respected role model? It is different in several ways.
First, most religions teach some form of works as the path of salvation—saying the right prayers, doing the right things, hoping it will be enough. They imply that people can be good enough if they try hard enough.
But Christianity teaches that we all need grace because we cannot be good enough no matter how hard we try. The point of grace, and of Jesus’ sacrifice, is that no amount of good works or religious deeds can ever save anyone. If such a path could have been designed, then God would have done it (Galatians 3:21). The Christian gospel teaches that no one can earn salvation, and yet it is available to all, because Jesus gives it to us.
Second, most religions tell us to change our behavior, and they expect us to supply all the effort. Christianity says that God himself will supply the power we need to change our lives. We humans have gotten ourselves into this mess, and we can’t rescue ourselves. The power of salvation must come from God.
We are not trying to transform ourselves into the image of Christ—we want to let God do it in us. The Bible describes this as the Holy Spirit living in us, God living in us, or Jesus Christ living in us. The power to change our behavior comes from him, not from within ourselves. It is his work, not anything we can take credit for.
Third, most religions motivate people through threats and desire for reward. Christianity motivates us through grace and love. We obey God not out of fear, but out of love and thankfulness for what he has done. And we are confident that he has given us the best instructions possible on how to live.
Christianity says that we were created for a purpose, and that purpose is eternal happiness living with a supremely loving God (Psalm 16:11). Jesus is not just an example of how we ought to live—he is also an example of what salvation means. He lives in eternal glory, and says that we can join him in that glory, if we trust him.
Over the centuries, Christians have found several ways to let God do his work in our lives. God does not force us to love him—love by definition has to be willingly given; it cannot be programmed into us or forced out of us. We have to choose it. God works in us as we submit to him. "It is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose" (Philippians 2:13).
How do we invite God to do his work in our lives? How do we become more like Jesus Christ? In several ways:
In worship, we are reminded of God’s greatness, his mercy and his desire to do good in our lives. We are reminded that we can trust him and that we depend on him, just as Jesus did.
In prayer, we acknowledge that we depend on God, and we ask him for the help we need—needs such as food, intervention, and spiritual change. "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" (Philippians 4:6).
In Bible study, we read and think about the works and words of God. Jesus studied Scripture and used its words to help him resist temptations (Matthew 4:1-11). He said that humans do "not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God" (verse 4). Spiritual life needs spiritual nourishment.
In the church, we interact with other people in the same Christ-focused training program. We learn from our interactions about how to express love, and we grow in appreciation for people who have talents and abilities different from our own. Jesus created the church not just to preach the gospel, but to help us grow, because that is also part of his work and purpose.
In service, in helping others, we act the way Jesus would. We learn by experience that service gives us more life satisfaction than selfishness does. Being involved in the work of God is the most satisfying feeling of all, for it will be of eternal value. When we die, we can’t take physical things with us, but we can take relationships.
Toil and trouble
In the day-to-day experiences of life, we have opportunities to learn to be like Jesus, to choose to be patient, to be considerate, to help others, to pray. On the job and in our homes, Jesus has something to say about what we do.
What about the trials and difficulties of life? We wish they’d go away, but Jesus never promised that. Instead, he promised us problems: "In this world you will have trouble" (John 16:33). "No servant is greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also" (John 15:20).
God uses our difficulties as opportunities for us to learn. Even Jesus had to experience troubles. "Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered" (Hebrews 5:8). If even Jesus had to learn through suffering, we can expect it to be part of our training program, too.
We will experience problems in life whether or not we follow Jesus. Our choice is not whether to have problems, but whether we learn from those problems. Do we react to them the way Jesus would, or do we become bitter and seek revenge? We learn more about love when we love people who are hard to love; we learn more about forgiveness when people sin against us. Our character is shaped more like Jesus not so much in good times, but in difficult times.
We do not always understand why God allows people to suffer. We may not see any good in it, or any lesson to learn. But God assures us that "in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose" (Romans 8:28). We may not know how—we just have to trust him.
Whatever the trial, we can at least be assured of this: "Our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us" (verse 18). We can be confident, even in our trials, that God has something wonderful planned for us. Our trials are only temporary, but the glory will last forever!
Enemies of spiritual growth
The Bible warns us that several things can stifle the work God is doing in our lives. We can resist those enemies, but it will take some effort.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Michael Morrison in 2003 and updated in 2012.
This article is part of a series titled The Purpose for Human Life. You may download a PDF of that series here.
In Luke 8, Jesus told a story about seeds in different types of soil. In his story, the seed represented the word of God (verse 11). Some people receive the gospel message with joy. "They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away" (verse 13). They expected Christianity to be smooth sailing, but that is not what Jesus promises. "When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, he quickly falls away" (Matthew 13:21).
Another group of people are like seeds that fell among weeds. Although the message of Jesus began to grow in their lives, it was eventually choked out by weeds. "As they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature" (Luke 8:14).
Some people are so distracted by the things of this world, that they fail to think about eternal life. The gospel has no results in their lives because they ignore it—they are too "busy" to give eternity any time. Either they are amusing themselves with wealth, or they are frustrating themselves trying to get wealth (see also 1 John 2:16-17). Either way, they don’t give God any time. They are choosing mortal life instead of eternal life.
However, some people respond well to the message: "The seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by perseverance produce a crop" (Luke 8:15). Perseverance helps us grow and produce fruit. Our choices make a difference in what the gospel does in our lives.
We need to value the eternal life that Jesus offers us—and we need to act like it is more valuable than the temporary rewards of this mortal life. We should love God more than we love money, physical pleasures, or the success that this world offers. Those things are temporary, so we need to keep our eyes on the goal of eternal life, with eternal pleasures and eternal significance.
We have a choice. If we want a meaningful life, a satisfying life, an enjoyable life, then we need to look to Jesus as our model, and as the power that can change our life.
God wants us to live forever in love and joy, and we need to trust him to do the work that he has already begun. He’s the one who created us to be "in his own image"; he’s the one who sent Jesus to guarantee it for us; we can be sure that he will finish his work in our lives. Trust him, and open your life to let him work more powerfully!