The essence of the Christian life is participation with Jesus, by the Spirit, in the fellowship Jesus has with the Father and the Spirit, and our participation in the love that the triune God has for all people. In this essay, Cathy Deddo explores the nature of this fellowship and suggests ways to grow in it as followers of Jesus Christ.
Created and redeemed for fellowship
We begin by being reminded of the biblical truth that God created us after his own image. But when humankind turned from God, evil got a foothold in God’s good creation, reaching down into the roots of human nature. As a result, our fellowship with God and with people—the very purpose for which we were created—was severed. Thankfully, God did not leave us there. God, who created us through Christ (John 1:3), also reconciled us to himself in Christ (2 Cor. 5:18) to restore us to the fellowship with him that we had lost. Now, in the “already-but-not-yet” period between Jesus' first and second advents, the Spirit is at work growing us up in that fellowship, as God continues working to bring into final judgment the evil that destroys the fellowship for which we were created.
Jesus summed up the Law of Moses as being about loving God and loving people (Matt. 22:36-40). This is because love is the basis for the fellowship we enjoy with God and with one another. It's what we're wired for and, therefore, what we most deeply long for (even when we don't recognize it). The “components” of the Christian life mentioned above are expressions of this love.
All my life in church, I've heard about a personal relationship with Jesus. But through my journey as a Christian, including my involvement in ministry, I've come realize that we can actually have, or at least be tempted to have, an impersonal relationship with Jesus. I didn't always understand the connection between my fellowship with him and the rest of my life, especially my service to God. I tended to see my relationship with God through Jesus as one thing, and doing things for God as another. That disconnect, which I think is common among Christians, is typically due to viewing Jesus, our fellowship with him, and the components of the Christian life, through the lens of certain pre-understandings. The solution is to set aside our preconceptions and let Jesus tell us who he is, let him define the nature of our fellowship with him, and then let him shine that truth into all our relationships and agendas, including our service to him.
The fellowship found in Jesus
The fellowship Jesus provides for us with God, is a share in his own relationship with the Father, in and with the Holy Spirit. Jesus' intention in giving us this gift is to make us his sisters and brothers who are beloved daughters and sons of the Father, born of the Spirit and adopted into the communion of love he lives in. Note what John says in his Gospel:
To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right [or authority, exousian] to become children of God who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. (John 1:12-13)
Rather than drawing near to us through the Incarnation merely to be like us, Jesus drew us up to himself, sharing with us the “us-ness” he has with the Father in and with the Spirit—to make us sharers in the life he has always had—a life in a holy communion of love. Indeed, Jesus says he came so that we can share in the same love the Father has for him! As T.F. Torrance put it, “God draws near to us in such a way as to draw us near to himself within the circle of his knowing of himself.”
God has reconciled us to himself in Jesus so that we can live in, participate in, and grow up in this relationship in and by the Spirit—a relationship by which we live into, and grow up into, the Source of all love, life and joy. In Romans, the apostle Paul says the Spirit we received has brought about our adoption to sonship and by him we cry “Abba, Father.” He also says that as children of God, we are co-heirs with Christ. We have been created and redeemed to live in a deep, personal relationship with Jesus that is like the deep personal relationship Jesus has with God the Father. That is the main reason we exist! Relationship with God is not just a part of our experience—it is to be the center of our lives. But how can that even begin to happen?
What has Jesus provided for us?
Jesus is God come in our flesh—the Son of God come to share his Sonship with us as creatures. Jesus doesn’t come merely to show us how to get along with God, or to provide for us a free ticket into heaven. The fellowship Jesus gives us is, first of all, a share in himself, and through him a share of his relationship with his Father and the Spirit as it is lived out in our humanity, revealed in his earthly ministry.
In his incarnation, life, atoning death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus is bringing this relationship he has enjoyed from all eternity with the Father, into our humanity—redeeming us, overcoming our resistance to his grace, and freeing us from evil in order to draw us up by his Spirit to be with him in the bosom of his Father.
In Jesus’ relationship with his Father, in the Spirit, clothed in our humanity, we see what it means to be fully human. We see what Jesus has provided for us, and thus where he is taking us in his Spirit. In the record of Jesus' earthly life, we see something of what we have a share in now—of what we are in Christ, and thus what we are becoming (growing up into) as we live in the already-but-not-yet of our present existence.
The maturing (sanctification) of which the New Testament speaks, is our growing up into that relationship. This growing up "into Christ" (as Paul refers to it in Ephesians) involves personal transformation from the inside-out. It's an ongoing transformation, that is not yet complete. We are a work in process, and as we move forward, we look not to ourselves, but to Jesus and his relationship with us and with the Father.
Though we are not yet fully enjoying the kind of relationship we see in Jesus, we seek to participate wholeheartedly in his relationship with the Father (and thus the title of this essay). Though our participation (on this side of glory) is imperfect, we participate trusting that what Jesus has already, in himself, accomplished for us, the Holy Spirit is continuing to work out in us. We live by the promise that the work God has begun in us, he will bring to completion.
Growing in relationship with God, in Christ, by the Spirit, is the heart and core of the Christian life. It's the essence of that life—what it's all about. This relationship is neither automatic nor static. It is a gift from Jesus that we enjoy through the daily, deliberate effort the Holy Spirit invites, enables and confirms in us over and over again.
Jesus' relationship with his Father
With that background in mind, let's now focus on Jesus’ relationship with his Father, in the Spirit. In the Gospels, we see that relationship directly, then in the Epistles we see how believers share in Jesus' relationship with the Father through the indwelling Spirit. By sharing Jesus' relationship, I don't mean we somehow become Jesus, or that we somehow replace him. Nor do I mean that we experience a parallel relationship with the Father, somewhat like the one Jesus has with the Father. The reality of our sharing with Jesus in his relationship with the Father, in the Spirit, is expressed well in Matthew 11:27-30. There we learn that Jesus extends to us his yoke—the relationship he has with his Father, inviting us to share in that relationship with him. He invites us to learn from him and then enjoy the deep soul rest that is his because of his yoked relationship with his Father.
As we expand on this key Gospel passage, we note that Jesus’ relationship with his Father is not accidental to Jesus’ being, life and identity. He is not Jesus first, on his own, who then develops a great relationship with his Father. As God the Son, Jesus’ reveals to us that his relationship to his Father, in the Spirit, is intrinsic and essential to his very being—no relationship, no being. Jesus thus has his being-in-relationship. His sonship is not a status, nor is it static (motionless). Rather, it is upheld and maintained in ongoing, dynamic love—interaction and communication between Father and Son, in the Spirit.
This means that all of what we can say about Jesus—all that he does and says, and all the titles we may give him—can only be understood in terms of who he is as the Son of the Father. “Son” isn’t just one of many labels we have for Jesus—it's who he is most deeply and fundamentally. We can’t understand and know Jesus as “Son” apart from how he is the Son of this particular Father. Jesus has his being sustained and upheld in this real relationship, which is particular to his Father. In other words, this is not a generic father-son relationship.
Jesus is the Son only because he is Son of this Father, in this one-of-a-kind relationship. That particular, unrepeatable relationship makes him who he is from all eternity. He is Son only as he is continually, actively, dynamically receiving from and giving to his Father as the Son, in the Spirit, from all eternity. He is continually being the Son, as he is continually being in relationship with the Father, in the Spirit.
All this can also be said of the Father and the Spirit. The Father is the Father by being in relationship with this Son. The Spirit is the particular Spirit that proceeds from this Father and Son relationship. God is and remains God by being in this dynamic communion of love—a love between the three divine Persons who are not interchangeable with each other.
All that the Son does as Jesus, the incarnate One, he does as the Son that he is, out of his relationship with the Father. He serves as the Son, heals as the Son, loves and teaches as the Son, and judges and warns as the Son of this good and glorious Father. We see this in the way Jesus speaks of “my Father” and also in his referring to himself as the one sent from this Father. Their relationship binds them together in such a way that to know the Father is to know the Son, and to know the Son is to know the Father.
Since Jesus has his being, by being in relationship with his Father, how can we know Jesus without knowing his Father? To know Jesus personally, is to know him as the Son of this Father, for that is who he is. That is what he is all about. All that he is and all that he does, he is and does as the Son of the Father. Knowing the Father is thus to know him as the Father of the Son. There is no other Father except the Father of this Son.
When we say that Jesus has his being in relationship with the Father in the Spirit, we are not talking about a static relationship like one might see on a family tree (for example, you might technically have a relationship with an aunt you have never met). Instead, we are talking about an ongoing, actual relationship—dynamic interaction and communion. The being of all three parties in the tri-personal relationship we refer to as the Trinity is upheld and sustained in the ongoing, active moving towards one another in a relationship of holy, wholehearted love.
A relationship of "knowing"
Matthew 11 and several other places in Scripture speak of the Father and the Son as knowing each other and, in fact, knowing each other in an exclusive way (John 1). It makes sense that this knowing is exclusive, for as Jesus tells us, only the Son knows the Father and the Father the Son. Only the Son knows the Father as his Father. We can see the logic of this in human relationships where the relationship shapes the knowing. Think of the relating of spouses, of parents and children, or the knowing of close friends. In these relationships there is exclusive, insider-knowing, the knowing that takes place in these unique, one-of-a-kind relationships.
The biblical word for knowing is gnosis or its stronger form, epignosis, meaning intimate, personal, relational knowledge. This is knowledge that is only gained in real interaction (not a knowing about, not a list of attributes or characteristics, not even just spending time together). This knowing is present tense—knowing each other all the time, continually. It involves real exchange, real giving and receiving. The Father gives to the Son, Jesus receives and gives glory and praise to the Father in return. This is real, relational knowing.
There is thus a real exchange going on in this knowing—a real moving towards one another. This knowing is thus not static, not a repetition of the same thing. It's dynamic interaction that goes out, brings forth, and grows deeper. It's a relational knowing that involves face-to-face interaction—addressing one another, not just "hanging out" or working together on a joint project. Jesus prays to and thanks his Father. He hears the Father speak. They have real conversation. What one says calls forth the answering response of the other.
It is because of this personal, real interaction among the divine Persons that God is fullness—uncontrollable, always going forth, always moving towards, always fruitful. We see this in Jesus, who is the eternal personal and particular "going forth" of God. Then we note that God designed us for this dynamic, interactive relationship, first with God, then out of that relationship, with each other.
Consider the way Jesus perfectly lived out the two Great Commandments: to love God and love people. Though we are imperfect in doing so, we see evidence of Jesus love in our relationship with God and our relationships with other people. The deep pain we experience in broken relationships is a sign that we have been created by God for good and right relationships. We even see this in the way God has wired the human brain. The brains of babies develop in response to face-to-face interactions with the parents or other primary care givers.
Thus, we understand that a relationship of knowing involves a real presence one to another, characterized by ongoing loving interaction. The Father loves his Son. The Son loves his Father. In John 15:10, Jesus speaks of keeping his Father’s commandments and remaining in his love. In John 1:18 he notes that he comes from the bosom of Father. In John 10:38 he says, “the Father is in me and I am in the Father." This love between the Father and the Son overflows into mutual glorification—shining forth, in and for love, the wonder and goodness of the other. This shining forth is ongoing—always being loved, always loving—not just remembering “I am loved,” and not just a new status or name tag, but the ongoing experience of being loved. Living in the joy of that love more and more is what is offered to us in wholehearted relationship with the triune God through the Son and in the Spirit.
Sharing in God's tri-personal communion
Through his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension, Jesus has enabled humanity to share, through the indwelling Spirit, in what C.S. Lewis referred to as God's “tri-personal” love and life. How that inner communion of the three divine Persons "works" is somewhat of a mystery to us, but perhaps an illustration will help.
Picture the triune God at work in an office building. Each Person has a separate office, maybe on different floors. You enter the building and the receptionist asks, "Who do you want to talk to?" “Jesus,” you reply. “He's busy, but the Father is available.” “I’ll wait,” you say. But where do you think the Father and the Spirit are? The reality is that they are present to each other at all times, but not just because they are in the same office. They aren’t just hanging out in proximity while the Son takes care of the appointment by himself. The Son is, at all times, in complete and “instantaneous” (if I can even put it that way, as if there is any distance between them) communication with the Father and the Spirit.
We cannot relate or interact with one Person of the Trinity without interacting with the other two. Though distinct in person, they are one in being. Their difference of person does not amount to a separation or a difference of nature, character, heart, mind, will and every other divine attribute. Our relationship with the Son is a relationship with his Father and with the Spirit. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, prayer involves the whole of the Trinity. We pray to the Father who is over us, with the Son who is with us, and by the Spirit who moves within us—all in the same moment.
The Father is the Father of the Son, and the Father is in real, continuous interaction with the Son in and with the Spirit. The three Persons of the Trinity have their being (their very existence) in and with each other. In Jesus, the whole God is present, meaning the whole God is being the whole God at that moment. As you pray to Jesus, Jesus is presenting you to his Father, and the Spirit is speaking, leading, and thus guiding you in your prayer. Thus, in prayer, we are being brought up into the tri-foldedness of God!—joining an ongoing conversation. It is the delight of the whole God to include us in their tri-personal us-ness. We see this in Jesus' high priestly prayer in John 17, where Jesus lets his disciples “listen in” to his conversation with his Father. The Father and the Son, in the Spirit, share with us all that they share between them, even though we are but creatures.
Jesus has his being in relationship
In his divinity, Jesus is eternally the Son in a dynamic relationship with the Father in the Spirit. In their eternal relationships, the Persons of the Trinity do not reside in an office building where each has a separate space, coming together only from time to time. The reality is that Jesus does not need a note from his Father to remind him that he is loved. Jesus is being the Son all the time because the Son is in relationship all the time with the Father and the Spirit. Jesus continuously receives his personal identity (as the Son of the Father) from the Father in this relationship in the Spirit.
In his humanity, which he bears on our behalf, we see Jesus yielding himself totally to the Father. We see him overcoming humanity's sinful resistance to the Father’s covenant love and grace. We see him transforming our humanity to where it is able to receive all it was created to receive in relationship with God. During this earthly ministry, we see Jesus at work in this way when he was tempted by Satan in the wilderness (Matt. 4). To the first temptation, Jesus answered: "Man does not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Jesus lived out this truth throughout his earthly life and then in his death, resurrection and ascension, in our place and on our behalf.
Jesus has his doing in relationship
Jesus not only has his being in relationship with God—he has his doing there as well. There is never a time when Jesus departs from living in communion with God to "do his own thing." Moreover, he doesn't check a list of assignments given him by the Father who is off somewhere else. Jesus is not sent away by the Father on errands to then report on when he returns. All that the Son does he does as the Son of his Father. The Son of God is in ongoing, dynamic relationship with the Father. This is why Jesus said this:
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. For the Father loves the Son, and shows him all that he himself is doing. (John 15:19-20)
In the same vein, Jesus says he judges according to his Father’s judgment: "I can do nothing on my own authority; as I hear, I judge” (John 5:30). He also said that he only speaks the Father's words, not his own (John 14:10) and that his teaching is not his own, but the Father's who sent him (John 7:16; 8:28). Jesus obediently follows where the Father leads. He does so on the basis of his continual conversation (prayer and communication) with and awareness of the Father. The Father and Son, in the Spirit, work together out of an ongoing intimate communion. Their doing together comes out of their being together—their belonging together.
What Jesus sees and hears from the Father, are not mere examples and instructions. The Father doesn't just urge Jesus on, walking ahead with his back to Jesus to show him what is next. As the Father does his will, Jesus does it with him. Jesus knows his loved by the Father. He is always receiving from the Father, then giving out of the fullness of that relationship—acting, thinking, speaking, praying, responding as the Son of the Father in ongoing relationship with the Father in the Spirit. Jesus exists and operates on the basis of his identity as the Son of the Father.
Jesus shares all this with us
The glorious truth of the gospel is that Jesus shares the relationship that he has with the Father, in the Spirit, with us! He gives us a share in his own sonship! By the Spirit, Jesus opens up this relationship to us. Only God can do that, and he has done it (and continues to do it) in and through Jesus and by his Spirit. We are given to share in Jesus’ glorified human nature and in all of his actions done in our place, and on our behalf, as our great high priest. This includes our sharing in the motives and purposes that underlie Jesus' actions. By the Spirit, all our being and doing become related to the fellowship Jesus has always had with the Father, in the Spirit, and now has in his glorified humanity.
As we share in Jesus' sonship, we are enabled to share in his delight to do the Father’s good will. You will recall that in John 4, after talking with the Samaritan woman, Jesus says that his food is to do the Father’s will. This is not a contractual relationship—Jesus freely and continually, in our place and on our behalf, says “yes” to his Father’s good, life-giving will. He knows that “no one is good but God alone” and that God’s will—God's desire—is for life; for all to be drawn to him. We see Jesus freely choosing to live as the Son that he is, not as a victim of circumstances, or as one being coerced into sharing in doing the Father’s will, but as one joyfully giving himself to the Father in the Spirit to accomplish with them the good and glorious work of the whole God.
It is by being the Son that Jesus bears witness to the Father and the Spirit. His obedience out of absolute trust in the Father is part of the logic of God's tri-personal relationship. Indeed, Jesus is the very definition of sonship. By his doing-in-relationship, we see Jesus redeeming our fallen human nature so that it is turned back to God—now able to say in the Spirit out of complete trust in the faithfulness and love of the Father, “Not my will, but thine be done.” In the Garden of Gethsemane, the night before his crucifixion, we see Jesus wrestling on our behalf (from our side as fallen, distrustful humans) sinful human nature back to a place of hope and trust in God.
On our behalf, Jesus overcame our sinful inclination to not live in accordance with who we were created to be, thus enabling us to say "no" to everything that pushes us away from God onto ourselves, and instead say "yes" to God’s "yes" to us. Jesus’ obedience to the Father is his free affirmation of who he is. To obey the Father is to live in his own belovedness as the Son.
In redeeming us, Jesus judges and redeems our sinful desire to turn God's covenant relationship with us into some sort of contractual relationship. Our disobedience is all a part of our seeking to keep him, the very Source of our life, at a self-protective distance—to have less love and less life than what he gives because we would not then remain in control. In contrast, the covenant relationship we have with God, in Jesus, by the Spirit, is a relationship of love that is abundant, uncontainable, outgoing, full of joy, peace and well-being. Jesus relationship with the Father and the Spirit is the fullness of this covenant love. Jesus is the most complete, secure, whole human being who has ever lived and he shares that love and life with us, through the Spirit. It is our calling to grow in experiencing that love and life—to have an increasingly wholehearted relationship with God.
When Paul speaks of the fullness of God dwelling in Jesus (Col. 1:19; 2:9) and prays that we will be filled with that fullness (Eph. 3:19), he is not thinking of a substance like water, but of the fullness of being in relationship. Jesus promises that, in the Spirit, he will do greater works in and through us because these works will be the fruit—the outflow—of this new relationship—this new interaction and conversation.
Jesus acts as one of us, on our behalf, from the place of peace in his Father. He does not act in accordance with mere circumstances. When the Pharisees asked him for a sign, Jesus didn't give them one. He is not manipulated by others, and he doesn't lord it over others. Jesus always gives out of the fullness of the relationship that he has with the Father, in the Spirit. He always gives what is best for the other, even when it is not what the other believes they want—even when they feel threatened by what he is giving them. Jesus always seeks to reveal his Father—to reveal himself as the Father's Son, in the Spirit, inviting people to feed on him, to trust in him.
Jesus is not a victim. He was not haplessly caught up in having to be the Savior. He endured the cross for the joy that was set before him (Heb. 12:2). Jesus took up God’s judgment and determination to bring all our sin to an end. He took that sin (all of it) upon himself—all our brokenness, all our sinning against others (and our being sinned against), so that we can be made new in him. In this fellowship that we now have in Christ, whatever we have been through, or may yet go through, is not the last word. In Jesus, the whole God is always more present, active, and faithful than we are.
The particularity of this relationship
In Jesus’ earthly ministry, we see that the particularity of the relationships of Father, Son, and Spirit issue an invitation into particular, personal, ongoing, dynamic relationships with us. In dealing with his disciples, Jesus revealed more and more of who he is. He did so in particular interactions with them. He didn't take them through a class or have them read a pamphlet or book. He himself was the book—the Word of God, living, acting, interacting, communicating in word and deed. When he chose the 12, it was so that they would be "with him" (Mark 3:14).
We see Jesus dealing individually with various people in the four Gospels. It was not a “one size fits all” interaction. Note, for example, how Jesus dealt with the woman who had been bleeding for 12 years (Mark 5). In that encounter, we see Jesus seeking out the woman who had touched him. Jesus was provocative in many other encounters with individuals. You'll recall Zacchaeus up in the tree in Jericho. Though Jesus could easily have passed under, he "looks up" and calls Zacchaeus down from the tree, telling him that he will be coming to his home later that day. What can Zacchaeus do in response? Either receive or reject Jesus’ audacious invitation. Jesus addressed Zacchaeus in a deeply personal way.
Then there is the woman at the well in John 4. Jesus initiates the conversation with her as well, asking if she will give him a drink. Through these face-to-face encounters, Jesus calls forth a response. His initiative makes non-response not an option. He can’t be evaded.
You'll also recall the provocative way Jesus related to the Pharisees. There was the time when Jesus, in the synagogue on the Sabbath, called forward a man with a withered hand. Jesus did not have to heal him on the Sabbath, but he did so intentionally to make a point about who he is. He was equally provocative when he declared the paralytic forgiven.
Then there are Jesus' parables, which he meant to be puzzling in order to draw people to himself to ask for more. Jesus is always calling people—the weary, in particular—to “come to me” (Matt. 11:28). He calls them into a one-on-one personal relationship with himself. In doings so, he doesn't give them a lighter yoke of their own, then send them on their way. Instead, he invites them to share his yoke (Matt. 11:29)—to be yoked to him, and in doing so to enjoy his rest as they walk together. Jesus thus calls people into a dynamic, interactive, intimate relationship—one he initiates—sharing with them the relationship he has with his Father, in the Spirit.
Called to share this relationship with others
It's important to know that we are called to share the relationship we have with God with others. That sharing is the fruit of the relationship we have with the Father, in and through Jesus, by the Spirit. Our mission, as Jesus' followers, involves inviting others into that relationship with us. Though we are imperfect in this inviting, (remember, we are a work in process!), God's love motivates us to take the risk of reaching out to others with the gospel. We do so through our actions and words (living and sharing the gospel, is how we say it in Grace Communion International). Our motivation for doing this is not fear, guilt, anxiety, or obligation, but faith, hope and love—the identifying characteristics of the relationship we have with God, in Christ, by the Spirit.
After his ascension, Jesus poured out the Spirit as he had promised in John 14: “He who was with you will now be in you.” Jesus also promised that the Spirit would guide his disciples into all truth, growing a real relationship of knowing Jesus and the Father. The Holy Spirit brings us into dynamic relationship with the whole God, working in and with us through the dynamic relationship we have with God, in Christ. In that relationship, the whole God is present and at work.
The Spirit bears witness to our spirit that we truly are God’s children (Rom. 8:16). All that God in Christ has done for us in Jesus, as a completed and finished work, the Holy Spirit works out in us personally, dynamically, relationally, through a life-long conversation and interaction with us by his Word.
The point here is this: we are given this relationship to grow up in it. This is what the Christian life is all about. Throughout the New Testament, we are exhorted to actively participate in this relationship. But that is not all—Scripture also makes it clear that God not only exhorts us in Jesus (Jesus being the Father’s Word to us) but he also (as our high priest united to our actual humanity), makes the response we were created to make, but cannot.
But don't be confused on this point—don't think that since Jesus makes that response for us, we don’t need to respond ourselves. The Spirit’s working in us now is not so that we don’t need to respond, but so that we can begin to respond—so we should respond as fully and freely as we can.
The Spirit enables us to respond to Jesus’ response—to give our responsive “Amen” to what he has done on our behalf. Desiring to hear this response from us, God releases us to praise and thanksgiving—to our real participation as whole persons in this wonderful, life-giving, fruitful fellowship.
Unfortunately, rather than understanding what our Triune God is actually bringing about, we can be tempted to revert to an impersonal, contractual view of our relationship with God—seeing God somehow at a distance from us. Succumbing to that temptation, we compartmentalize our Christian life, as if relationship with Jesus is in one compartment by itself, and other things we do are in other separate compartments. Or we can regard our relationship with God as merely being a means to some other important “work” we have of building the kingdom—of doing things "for God" (rather than "with God"). We can mistakenly think that God is there merely to direct us—to set us an example or somehow inspire or enable us to do things for him or for ourselves. When that split or disconnection happens, the real work of living out of a growing personal relationship with God takes a back seat to the other, seemingly more important duties, such as duties of ministry, parenting, evangelism, discipleship, or whatever.
We can begin to behave as if we need Jesus only to get us “in” or get us “saved,” then we need only occasionally check in with him to say hello, get some instructions, give him a few of our requests, and be on our way to attend to other things, including the things he wants us to do for him. By falling into the trap of this wrong-headed way of thinking, we are disconnecting our doing from our true being—from having our being in personal, daily and interactive relationship with Jesus.
While we are away from Jesus, doing things for him, we begin to trust in our own skills, doctrines, agendas, programs and concerns. We trust in these things as much, if not more, than we trust in Jesus—in his real, active presence with the whole God and with us. In doing so, we miss out on continually receiving from Jesus, yielded continuously to his dynamic leading through the Spirit, participating with him in his continuing ministry by his Word and Spirit.
Think about it this way—w here is Jesus and what is he doing when we’re off doing things for him? Is he simply looking on? Is he depending upon us to do things for him? Is he only passively present? Or, perhaps we think he's out front, leading the way, with his back to us as we observe him from a distance, trying to mimic what he is doing—following his example in our own tasks. Or perhaps we think Jesus is behind us, watching from the spectator stands—cheering us on or evaluating our performance. And what about the Father and the Spirit? Where are they and what are they doing?
While we know God is a speaking God and that he is acting in and through our lives today, we may act as if we are more present and active than he is. We may think, yes, he speaks but (again) from a distance. We may view his love for us and his attention over us being like a blanket—draped over us and everyone all wrapped up in it and included under it. In accordance with this view, we hear him speaking but only in general, generic ways, not aware of anyone in particular.
The glorious truth of the gospel is that the triune God, by the Spirit, is loving us as individuals, calling us in a deeply personal way to his side, reminding us of his faithfulness, helping us see places he is working with us, so we can let go of other things that keep us from fully receiving him.
God is calling forth our response—a response arising out of trust and hope—rejoicing in who he is, and who we are in relationship to him. He is saying to each of us: “I love you. I know you. I have you. I have your whole life and I am not going to be thwarted in healing and transforming you even as I am redeeming this world and everything in it. Look at me as I wholeheartedly attend to you.”
Our identity and wholeness are in Christ
Being whole in Christ means undividedly receiving our identity (our being, significance, meaning, security, destiny) from him and nowhere else. Personal wholeness is about living today in the light of our hope in Jesus and our fullness in him. Finding personal wholeness in Christ is about sharing in the wholeness that Jesus has as the Son of God—a sharing that occurs in an ongoing relationship with Jesus by and through the Spirit. We were created to receive our very being and to grow and become ourselves in and through that relationship!
Sin has fractured our lives, so that we are lost, dead and entrapped, not free—the opposite of whole. The fallenness we see all around us, starting with Adam and Eve, yields broken relationships—people disconnected from their environment, from each other, from themselves. We see the results of sin in broken families and communities—relationships that are more about power, deception, taking advantage, or abusing others, than about freely giving and receiving. Daily, we see the evidence of fractured relationships in our countries, neighborhoods and individual lives. That evidence testifies to sin's destructive power and enslavement.
The New Testament bears witness to this destruction, alienation and death, which is the result of humanity’s rebellion against God. The lists of sinful attitudes and acts that we are given in Scripture give us a good picture of the fracturing, destructive influence of sin—things like using our tongues to hurt, to slander, to abuse others, to lord it over others, to lie, deceive, and otherwise use and manipulate others for our benefit. Unrepented sin entraps us and makes us vulnerable to further temptation by the power of evil. In our sin, we cannot experience wholeness.
We belong to Christ
If we are so dis-integrated in ourselves, apart from Christ, how can we ever know in ourselves the wholeness that comes from sharing in the triune life? The answer is that Jesus is able to share his wholeness with us. He does so by making us belong to him in two ways:
First, as his creation, we belong to Jesus by nature. Colossians 1 tells us that everything was created in, through and for Jesus, and that in him all things hold together. As it says in Hebrews 1, Jesus upholds all things by his word of power. This means that all things have their being only in a connection with Jesus.
We often have static notions of creation and thus static notions of ourselves. We think that God made everything and now it all just sort of runs on its own. We take for granted that life will continue tomorrow because God started it going and it has its own “battery pack.” But this view is actually deism and not the biblical understanding.
The truth is that we all exist right now because God is choosing to maintain and sustain his good creation. We would cease instantly if he stopped his dynamic, ongoing work. T. F. Torrance speaks of an “interactionist” view of creation, noting that things are constituted what they are by their relations. Relationship is thus essential to what things are (their being). If they weren’t in relationships, they would be something else or not at all.
Second, we belong to Jesus by virtue of his having united himself to our fallen human nature. He did so to redeem us, to judge our sin, and thus to reconcile human nature to the Father in himself. Through the Incarnation, Jesus has taken all the fracturing, brokenness, alienation of fallen human nature that has resulted because of sin—not some generic sin, but actual sin: your sin and the sins against you—to offer, in our place and on our behalf, the response of perfect and complete repentance and trust in the Father that we could never offer on our own.
As Christians, we know we belong to Jesus undividedly, body and soul. His Spirit is working out in us what Jesus, already, has worked out for us in himself. Note this from the apostle Paul:
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body. (1 Cor. 6:19-20)
As those who belong to Jesus, we are God’s beloved children—adopted members of his family. We have a new relationship with him and, in him, a new relationship with one another. We are members of his Body, the Body of Christ—those who come under and benefit from his rule and reign, his kingdom, his ways. All this is accomplished and given to us as a gift by the Son of God. It cannot be earned or bargained for, it cannot be deserved, it cannot be merited or unmerited, it can only be received or resisted.
Like Jesus, we are who we are in relationship. Jesus is who he is in relationship to his Father and the Spirit, and we are only who we were created to be in right relationship with the triune God. We can tend to think that the new identity that we have in Christ is a static state—some kind of "package" that is ours on our own (similar to how we mistakenly think of creation in a deistic fashion). But we are who we were created to be only in and by our relationship with the triune God—seated with Christ in the heavenlies, united to Christ, indwelt by the Spirit. There is no "us" apart from this relationship with Christ in and through the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit. Our identity, worth and value—our being—is in our actively belonging to Christ through the Spirit.
We can’t truly see ourselves, can’t know ourselves, apart from Christ. He has a relationship to all created things and a purpose and place for all things. As Paul explains in Ephesians 1, all creation is being re-headed up in Christ. We don’t see anything in its real being apart from its connection to Christ. However, without God, we can be tempted to think of our identity—of who we are—as a given that we either already know about, or discover through various means. We tend to equate our identity with things or conditions like traumas of our past, disabilities or illnesses, our desires, roles, education, longings, gender, income, personality, race, recurring sins, looks, occupation, or spiritual gifts. But we don’t gain our God-given identity (being) from any of these.
Our true identity is the being we have in our active and receptive relationship with Jesus in the Spirit. That identity overshadows and relativizes all other sources of identity that we may look to (or that others might try to impose on us). Our identity in relationship with Christ, the one in and for whom we are created and who is our Redeemer, is who we truly are! Finding wholeness in him is about undividedly receiving our identity from him—from the relationship he has invited us to share in, and from nowhere else. Only God can tell us who we are. By seeing whose we are in our very beings, we come to see who we are. Our belonging in relationship to him establishes our being.
Our being in Christ is a becoming
Christ shows us to whom we belong and thus who we really are. We are now God’s dear children, dearly beloved, united to Christ at the core of our being. We are Jesus' brothers and sisters. He unashamedly stands in our midst. This is who we are now, even though that might not be obvious.
The New Testament writers speak of our lives now as living "between the times" of Christ’s incarnation and his coming again at the end of history. Living in this in-between-time means that Jesus’ great completed work, the ongoing ministry of the Spirit to draw all people to Jesus, and God’s work of re-heading up all things in Jesus (Eph. 1:10) remain somewhat hidden to us. The fact that all things are created in, through and for Jesus (Col. 1, John 1) is not obvious when looking around us. Hebrews 2 speaks of God subjecting the world to Jesus, our great high priest:
In putting everything in subjection to him, he left nothing outside his control. At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. (Heb. 2:8)
The reality that we belong fully to Jesus, and that our whole being is constituted by our relationship with him, is also hidden. Looking at our current lives, it's not always obvious that we are the beloved children of God who share in Christ’s own sonship. Note this from the apostle John:
See what manner of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called the children of God and so we are…. Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:1-2)
As the apostle Paul says in Colossians 3, “our lives are hid with Christ in God.” He also says that we now "see as through a glass darkly," and therefore we know only "in part" (1 Cor. 13:12).
The fullness of what Christ has drawn us into will only be seen fully in the future. The whole triune God (Father, Son and Spirit) is committed to getting us there (Phil. 1:6). Our lives here and now are about growing up into the fullness of that reality and therefore this new being. What Christ has done for us in himself, the Spirit is now working out in us via a personal, particular, dynamic interaction with our spirits. The Spirit enables us to be able, more and more, to live into and out from the relationship we have with God in Christ.
As we actively grow in that relationship, the Spirit makes us more able and willing to turn to Jesus, to receive from him, to hear him again and again. It is in this way, participating in this relationship, that we are being changed, transformed—becoming more and more who we truly are in him. Finding wholeness in Christ thus means receiving my being, my identity, in him, over and over, day by day, letting his Word to us work its way deep into us and clearing out all other false words about us. We thus understand that our being in him is a becoming—we are not yet ourselves. This is vital to affirm for understanding what it means to find wholeness in Jesus.
God isn’t done with us yet! He is faithfully at work. Therefore, we must be agnostic about ourselves, though never about Christ and his faithfulness to us. Our response to the Holy Spirit’s work in us involves giving Jesus room to do, in his time and way, what he will on this side of death. We must yield to him as he conforms us to his image, unveiling who we really are in him.
In order for us to truly share in, enjoy, know deeply and live in the rest and out of joy that Jesus gives us, we need to be more and more fully healed by and conformed to (aligned with) this relationship. What has been made right for us in Jesus needs to be made fully right in us. God is intensely interested not just in declaring us whole, but in making us whole. He isn’t just interested in getting us across a line—he is committed to our wholeness in him.
Paul speaks of the maturing of each person as the goal of his ministry in Col. 1:28. God wants each of us know him in a deeply personal, dynamic and ongoing relationship—not generically, but particularly. He continually does this work in us, whether we are new Christians or long-time ones (even when we are in ministry!). He is intensely interested in what he is doing in us, not just through us.
It can be, and often is, a long, slow, and painful process to be made more whole in the triune God. Many of us have deep and painful wounds and unfulfilled longings. But, we can be assured that the triune God is committed to us and our transformation and healing—and so we turn again and again to him in great hope.
Hope of wholeness
While God's work in us will not be complete on this side of our glorification, there is hope for experiencing in this life real growth towards wholeness in Christ. Jesus is Lord over our sanctification (our wholeness). In Jesus, by the Spirit, the Father sees and knows us. He knows all aspects of our brokenness. He knows all about, even more than we do, how we have been sinned against and how we have sinned against others and ourselves. He is working out in our actual, particular life the healing that has been stored up for us in Jesus' glorified humanity. We share step-by-step in that perfection, in that wholeness, growing in our cooperation with the Spirit to live according to our new relationship in Christ—our new identities—rather than according to our old natures that are passing away, no matter what devastating evil we have experienced or what lies we have embedded deep in our souls.
We do not earn this sharing in Christ’s life, and we do not create it. Daily we receive it as God's freely-given gift. Our part is to turn again to him, to hear his voice and receive his life and work in faith, in trust. That is how we share in what Christ has for us in his own glorified humanity.
We thus participate now in our transformation and maturing, though somewhat indirectly. For some things in our lives, the process of transformation is a long one—we may not think we see much progress. But Jesus knows all about us, and knows where he is taking us. We are healed and transformed in his presence, in and through our relationship with him. We are transformed by remaining in his presence, turning away from all that tempts us to look elsewhere, away from the other voices that attempt to tell us who we are. Note this from Paul:
We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Cor. 3:18)
This is where dying to self is felt most directly. In turning to Jesus and receiving our true selves from him, and from nowhere else, we turn away and even denounce dependence upon all other sources. We may even need to acknowledge that we were deceived by some of these voices. We may need to repent of having relied upon those voices to tell us who we are. In listening more and more deeply to Jesus' voice alone, we will need to let his voice speak over everyone else’s. This is the hard but freeing, life-giving lesson the apostle Paul learned:
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found faithful. But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore, do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God. (1 Cor. 4:1-5, ESV)
As we grow in knowing the Lord, trusting him and seeing his sufficient grace in all areas of our lives, we are becoming more ourselves. And as we grow to be more ourselves in him, we grow more able to fully behold Jesus, live in his grace, share in his joy and peace and glory, to love what he loves, want what he wants, go where he is going and receive more fully and freely all he has for us. We grow in having empty, upturned hands before him so that we might receive what he is giving us.
This reality of being transformed in our actual living in relationship with God is witnessed to by recent studies of human development. Studies in Attachment Theory show that the primary influence in how our brains are wired in the first years of life is our relationship with our primary caregiver, usually our mother. The formation of our brains is affected by how much we are held, how peaceful and responsive our mother (or other primary caregiver) is, including their gazing into their child's eyes. The mother’s and the infant’s brains are mutually affected by this gazing.
Perhaps one way to understand our relationship with Jesus, is that we are indeed being transformed as we know him face-to-face, eye-to-eye. Through that relationship, God is rewiring our brains, though the process takes time and is challenging and even painful. Though it is hard to fully stop hearing the lies and thinking or acting from them instead of from God's grace, it is infinitely worth it!
Attending to Jesus
We participate in the Spirit’s work in our lives primarily by attending (yielding) to Jesus, not by primarily focusing on ourselves. As J.B. Torrance used to say, we "look away from ourselves to Christ." And we can do this because Christ already has us, we already belong to him. But attending to Jesus is not easy or automatic. It is the real challenge of the Christian life in this already-but-not-yet, time-between-the-times. That is because there are so many things that cry out for our attention in this life, so many voices trying to tell us who we are or who we ought to become, tempting us to gain our identity from them. There are so many expectations to fulfill, so many dreams we want realized.
Our secular culture is often promoting the idea of realizing the ideal—whether it be the ideal relationship, marriage, new experiences, career, accumulation of wealth and things, avoidance of suffering, etc. For each ideal, ways are offered that promise to make them happen. Not all of these techniques, programs, products agree with each other—except in one way: they all rely on us making them happen—on our use of certain tools, techniques, methods and skills to achieve the ideal. They all depend upon our working to make ourselves into what we think we ought to be.
In contrast, the overriding concern of the authors of the New Testament is that we remain in Christ. We see this concern in Jesus' words in John 15 where he commands his disciples to "remain" in him—to "abide" in him—to stay connected to him in a living relationship where they will continually receive from him like branches connected to a vine. Jesus said these words at the end of his earthly ministry, in the shadow of the cross. He knew that his followers' greatest temptation would be to live as if they were not connected to him—to live not receiving continually from him. That is our greatest temptation as well.
The apostle Paul speaks of being steadfast or enduring. The Greek word he tends to use means to "remain under" or "abide under." Paul also speaks of those living "in Christ" as being "rooted" or "grounded" in him. The author of Hebrews notes that while we don’t see the world in subjection to Christ, we do see Jesus “who for a little while was made lower than the angels… crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” In Hebrews 3:1 he tells us to “consider Jesus,” where "consider" means "consider exactly, attentively, fully; understand fully” or “concentrate by fixing one’s thinking.” At the beginning of Hebrews 12 he tells us to "throw off all that encumbers" us so that we might "run the race set before us, looking to Jesus." The Greek word translated "looking" here means to “look away from all else, to fix one’s gaze upon.” This is why the NIV and many other translations translate it as “fix our eyes on Jesus.”
It is by our attending to Jesus that we most fundamentally participate in the life he has given us and continues to give us, because that is how we participate in the real relationship we have with him, and thus how we grow. Jesus came to share his wholeness with us. Growing in this wholeness primarily involves giving our full attention to Jesus—seeking to know him more fully, to see the depths of his goodness and glory, to rejoice in his faithfulness and assurance of completeness, justice, all things set right one day, to receive him and ourselves with thanksgiving over and over again.
Our relationship (communion) with Jesus is not automatic or static. Instead it's ongoing, dynamic and transformative. This reality is mirrored in our human relationships, which, even though broken, grow through interaction and conversation. Relationships take real listening, giving and receiving.
As noted in part 1 of this essay, we can only come to know Jesus in truth as he is presented to us in the New Testament. There is no substitute for knowing him through the pages of the New Testament where we are given all we need to know about who Jesus is. By hearing, reading and studying the New Testament witness to Jesus, any false images and imaginations we hold about him will be purified. By the ministry of the Holy Spirit we will find that we are not just learning about Jesus but getting to know him, and through him, getting to know the Father and the Holy Spirit. Out of that will come a growing faith, hope and love.
Attending involves repenting
Attending more and more fully to the God who wholeheartedly is attending to us, involves our ongoing repentance—a continuous turning towards and turning away. This is the biblical understanding of our relationship with God, which involves hearing him, then aligning ourselves with what we hear and turning away from other things. This repentance involves sharing in Christ’s repentance for us by the Spirit. Christ repents in our place not so that we don’t have to. By the Spirit, he works in us so that we are able to say “amen” to his repentance on our behalf. We share in Christ’s receiving from the Father, attending to the Father and in his turning away from anything that would get in the way of his living fully as the Son of this Father. The Spirit brings to mind all that Jesus had said—he teaches, convicts, exhorts, comforts, prays and enables us to respond. We are never repenting, trusting, hoping, suffering, struggling on our own.
However, we can be tempted to act as if God is at a distance and that we shouldn’t need to hear again and again of his love and grace for us—that we shouldn’t need to receive him again and again. We are tempted to believe we don’t need to live in vital, ongoing fellowship with him. Or we are tempted to think we don’t have time for God. We may think that circumstances require that we put our attention elsewhere. At such times we are tempted to think of repentance as primarily for our bad words or actions and not from the deeper issues that are preventing us from living out of who we truly are in Christ.
When Jesus does not fill our field of vision, we can be assured it is because something or someone else does. When we are not attending to his speaking to us, it is because other voices, including our own, are filling our ears. The reality is that Jesus is continuously speaking into our lives—always attending and working. The Holy Spirit is actively seeking to interact with us, advancing his purpose of enabling us to more and more quickly turn back to the Father through and with the Son. The Spirit gives us eyes to see, and ears to hear as we, by his power, turn again to God in repentance. As we do, we join Jesus in continually turning to—continually attending to—the Father, receiving from him. Our sanctification in him involves growing in this joyous capacity.
In this attending it is important to know that knowing about Jesus is not the same as knowing Jesus. Attending is not about just getting to the end of a to-do list with or for Jesus so that now we don’t need to interact with him any longer. Real relationship (attending) with Jesus means taking time to continue to hear his word to us from outside ourselves. Recognizing this reminds us of the importance of spiritual disciplines that help us deliberately live in the relationship God has given us with himself:
- Prayer, by which we spend time in intimate conversation with God listening and speaking.
- Bible study, by which we interact with God through his written Word. Such study involves asking the "who" question ("Who are you, Lord?"). It involves trusting the Spirit’s presence; wrestling with the text in the company of others (including reliable authors of Bible study helps).
- Church attendance, by which we meet together as the Body of Christ to hear the Word of God proclaimed again and to share once more in the Lord's Supper.
Growing in knowing Jesus
Finding personal wholeness in Jesus involves growing in knowing and receiving him in dynamic relationship. This is a life-long journey, which leads toward a fullness of relationship that will be realized when we are ushered into a new heaven and a new earth at Christ's return. As I've noted already, the wholeness that Jesus has come to share with us will be fully manifest or completed only when we are glorified and living in the new heaven and new earth. The promise of that future fullness of knowing and relating is our sure and certain hope.
To live in relationship with Jesus now, entrusting to him our brokenness and the brokenness of our relationships, families, churches, and world, is to attend to him now in the light of our hope that he will finish the work he has begun (Phil. 1:6). It is to grasp enough of the hope that he is and that he gives us to see that it is glorious, whole, life-giving and joyous—much greater than any bliss we can experience now. Yielding to him now—letting go of all we think will satisfy apart from him—is infinitely worth it.
In hope, we now experience (even if imperfectly) some of that knowing and relating. In John 10:10, Jesus said he came to give us "abundant life," with "life" (zoe in Greek) being a reference to the life that God is and has in himself. The verb tenses in this verse convey the idea of Jesus giving us this abundant life continually. Here is a literal translation: “I came in order that they might continuously have life, even that they may continuously have it all-around.”
Many other places in Scripture speak of God sharing this overabundance of life with us even now. We are told of Jesus changing water into wine, and of feeding crowds until they were filled (and there were leftovers!). Other words used to convey this idea of overabundant life are treasure, riches and glory.
John 17 says that the life Jesus shares with us is "eternal life," which he defines as knowing (having a personal, relational knowledge of) the Father and Jesus Christ. Although this knowing comes to fullness in the future fullness of the kingdom, by the Spirit we can and do experience it now in meaningful, life-transforming ways, as we live into, share in, receive and give out from the uncontainable, life-giving, out-going, joyous, interaction that is always going on within the triune God. To grow in wholeness, to grow in our relationship with Jesus, means living in the present in light of our living hope for the future he has for us.
Basking in the light of the knowledge that one day we will made fully whole (new), we will experience now something of the joy and life that comes with full relationships—the sort of relationships we were created to enjoy and that we deeply long for. It is in light of that promised future that we are to live, think, speak and act today.
Living today in the light of our future hope
Christian hope plays a vital role in our present life, including our journey towards wholeness. The New Testament writers emphasize living in the present in light of the glorious and certain future that awaits us. Our future wholeness in Christ is not a pipe dream that has no relevance to our lives now. It is the deepest reality of our present lives, including our hopes, longings, trials, circumstances, relationships and sufferings. This perspective is beautifully illustrated by Paul in these words:
Our present afflictions might seem burdensome and prolonged, but they are in fact insignificant and momentary when compared with the undiminished load of glory that these afflictions are producing for us to a degree that is beyond all measure and proportions. (2 Cor. 4:17, translation by Murray J. Harris)
The apostle Peter, reflecting on the living hope we have in an imperishable inheritance, says this: "In this [hope] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials” (1 Pet. 1:6). The word translated “grieved” means to experience deep, emotional pain.
Viewed in the light of the coming fullness in glory, Paul sees his present trials as “insignificant and momentary” and Peter admonishes his readers to rejoice despite the sufferings they are now enduring. They are not saying the present trials are easy—we know they are not.
Earlier in 2 Corinthians, Paul spoke of suffering to the point that he despaired of life. But he understood the glorious and faithful purposes of Christ, and that God is bringing about real and deep righteousness and life. He knew God was even using his trials to bring about a glorious completion. Because of Jesus, and the Father’s work to re-head up all things in Jesus (Eph. 1:10), Paul understood that his present sufferings, no matter how hard, were not the final word.
Living now in the wholeness of Christ involves the Spirit working in our lives and enabling our participation in that work so that we can view our present and our past, ourselves and our relationships, circumstances, trials, temptations and sufferings, even our present plans, feelings and dreams, in light of this glorious assured future. We can do this not because God doesn’t care about or see our present or our past, but because he does care, and, as we've noted already, is at work undoing evil and redeeming it all.
Unfortunately, we often turn that around and see and judge Jesus by our present and our past experience. We are tempted to think that he isn’t at work, doesn’t see us or care, because he is not dealing with the present in the ways or within the timing that we want. Learning to look forward and not back is part of the renewing of our minds—part of seeing ourselves and our lives in the light of Jesus and our future in him.
How do we live today in the light of our future hope? I suggest that instead of being so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good (as the saying goes), that we become more heavenly minded in a way makes us more earthly good! When we see the reality of our future hope as an anchor for our lives here and now, we are able to live today in patience and trust, turning to Jesus again and again, by his Spirit yielding ourselves wholeheartedly to him, receiving his sufficient grace again in this moment.
Let's consider two points about our future hope:
- The life that God has created us for, which will be fully consummated in the new heaven and new earth, is not just a slight improvement on the life we now have in the already-but-not-yet. It is so much better that it is safe to say that we are barely alive now.
- The life that is our hope is what we most deeply long for. It is not anything less than we might experience here and now in this present fallen age.
The hope we have, as described in the Bible, is so rich and real and full that it is almost too hard to grasp. As Paul says, it is beyond all that we can ask or imagine. John puts it this way in the book of Revelation:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:1-5a)
When God brings all these to completion, when evil is fully destroyed, and when death is no more, we will be entirely whole—finally and truly ourselves. We will be transformed and glorified, perfect (whole) and complete. All the former anguish and trials, the hurts we gave and that we received, will be undone and remade. Every tear will be wiped away and there will be no more mourning, crying or pain. Paul put it this way:
May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 5:23)
Every part of us will be renewed and transformed: spirit, soul and body. We will finally know the glory of loving God fully and the glory of being his beloved children. We will know it in our souls and even in our bodies. In glory, we will be part of a whole church being presented “in splendor” (Eph. 5:27).
Jude put it this way:
Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. (Jude 1:24-25)
In glory, we won't just be given a life that is never-ending. We won’t just be given a new label or a new status. We will be made holy—whole, all the way down. But what about our flawed past—the deep wounds we have given or have received from others? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus is Lord of all! He is the one who redeems us and gives us a share in his eternal life—his relationship with the Father, in the Holy Spirit.
Yes, Jesus is Lord of all—even over time and space, as he, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, works to bring about a new heaven and a new earth. As it says in the passage we just read in Revelation, the whole God is making “all things new.” The triune God is victor over the past (including your past!) and the future. As Lord of time and space, he undoes and redeems even what is past. This is why every tear will be wiped away. There will be no more regrets. God our Father is re-heading all things up in his Son, Jesus Christ, by the Spirit. ALL THINGS!!
This fullness of life that awaits us is what we are created for—what we are wired for, what we most deeply long for, even though we don’t often realize it. What we see when we look at Jesus is that we are made for great joy. But the only one who can give us what we were created for is Jesus himself. He is the source of all joy, all love, all real and full life. No one else and nothing else can give us those things.
When we see Jesus face-to-face, we won't think for one moment that we missed out on anything here on earth. We will see why our longings here were too deep to be satisfied ultimately by this life here. As C.S. Lewis says, we are made to run on God and, therefore, our deepest joy is and will be in him. C.S. also said this:
There have been times when I think we do not desire heaven, but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have desired anything else.
To live in the present in light of our future is to live as sojourners and exiles in this life. In 1 Pet. 2:11, Peter refers to those he writes to as "foreigners and exiles" and encourages them to abstain from the passions that war against their souls. His point is that this world is not our true home. In writing about our longings in this life, C.S. Lewis noted that they are not satisfied by anything on this earth—it seems we were made for more than this.
The reason this world so often doesn’t feel like home is because it isn’t. Even the best things fall short, disappoint, don’t last. In Jesus Rediscovered, Malcolm Muggeridge puts it this way:
The only ultimate disaster that can befall us, I have come to realize, is to feel ourselves to be at home here on earth. As long as we are aliens, we cannot forget our true homeland, which is that other kingdom.
In hope, we live waiting—resting in God and not in our circumstances or in ourselves. As Paul says in concluding his letter to the Philippians, we live in this world with contentment and the object of that contentment, grounded in hope, is Jesus.
In 1 Peter 1:13 we are told to "set your hope on the grace that is being brought to you." In God's own time and way, we will be made whole! In hope, we await that transformation with patience and contentment. However, our waiting is not passive—it involves actively pursuing Jesus, the source of our wholeness. We seek to know him, to live in him, to rest in and enjoy him each day, knowing that he will fully complete the work he has already begun in us, he will fully deal with the evil and the pain and will fully satisfy our longings for him.
With that confidence, borne of faith in Jesus, we let him lead in such a way that our focus remains on him rather than on our progress (or lack thereof). Whenever we stop trusting him and his Word and look away from him, we know that he remains faithful to us, and is still saying to us: “Look at me now—I have you, I have this situation.”
On receiving and giving forgiveness
Part of living in the wholeness of Christ and the hope of its fulfillment is dealing with the sins we commit towards others and with those that have been committed against us. Forgiveness, which is our participation in God's forgiveness, is a central part of growing in wholeness. It is in the context of this sure hope in our Lord's work to fully complete our redemption, that the Holy Spirit enables us both to receive forgiveness and to extend forgiveness. T.F. Torrance put it this way:
Forgiveness... is a stupendous act which only God can do, blotting out what is past and recreating what has been wasted by sin.… Forgiveness is not just a word of pardon, but a word translated into our existence by crucifixion and resurrection, by judgement and recreation. (Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ, p. 222)
In Christ, we have been forgiven. Jesus forgives because he redeems. He has confessed our sins in our place and on our behalf, and by the Holy Spirit, he works this out in us, freeing and enabling us to say "amen" to his own confession and thus hand over the sins to him and receive the forgiveness he already has given. Jesus doesn’t confess, repent and forgive so that we don’t have to, but so that we now can do so, sharing by the Spirit in Jesus' real and particular work in our lives.
Jesus’ word of forgiveness is not a blanket, static proclamation. We receive his forgiveness in the light of real hope that these things (sinning or being sinned against) will one day be no more and will be remade. It can be very hard for us to receive this forgiveness, because it involves freely receiving, not earning or deserving it.
In light of Jesus’ work of forgiveness and redemption, we embrace our ongoing sanctification—we grow in receiving the judging, sifting work of the Holy Spirit who helps us first acknowledge and then hand over to God all that gets in the way of our experiencing, enjoying and living out of the fullness of relationship with him. When the Spirit points out these places of sin in our lives, his goal is to help us see what is contrary to our true selves in Christ—to see (with rejoicing) what we are being redeemed from, what one day will no longer be.
This process of repentance necessarily reminds us of our fallenness and brokenness, but it also turns us towards what we are becoming—it points us forward, in hope, toward our final redemption. In repentance, our expectant word to God is this: "Lord, I want to see how you're going to redeem this one!"
In every place that we are fallen and broken, Jesus works to turn our humanity back to God—bringing us to that point in the Garden of Gethsemane where he said to the Father, in our place and on our behalf, “Not my will, but thy will be done.” From there Jesus moved unwaveringly to the cross. He did all this for the joy that was set before him—the joy of enabling us to become his brothers and sisters who receive their being and their doing in relationship with him.
In turning again and again to Jesus (repentance is a lifestyle, not a "one-and-done" event), we live again in the truth of who we now are. Jesus says to us as we look at our sin, “This is not you, it is what I am getting rid of—hand it to me once again.” It's hard to do that, because it means dying to our own efforts to justify or excuse ourselves.
The Holy Spirit, in his sanctifying relationship with us in a personalized way, enables us to share in the vicarious humanity of Jesus. The Spirit brings us into a deeply personal relationship where Jesus shares with us his peace, love, joy and communion with the Father. Through the Spirit, Jesus is teaching us to receive more and more his life-changing, whole-making presence. By interacting with Jesus, through the Spirit, we learn the joy of denying ourselves in order to receive more fully from Jesus what he has for us—even our whole being. Growing in wholeness in Jesus involves living in the bigness of the triune God, which means being okay with our smallness in him and yielding more and more to him as his beloved children.
When we extend forgiveness to others, we are saying “amen” to Jesus’ extension of forgiveness to that person. It means that we understand that Jesus has taken upon himself all the times others have hurt us, all the ways others have sinned against us, bruised, violated, abused, abandoned, manipulated or rejected us. Jesus knows all about all these things and has gone to the bottom of them all—taking them upon himself in order to judge and then redeem them. He refuses to let these sins have the last word.
Jesus has taken it all in, absorbed it, and turned it around in himself so that it one day can be fully turned around in us. That is his work of recapitulation. He makes it right for us and then shares it with us.
I know a young man who was sexually abused as a young boy by a trusted family friend. Like others in similar situations, he was deeply scarred and hurt by these experiences. In college he began cutting himself to cope with the abuse. I was invited to pray with him once in the midst of this difficult time. I went in feeling inadequate to the task. What could I offer? I decided to pray quietly for the Spirit to speak to the young man. After a period of silence, I asked if he had any word or image from God. He told me he saw Jesus before him and that Jesus had all the same cuts on his arms and legs. He had taken each one to himself. This is our Redeemer Jesus!
By the Spirit’s work, we can forgive others in hope of Jesus’ promise to truly make all things right—judging and destroying the sin, no matter how harrowing and despicable. No one is going to get away with anything. Evil has no future.
Our being hurt, even deeply hurt, by others, does not determine our identity (and the same is true for our sinning against others). Many times, we may need to hand over and entrust to Jesus, our Judge and Savior, our sins and our being sinned against. We can do so in light of the future complete redemption that is ours. Jesus is the only one who can undo what we and others have done. He is able to wipe away all tears—that is what his resurrection and ascension show us. He has conquered death itself, the ultimate consequence of all sin. He gives us salvation in union with him.
Hang on to hope!
Trials, especially long-term ones, can tempt us to cease placing our hope in Jesus. These trials come in many forms: illness, emotional or circumstantial struggles, difficult family relationships, unfulfilled longings, etc. We hope for steady progress, but when we don’t see it, we can be tempted to doubt that Jesus and his grace is sufficient. But when we place our hope fully in him once again, viewing our trials in the light of his all-sufficiency and goodness, we are freed to turn and yield to Jesus once again—to receive what he is giving at that moment rather than insisting that he provide what we want instead. This trusting in Jesus is, no doubt, a wrestling. It's the wrestling of relationship—struggling to turn back to him and re-align ourselves with the deepest truth and reality about our whole lives—Jesus Christ himself.
I have a friend who has dealt with cancer in one form or another for the past ten years. I recently helped her into church. The pain in her legs was so great it was hard for her to walk. She said to me, “I am just not what I used to be." I said to her, “Yes, but the more important thing is that you are not yet who you will be.” Jesus is our hope, not only for today, but for the long haul. We may not experience healing on this side of death, but we will on the other side. That is guaranteed.
Our wholeness is secure in Jesus, who holds our future. Through the Holy Spirit, he enables us to see and appreciate signs of his work now, while not mistaking those signs for the full reality yet to come. We allow these signs, incomplete though they be, to point us to Jesus and the ultimate fulfillment ahead. We rejoice over what is happening, even while longing and anticipating the future fullness. C.S. Lewis put it this way:
Our Father refreshes us on the journey with some pleasant inns, but will not encourage us to mistake them for home.
Instead of focusing on how much we have progressed (or not progressed), we turn again and again to the one we hope and trust in, knowing in faith that he is meeting us fully today—in this moment. We know that he is more present and active and real than we are. We know he is seeing us and working with us as individuals. We know where he is taking us and we are confident in his ability to get us there.
Our turning to hear, see, and receive him once again is our participation in his lordship over our lives. We know he has a word for us each day—every day. He tells us that we are beloved and is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters. He is preparing a place for us, with him, in the presence of the Father (Heb. 2:11; John 14:2, 3). This turning to Christ is an active discipline. The most direct way to practice it is in prayer and in Bible reading, study and meditation, both privately and with others. Each day, we need to turn to him again because we live in a world that constantly pulls us away from Jesus. He told his first disciples that they would have troubles, nevertheless they could take heart because he, on their behalf, has overcome the world. That is Jesus' daily word of assurance to us as well. Hearing and receiving this word from Jesus is an ongoing, interactive, dynamic relationship with him. This is the Christian life. Though it's a struggle at times, it's the right struggle, for it leads to joy and rest in him.
Hoping in and trusting in Jesus is fundamental to the shape of our relationship with him. Giving thanks is not the means to some other end—it's not a matter of showing him I trust him, so now he can give me what I want, or that if I reach a certain level of trust in him he will work more in me or will be more pleased with me. The joy and peace of it is the relationship itself—being in his presence and communing with him.
Trusting Jesus also involves giving thanks, which is our response to his relentless grace. Thanksgiving puts us in a posture of receiving in a way that acknowledges that what we are receiving is a gift, not something that we have earned or deserve. To be thankful to God is to receive our lives and identities from him, to acknowledge our complete dependence on him. Giving thanks helps us grab hold again of the reality that God is good, generous, for us, and actively at work in us, and in the whole world.
An attitude of thanksgiving results from meditating on the Word of God—of turning to hear and remember and receive our Lord again. May God help us do so. The result, just as he has promised, will be a growing personal wholeness in Jesus.