It is commonplace for 21st-century Western Christians to over-spiritualize certain realities that should be a part of every believer’s life. Particularly as it pertains to everyday living, we don’t often read the Bible as literally as it’s meant to be read and applied. We often dumb down the events of the Bible into bite-sized principles (which can be a good thing!), but sometimes in doing so we lose the ‘realness’ with which the text should be understood.
For a case-in-point, take four short words from 1 Corinthians 15:31: ”I die every day!”
Now this is not Paul’s literal, earthly death; it is obviously less that that. Yet it is far more than just a general attitude of humility. Just because Paul is talking about a psychological reality instead of a physical one doesn’t mean his words are automatically figurative. A comfortable, Bible-belt Christian will read these words of Paul and understand “dying every day” to be the casting aside of one’s own agenda and adopting Christ’s agenda instead. Or distancing oneself from sinful desires, enduring that struggle painfully if need be.
These are accurate interpretations, to be sure. Dying every day certainly entails replacing one’s own personal agenda with that of Christ, and it certainly refers to a necessary attitude of humility in the daily life of a believer. But it refers to a heavier psychological reality than that alone. Remember, Paul had been shipwrecked, beaten, cold, naked, whipped, stoned, and hungry. He knew what it meant to be in need (Philippians 4). And when he says “I die daily” it means that he stared death in the face every morning and accepted it for that day. Not just by an attitude adjustment, but by a complete lack of concern for himself in light of his responsibility as a follower of Christ did Paul accomplish what he did for the eternal Kingdom of God.
Echoing the realness of Paul’s outlook is the story of a young British missionary who sailed from Liverpool to the African coastline many years ago. As he left the ship that had taken him from Liverpool to Africa, he boarded a coastal tugboat and told the captain his destination – a fever-infested region where he would spend the rest of his life. The captain, a local who was well-acquainted with the dangers of such an excursion, cynically looked at the young man and said, “If you go to that place, you will die.” Looking right back at him, the missionary replied, “I died before I ever left Liverpool.”
Christians, when we read and apply the Bible with the full weight of its power, our lives will be transformed and we will begin to carry out our purpose with the urgency that such a high calling demands. Don’t allegorize or over-spiritualize the directives of the Word of God – they are more literal than you think.
“If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.” 2 Corinthians 5:17
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Galatians 2:20
It is no longer I who live. “I” is the old me. “I” is the person who is slave to deceitful desires (Eph 4). “I” is the old self (Eph 4). “I” is the one who loves the world and hates God (Rom 1). “I” is the one greedy for selfish gain (Ps 10). “I” is the one darkened in understanding (Eph 4). “I” is the one alienated from the life of God (Eph 4). “I” is the one who is callous and given over to sensuality (Eph 4).
And that person is dead.
There is nothing more dramatic than becoming a follower of Christ (see previous blog post). You are not simply improved; you are made new. You are born again – a completely new creation (2 Cor).
An event in the life of one of our early church fathers captivates me and illustrates this point beautifully.
Augustine of Hippo lived in the 4th century A.D. and is easily one of the most important theologians to have ever lived. The scope of his work is so wide and so deep that the importance of his ministry is still felt today, even though we don’t realize we are under his influence. But guess what? He wasn’t born a Christian (he had to be born again for that). Prior to his conversion, he was a sex addict. Before coming to the realization of who Christ is, Augustine was far from a saint – he was a slave to an insatiable appetite. And after his conversion in Milan, when Augustine returned home to his native Africa, he soon saw a familiar face in the neighborhood….
…His favorite mistress. With whom he had sinned continuously in his previous life. A fascinating interaction occurred between them that day. Imagine the tension:
What a precarious moment! What a temptation! The brand new faith of a brand new person tested against the weight of his past. Augustine did the best thing he knew to do, as tradition tells it: he turned away from her, trying to avoid her eye. But she saw him anyway. And she called out, “Augustine! Augustine! It is I!”
Augustine stopped, and turned to face her. Whether he looked her in the eye and at what distance they stood from each other, we do not know. But we do know what he said next.
“Yes. But it is not I.”
“It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
For an athlete, one of the best pieces of advice ever spoken goes something like this: “You can’t control circumstances, but you can control your reaction.” In other words, in a sports game you can’t control the weather, the crowd noise, the official’s terrible calls, or the guy on the third row who found you on facebook and is yelling your girlfriend’s name at top volume. But you can control how well you perform. You can control your reaction to circumstances, but not always the circumstances themselves.
This idea is true in much of life, and it can get pretty somber pretty quickly. For instance, you cannot control the slow death of a loved one. You cannot control whether a sibling makes a wreck out of their life. You cannot control a drunk driver that kills an infant. You cannot control the atrocities committed by genocidal factions all over the world. You cannot control whether your parents love you (or each other). You cannot control whether the very foundations of your life come unraveled.
But you can control the way you react to these circumstances. And more importantly, you can choose what to think about God in light of these things. Will you trust him or hate him? Will you run to him or away from him? Will you see circumstantially, or will you see beyond what is visibly apparent?
David tells us his choice in Psalm 11:1-3. His reaction actually comes before the circumstances are even named:
In the Lord I take refuge; how can you say to my soul, “Flee like a bird to your mountain, for behold, the wicked bend the bow; they have fitted their arrow to the string to shoot in the dark at the upright in heart; if the foundations are destroyed, what can the righteous do?”
The first two lines are David’s words, followed by a quote, presumably from one of David’s trusted councilmen. Understand that this psalm was written while David was on the run from his enemies, uncertain of whether he would live to see the next day. The Bible history narratives about David (1 and 2 Samuel) tell us that circumstances were downright tragic for him at the time this psalm was written. So it is natural that we would see David’s closest advisors telling him it is time to flee once again. “Hit the panic button because your enemies are bearing down on you like never before, King David. Your foundations have been shaken.” But David’s reaction is shocking:
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I’ve thought quite a bit over the last few months about what an extensive and dramatic change is made when a person comes to Christ. It’s really quite shocking to see what the Bible actually says about conversion when contrasted to what many “Christians” in our culture say it is (often by mishandling Scripture).
Sometimes the problem is not that what people say about conversion is untrue, it just that it is incomplete. For instance, one often hears that when Christ comes into our lives, our lives get “on track” and life’s greatest questions are answered. We hear that Jesus has a wonderful purpose for our lives and that by believing in him we can start fulfilling it. Our lives can go from meaningless to meaningful. And somehow at conversion, we change from bad people to good people.
Some of these comments have roots in the truth, but none of them encompass what conversion really is. The Bible says that conversion is not some kind of self-improvement method. Believing the gospel is not primarily an event in which one gains meaningful knowledge. And is certainly not an event in which a bad person becomes good. The Bible says that at conversion we go from dead to alive.