CONFORMED TO CHRIST: CHAPTER 4
Every person yearns for personal fulfillment and happiness. Much of our lives are directed to the pursuit of happiness. But, tragically, many people never find true happiness.
Some people grow cynical and bitter about life, while others simply resign themselves to enjoying the few comforts and pleasures they are able to acquire. Worse yet, many people plunge blindly from one thing to the next, hoping that each new pursuit will somehow bring them the happiness they crave.
As we grow up, we are often led to believe that we would surely find peace and personal fulfillment if only we had certain things. The kinds of experiences we have in life, what our career is, the neighborhood we live in, the shape of our face, who our friends are — we are told that these are the things which will determine our happiness. Like so many other young couples, my wife and I were trapped by this way of thinking. “If we only had this or that,” we would say to each other, “then we’d be much better off.”
At one time we had an older car because we really couldn’t afford anything better. Although it had few problems, the thought was always in the back of our minds: “Well, it might break down. Besides, it doesn’t look that good; it makes us look tacky.” Such thoughts produce a constant state of inner turmoil. Then a friend or neighbor would see our car and say, “That’s getting pretty old, isn’t it? When are you going to get another one?”
Immediately the thought would come, “We aren’t happy because we feel so inadequate. Everyone else has newer cars, better houses, and nicer clothes. As we lamented over our problems and our lack of happiness, our conclusion was always “If only we had these things, we’d feel so much better.” But as time passed and we finally bought a newer car or nicer clothes, we discovered something. We never had everything we thought we needed; there was always something new that we lacked, something else that seemed to rob us of our happiness. These examples from my own life overstate the case somewhat. They oversimplify the way that the “pursuit of happiness” mentality works in most people. Yet, no matter how complex a person’s search for fulfillment becomes, it can always be reduced to this simple reasoning process.
As Christians, we might shake our heads, disgusted by those who are petty enough to think that happiness comes from material possessions. We might even pride ourselves on knowing that happiness comes from finding true spiritual value in life. But, without realizing it, we may have simply shifted our search for personal fulfillment from “physical things” to “religious things”.
For example, a pastor might fix his quest for happiness on the status from pastoring a large, successful church. Another Christian might think that happiness comes from living a quiet, trouble-free life as a good Christian family man. Neither of these desires — to pastor a growing, successful church or to be a good husband and father are wrong, of course. Even these worthwhile goals cannot make us happy. The source of happiness lies elsewhere.
So often I have met Christians who think that happiness consists of finding the right church. Of course, it can sometimes make sense to change churches. But some Christians seem to move endlessly from one church to the next. “If we could only find a better church,” they reason, “with a more dynamic pastor and stronger teaching, then we’d be in a better position to serve the Lord.” They are constantly searching for “a more mature body” or “the perfect church”. They blame their lack of fulfillment on the fact that they are not in the right church. But the truth is that there is no “perfect” church. No body of Christians is without problems, flaws, and shortcomings.
Only in a church full of people who are pursuing the true source of happiness will you find a church of truly happy people. They won’t be without problems, crises, and frustrations, of course. But a deep sense of satisfaction will undergird their lives because they know the source of true happiness and cannot be shaken from it.
The life of the apostle Paul provides a classic example of a man whose desperate pursuit of personal fulfillment led him to the source of true happiness. It doesn’t help to think of Paul as a “special saint, a very spiritual man”. The moment we do this, we isolate ourselves from what Paul’s life can teach us. Certainly, Paul should be honored for his great contribution to the Christian faith. But he was no superman. He faced the same kind of desires, problems, and frustrations that you and I do. If he had a unique ability, it consisted of the drive to go after and acquire the things that he thought would produce fulfillment and happiness in his life — an ability that each of us has to some degree.
“I Long to Know Christ”
In his letter to the Philippians Paul responds to the boasts and claims of certain men who were trying to gain control over the church. At first, it seems Paul holds up his own accomplishments by way of comparison to theirs. But his analysis of the significance of these accomplishments points to a different conclusion.
Each of the things Paul mentions were important status symbols in the culture in which he lived. His achievements made him the envy of many Jews. He had the status of being a freeborn Roman citizen, and that entitled him to many privileges under Roman law. He had political clout. He was a man of great drive and dedication, who outshone many of his colleagues. He was a leader whose abilities and energy in today’s world would easily propel him to the top of any major corporation. But what did he conclude about all of his talents and accomplishments? “Yet every advantage I have gained,” he wrote, “I considered lost for Christ’s sake” (Phi 3:7). Most of what the men of his day struggled to attain he had. “But I considered it useless rubbish,” he said, “compared with being able to win Christ.”
When Paul came to Christ a dramatic change took place in his life. His whole system of values changed. But he didn’t simply switch from worldly values to religious or spiritual ones. As a law-abiding Jew, he was already a deeply religious man. Instead of just finding new values or new direction for his self-willed pursuit of happiness, he found Christ, the source of all happiness and personal fulfillment. “How changed are my ambitions,” he exulted. “Now I long to know Christ and the power shown by his resurrection — now I long to share his sufferings” (Phi 3:10).
From one point of view, Paul had it made. He certainly had thought so. It wasn’t until God turned him around to see Christ that he realized how empty and vain his self-made life really was. Once that realization took hold, Paul devoted the rest of his days to turning the hearts of men and women to the Lord.
Paul was not alone in reaching this conclusion. Throughout Scripture and church history we see countless men and women who examined the issues of prestige, money, and acceptance by the world and concluded that true happiness and personal fulfillment come from knowing the Lord Jesus Christ and being changed into his likeness.
“If it were right [for me] to have such confidence, I could certainly have it… I was born from the people of Israel; I was circumcised on the eighth day, I was a member of the tribe of Benjamin; I was, in fact, a full-blooded Jew. As far as keeping the Law was concerned I was a Pharisee, and you can judge my enthusiasm for the Jewish faith by my active persecution of the Church. As far as the Law’s righteousness is concerned, I don’t think anyone could have found fault with me. Yet every advantage that I had gained I considered lost for Christ’s sake” (Phi 3:4-7).
Satisfaction in life comes when we realize that we were not created to merely pursue our own happiness but to give glory to God and to please him. It’s that simple: We are fulfilled as we fulfill our true purpose for existence. Knowing Jesus Christ personally and becoming like him brings joy and satisfaction that can be found nowhere else. Yet it is not necessarily an emotional joy. Of course, we will experience seasons of great emotional joy and delight in the Lord. But we also will have to endure times of trouble as we follow the Lord. During these difficult periods, perhaps more than at other times, we can discover the great peace and unshakable happiness that comes from knowing Jesus personally.
The closer we draw to the Lord the less shaken we are by the trials of life. Yet many Christians expend a great deal of time and effort trying to avoid life’s problems and trials. They are convinced that they would be happy if they could just remove certain circumstances (or people) from their lives. The Bible, however, makes a unique promise to those who desire to know the Lord and to become like him: The apostle Paul wrote, “that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom 8:28).
When our hearts are set upon becoming like Jesus, however elusive that goal may seem, we can be confident that God will cause everything in our lives to work for good. But just what is “good”?
Consider how the apostle Paul was unjustly thrown into prison. That probably doesn’t sound very good to us. On the other hand, consider the promise of Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord; and He will give you the desires of your heart.” Now that sounds good. We may even try to imagine how God might fulfill what we believe to be the desires of our hearts.
I imagine a rustic cabin in the mountains, perched at the crest of one of a series of green rolling hills. In the background is a range of rugged snowcapped peaks. A clear, cool stream runs below the cabin. Sheep graze about the stream, not dirty-looking, gray sheep but ones that are clean and white. My wife and I stand on the porch of our cabin gazing at the natural, breathtaking beauty. “Isn’t this good?” I say to her. “Isn’t the Lord wonderful?”
However, this lovely mountain cabin may not be what really fulfills the desires of my heart. In fact, my life may not look anything like that beautiful mountain hideaway. The passage from Romans about “all things working together for good” continues a little later to define what good is. It tells us which of our desires God intends to meet. “For whom He foreknew,” Paul continues, “He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son.” God intends to mold and shape us into the likeness of his Son. This is the best thing that could ever happen to us.
When we stop trying to define and achieve our own happiness, we begin to understand what the Bible means when it says that “all things work together for good”. What good? The good of being brought closer to Jesus Christ and of being made like him. The person whose peace and happiness depend upon external, self-made and self-controlled circumstances cannot share in the security of this promise.
“Come to Jesus”
A lot of preaching in the church today is novel and exciting. It attracts great crowds and stimulates the sales of thousands of books and the attendance at dozens of “life- changing” seminars. Yet many of those who hear this preaching are not changed in the fundamental way that godly men like Paul were. Instead, they are promised lives of blessing and abundance if they will simply accept Jesus as their Savior and put certain principles into practice. “Come to Jesus,” such preaching beckons, “and he will make you happy and give you all the things you’ve ever wanted.” Of course, most of this preaching isn’t quite that blunt. Yet this is the heart of the message that it offers.
Tragically, many Christians are not encouraged to totally surrender their desires and lives to God, allowing Him to mold and shape them in the image of Jesus. Rather, they are encouraged to develop the viewpoint — often so subtle that it goes unnoticed even by themselves — that they are the center of God’s plan. Their needs, problems, and desires are far more important than God’s desires and plans.
The most critical task for preachers and leaders in the church today is to make sure that God’s people understand the simple, overriding truth that we exist to bring pleasure to God, to enjoy his presence, to exalt Jesus Christ. A vital first step in fulfilling this eternal purpose is to enter into personal fellowship with the Lord, allowing him to transform us according to his will.
Unless we understand that God offers us a close relationship with himself in which we can become like Jesus, many of life’s experiences will seem painfully futile. Some Christians might have seen Paul thrown in prison and concluded that “he must not be living right. Maybe there’s a secret sin in his life. Otherwise, this wouldn’t be happening to him.”
Yet Paul had quite a different attitude toward problems, difficulties, and suffering. He knew that because God intended to produce the qualities of Christ in his life, everything that could possibly happen to him would work toward that end. As a result, Paul could face suffering and death with deep peace. In Philippians 3:10 he said of Christ that he longed to “know him, and the power of his resurrection.”
“That sounds great,” we say. Perhaps we imagine the power of Christ’s resurrection at work through us as we heal the sick, evangelize thousands, or overcome famines and plagues. But we must read the remainder of that passage: “that I may know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.”
Paul didn’t say he wanted to know happiness or create a set of circumstances in his life that would produce contentment. He had already tried that. Instead, Paul wanted to know Christ. For in knowing him, following him, and becoming like him, he would find happiness beyond the control of circumstances. He would find happiness beyond pain, suffering, and death, happiness and satisfaction rooted in eternity.
Notice, also, that Paul didn’t say, “I want to suffer.” Some people think that suffering in and of itself is virtuous, that they gain the acceptance of God simply because they endure suffering. However, there is only one basis by which we gain acceptance: we must trust Christ and the forgiveness He purchased for us at Calvary.
Paul did not want to suffer merely for the sake of suffering. Rather, he wanted to know the Lord Jesus Christ and he wanted to know that part of Christ’s experience, which included suffering. “For consider him,” the author of Hebrews writes, “who has endured such hostility by sinners against Himself, so that you may not grow weary and lose heart. You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding blood in your striving against sin” (12:3-4). Jesus suffered because he stood against sin. He felt the pressures of human temptation, but he stood against sin and suffered in the process. It was this suffering that Paul wanted to know.
Self-centered human thinking doesn’t want to hear about suffering. My natural tendency is to want to be pampered. I want God to make everything work smoothly in my life. I want all my prayers answered — immediately. And I want a comfortable gospel — one requiring very little sacrifice, demanding no real change. Perhaps this sounds awful. Yet so much of human thinking, when it is unmasked, sounds just like this.
The life of a true follower of Christ, however, begins with the realization that it is necessary to die and be born anew in Christ. That’s why baptism is such an important step in the life of a Christian. In a real sense baptism is a funeral or burial.
Paul writes, “Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death” (Rom 6:4). Death removes the old and makes way for the new. This is why Paul wanted to know Christ’s suffering, even “being conformed to His death” (Phi 3:10).
Trials and Tribulations
Paul recognized that his own self-centered attempts at achieving happiness were futile. He wanted to find the happiness and fulfillment of living a life that brought pleasure to God. He knew that following Jesus involved both the experience of deep joy that comes from knowing the King of Kings and the suffering that comes from following him. More than joy or suffering, he wanted an ever-deepening relationship with God.
Anyone who reads and studies what Scripture teaches about Christ-like character must inevitably consider what the Bible says about trials and tribulations. Many of us label some experiences as trials that are really not trials at all. As a result, we never progress beyond normal life-struggles to the real testing and refining of our faith in God.
For example, let’s consider a man who decides, somewhat to his surprise, to go to church one day. He hears the good news of salvation and gives his life to Christ. He has worked for many years at a grocery store. Not long after his conversion, he punches the wrong keys on the register one day and overcharges a customer. His supervisor discovers the mistake and yells at him, “You’d better straighten up or else.”
At his next visit to church he tells his Christian friend, “I sure had some hard trials at work this week. The boss chewed me out for nothing at all. He jumped all over me. I could see the devil in his eyes. He threatened to fire me. I already feel persecuted. It’s so hard serving the Lord.”
Amazing! A week before becoming a Christian he wouldn’t have thought of calling it “a trial”. Maybe he punched the wrong keys for the twentieth time and the boss yelled, “I’m warning you for the twentieth time. If you don’t straighten up you’re going to get fired!”
But he didn’t come home from work and say, “It’s too hard making money. I can’t live with such trials.” No, he came home and said, “The boss bawled me out today. I’ve about had it. One of these days I’m going to punch him in the nose and then walk out of there and get a good job.” The next day he was back at work. He didn’t call it a trial. It was simply one of the normal ups-and-downs of life. But as soon as he becomes a Christian he has a new name for it.
Most of us have grown up in a society where the most important goal is to live a comfortable, problem-free life. Recently, I read an article that gives a vivid account of how drugs have become a problem for six and seven year-old children in many cities. Researchers have discovered that there are serious psychological problems affecting the child who uses drugs at that age. Drugs provide an easy escape from the normal pressures and difficulties of life, pressures that are part of the maturing process. Children who fail to face these difficulties do not develop the endurance necessary for overcoming the great obstacles of adult life. They never gain the character strengths these normal pressures are designed to produce.
I have met adult Christians who are looking for a similar means of escape — a Christian experience with little or no hardship or pressure. “I have so many terrible problems,” they say. “I have to work with people 1 don’t like. I have to do things I don’t feel like doing. Besides, I’m hurting inside. I’ve had bad experiences in my past.” They assume that by coming to Jesus, their struggles end. When we come to Christ we are told to “cast all of our cares upon him”. But Scripture does not promise a life free of difficulty. Struggles and trials are a necessary part of the growth experience of every Christian.
Many people run away from painful and difficult experiences. They see no purpose in problems and struggles. Instead, they do everything possible to avoid them. But if we are to be useful people, able to function in a world filled with problems, we’ve got to learn to grapple with serious problems and to find the answers in God.
“We can be full of joy here and now,” Paul wrote, “even in our trials and troubles. Taken in the right spirit these very things will give us patient endurance; this in turn will develop a mature character, and a character of this sort produces a steady hope, a hope that will never disappoint us” (Rom 5:3-5).
Scripture tells us that a mature character comes as a result of our troubles. But it is not the problems themselves that produce character. Mature character is developed when we accept trials and tribulations with the right attitude, and when we patiently endure them. We only can do this if we believe that God is working all things for the good, bringing us ever closer to the likeness of Christ. However slow this process of change seems, we’ll find joy if we have faith in God’s design for our lives.
Trials Prepare Us
Whenever I consider the role that trials and tribulations play in forming character, I think of a young couple I worked within our Eureka, California, church many years ago. During the four or five years they spent with us, Steve and Irene Barney allowed trials and tribulations to develop godly character and maturity in their lives. Their willingness to accept and overcome certain difficulties prepared them for a ministry in Germany where they worked for a number of years.
In the few months before they left for Germany, Steve was planting trees for a reforestation contractor in order to earn enough money to make the move across the Atlantic. Tree planting is extremely hard work. It involves long days and rugged, camp-style living conditions. But Steve and Irene willingly accepted this discomfort so they could earn the money to go to Germany and preach the gospel.
Day after day Steve went out to plant trees, while Irene cared for their three children, cooked for the other tree planters, and kept camp. Up to the hills and slopes, he went to earn money, not only to support his family but to raise hundreds of dollars so that they would not be a drain on the church in Munich.
At times they got discouraged; they were tired and weak, and they wondered if there might not be another way. But there wasn’t, so they went back to the slopes and worked. For months they struggled with snow, rain, sleet, and whatever else came down upon them.
Yet many Christians have the idea that they should always be smiling, outwardly happy and peaceful, calm and tranquil. Of course, we should be peaceful in the depths of our hearts and in our certainty of God’s will and purpose for our lives. But the surface waters of our lives may churn; they may even storm violently at times, even though deep within us is the calm of God’s Spirit.
So, as the surface waters in the lives of Steve and Irene churned and stormed, they kept going. Why? Because they had a goal. And they knew tribulation was producing mature Christ-like character in them. Instead of turning aside from what God had called them to do, they went back one more day, and one more day, and one more, until finally our church joyfully sent them to their destination.
As they worked among the German people and shared Jesus Christ, young German Christians would come to them and say, “Life is very hard. I’m going through such difficulties and trials.” In honest, godly sympathy, Steve and Irene could say, “We’ve been there before. God is faithful. He will take you through.”
Many Christians do not willingly accept the trials and testings that come to perfect them and help them grow to maturity. Instead, they say, “Oh God, please don’t let this happen to me. Don’t do this. Don’t ask this of me.” If we look back at some of the early disciples, however, we find a completely different attitude.
On one occasion, the apostles were jailed and then brought before the Jewish Council for interrogation because of the dramatic effect their preaching was having on Jerusalem. just before their release they were beaten to discourage them from continuing their efforts to spread Christianity. The Jewish leaders were angry and would have killed them if possible. Yet consider the disciples’ amazing response. “So they went on their way from the presence of the Council, rejoicing that they had been considered worthy to suffer shame for His name” (Acts 5:41). Surely these men understood the meaning of true happiness.
Though many of the early disciples knew the immeasurable value of sharing in Christ’s sufferings, this knowledge did not come naturally to them. They had to be taught and corrected by the Lord. An incident with James and John acts as a perfect example. It seems that these two disciples came to Jesus one day and asked him a personal favor. What follows is a paraphrase of their conversation in Mark 10:35-39:
But Jesus wasn’t talking about his water baptism. And he wasn’t talking about being baptized in the Holy Spirit either. Rather, he was speaking of the baptism of suffering. “But I have a baptism to undergo,” he had said, referring to his suffering and death on the cross, “and how distressed I am until it is accomplished” (Luke 12:50). Only later would James and John understand what Jesus meant. They, too, would experience their own baptism of suffering.
“But why did Jesus have to suffer?” we might ask. “Wasn’t he already perfect?” Scripture provides an amazing answer to this question. “Although he was a Son [to God], He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Heb 5:8). Jesus, the very author of our salvation, learned something from suffering. I’m not sure that we need to comprehend this fully. But if Jesus learned obedience to the Father by the things that he suffered — even though he was God in the flesh — how much more do we need to understand the value of trials and testing. “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bondservant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phi 2:5-8).
As we imitate Christ’s attitude, humbling ourselves and submitting to God, we exchange our own rights — the freedom to do what we want — for the privilege of obeying the Father. Consider Jesus’ attitude. Scripture tells us that he created the entire universe. He was and is now seated with the eternal Father. All the angels and heavenly beings worship him. All of this was rightfully his. And yet he willingly gave it up out of obedience to the Father’s will. What was the result? “Therefore also God highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow .. and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phi 2:9-11). Christ’s sacrifice extends real hope to us, for God never asks us to lay aside something without ultimately giving us something better in return. “Lord,” they asked, “we want you to do something for us.” “What is it?” he asked. “In your kingdom grant that one of us may sit on your right hand and the other on your left.” “You don’t know what you are asking,” Jesus replied. “Are you able to drink the cup I will drink or be baptized with the baptism with which I am baptized?”
Obviously unaware of what cup and baptism he spoke of they confidently replied yes. Perhaps they remembered his baptism. They pictured him walking into the Jordan River and being baptized. They remembered the beauty of the Holy Spirit descending from heaven upon him. So they said, “Yes, Lord.”
If you have not already done so, submit yourself fully and sincerely to God. Embrace the trials and tribulations that he allows to come your way. Accept them in the right attitude. Let them work the character of Christ into you. As a result, you will discover the joy of knowing Jesus in an ever-deepening personal relationship. And you will find the source of true and eternal happiness.
For Reflection and Discussion
1. Discuss how we as Christians can shift our search for happiness from “material things” to “spiritual things”.
2. The author says that “true happiness and personal fulfillment come from knowing the Lord Jesus Christ and being changed into his likeness.” How much has this been your experience in life? In what ways has this changed your life?
3. The author says: “The closer we draw to the Lord the less shaken we are by the trials of life.” Why is this true? 4. The author says that suffering, by itself, is not virtuous. Rather, if we suffer as the result of standing against sin and temptation, it is good because it can make us more like Jesus. How does this kind of suffering make us more like Christ?
5. Name some things that can potentially produce Christ-like character in you. Discuss how they can result in Christ-likeness.