In our yearlong look at “discipleship” (a word we Christians use to describe the journey we make to grow up spiritually), we’ve emphasized that there are three primary growth targets each Christian should aim at: Christlikeness, Fruitfulness, and Knowledge (based on verses such as Philippians 1:9–11 and Colossians 1:9–10.
What should I be doing with my life? you ask. Aim for these three things and your life will be well-lived. What should a church be doing to become healthy? Help its people grow in those three areas, and Jesus will be well pleased.
Take Christlikeness for example. 1 John 4:7–13 provides a concise tutorial for us on why we should make it our aim to grow in Christlikeness, and then how we can do it. Verses 7 and 8 provide the why.
Growing in Christlike love and holiness is the surest proof that we know and love God.
“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love.” — 1 John 4:7–8
It’s funny how so many Christians are confused by this. Look inside most churches, and you’d think that growing in knowledge is the #1 proof of spiritual maturity. But no, the greatest evidence for whether or not you know and love God is if Christlike love can be found in you. Anyone who does not love does not know God.
Growing in knowledge is important, of course. It’s one of our three Big Targets. But like the apostle Paul said, “if I understand all mysteries and all knowledge…but have not love, I am nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:2–3).
Paul can only be thinking of Jesus here who couldn’t have put it any more plainly when he said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples. If you have love for one another.” (John 13:35).
I heard about a young man recently from my old Connecticut church. Back in the day, he was one of our most gifted youth leaders, with great communication skills and a brilliant, creative mind. He had the Knowledge and Fruitfulness boxes checked off with a big fat marker, not to mention was married to a beautiful, faithful wife, with two precious, little kids. But now I’ve heard he’s left his wife for a pretty little thing that makes him feel all warm and fuzzy inside.
So much for all that Knowledge and Fruitfulness.
Because we are not saved by our works, many think that holiness is at best for extra credit. As if there are only two options here. Either holiness saves us, or holiness isn’t important at all.
But tell me, which of the Seven Deadly Sins would you want to let overrun your life? Would a life filled with greed get you where you want to be in life? Or a life filled with lust? How are things going to end up for you if you never learn to control your sexual desires? How about envy? Do you think happiness is found obsessively comparing yourself to others? Or anger? Boy, thank goodness I’ve got so much uncontrollable rage in me. People love being around me! Or, Thank goodness sloth has the better of me. Who has time being responsible and self-disciplined? Or gluttony, always letting my body call the shots and never being self-controlled. What about the deadliest sin, pride? It’s so much fun thinking I’m the center of the universe.
When you get to the end of your life, the most important question you should ask yourself is not: Was I happy, or rich, or successful, or popular? But did I overcome evil and grow in goodness?
The best books and the best movies show us what’s called the hero’s journey, which is not so much about whether the hero fulfilled the quest or not. Did he get the girl? Did he destroy the ring? Did she defeat the dragon? Did she find the treasure? The hero’s journey is rather: What kind of person did he or she become while on the quest?
For that reason, you don’t watch a movie series like “Lord of the Rings”, and say to yourself, “Too bad I’ll never have an adventure like that.” Guess what? You’re living that adventure right now! Because evil is around you (and in you also), and it wants to destroy you, and turn you into a wraith. Unless you destroy it first. So pick up your cross and follow Jesus, and you’ll get your adventure.
That former youth leader of mine is more than a hypocrite. Fool would be a better word. For he abandoned the lifelong moral journey the Lord summoned him to take, to grow in Christlike love and character. And now because of this, he will experience various shades of hell for the rest of his life, and subject his family to the same thing, unless he repents. (For even in great failure, the Lord’s grace and forgiveness remains an ocean available for him to run into. And all the rest of us as well.)
We’re not to live for happiness; we’re to live for holiness. And if we live for holiness, then guess what? We’ll receive happiness in the end as a prize. And more happiness than we ever thought imaginable.
Growing in Christlikeness is essential, not optional. It’s the point of everything. It’s the surest proof that you know and love God. And it’s why Jesus died for you, and why you are now to learn to live for him.
Bear Clifton, writer and screenwriter, is the pastor of BridgeWay Community Church in California, Maryland. His blogs, screenplays and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, “A Sparrow Could Fall”, and his latest — “Living Under The Cross”, a collection of essays on the Beatitudes — all available through Amazon.