We continued our “Engagement with God” series this past weekend at Bloom (listen to the talk here if you missed it) by diving deeper into 2 Corinthians 3:18:
And we, who with unveiled faces, all reflect (a newer version has ‘contemplate’, which I like for a whole bunch of reasons) the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
Paul makes the claim that transformation into the likeness of God happens as we gaze at/contemplate/reflect the “glory of the Lord”. Several verses later we will find out that this claim is “Christologically” grounded… that is to say, it is Christ himself who is the very “image/likeness” of God and who brings the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God” to us in his very face (see ch 4). That is to say, if we were looking for a theological “shape” for spiritual formation in this verse, we could probably say that transformation happens as the Holy Spirit directs our attention to Christ and then begins to mold us into his likeness, he who is the perfect “image” of God, which we sons of Adam were called to be but didn’t live up to (cf. Gen 1-3).
But more should be said, shouldn’t it? What could it possibly mean for us to take on the image and likeness of Jesus? Well I think to get at an answer to that question we need to take a broad look at the biblical story – a story that begins with another “son” of God, Adam, and his wife, rebelling against God, failing to offer God the obedience through which alone they would remain happy and free.
The Old Testament story is a tragic unfolding of this fateful step into rebellious, hardhearted self-will, and even when God does choose a people (Israel) to undo what Adam did, we quickly find out that they too are part of the problem. God repeatedly calls his people “stiff-necked” and “rebellious.” Through one of the prophets he declared of his people, “they greatly love to wander, they do not restrain their feet” (Jer 14:10). What a tragedy! – that the people who were called to be the solution in fact seemed to exacerbate and draw attention to the problem by their own failures. In fact, as we’ll learn later on in the New Testament, this was part of the deep mystery of Israel’s calling – “the law was given so that the trespass might increase” (Rom 5:20). Warped, self-willed humanity cannot follow God. St. Augustine said that the human will was incurvatus – which meant that it was turned in on itself and as such, couldn’t please God without being broken. Israel was Exhibit A of that truth.
So what is so remarkable then about the person of Jesus is simply that – that his will was never incurvatus. Here, in Jesus, we meet for the first time, and most perfectly, a true “Son” of God; One whose will was never turned in on the self but always and solely directed in obedient submission to his Father in heaven. Hence the voice from heaven at his baptism – “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3). Hence Jesus’ model prayer – “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, as in heaven so also on earth” (Matt 6). Hence Jesus’ repeated claims that “the Son can do nothing from himself; he can only do what he sees his Father in heaven doing. For whatever the Father does the Son also does” (John 5). Hence his obedient posture in the hours before his death – “but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me” (John 14), and then in the Garden of Gethsemane – “Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. ‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14). What Jesus models in his life from the beginning to the bitter end is simply this – an unremitting, perfect submission to the Father. He will hold nothing back. Here, finally, is a true “Son” of God, one who perfectly reflects the Divine will.
Seems to me, then, that for us to be transformed into the Image of this “Son” of God, who ever renders to the Father perfect, submitted obedience, is to have our selfish self-will fundamentally broken… it is to let the Spirit, who incorporates us into the person of Jesus Christ, kill off in us everything that is not submitted to God… to let him push us to total surrender and yeildedness to the Divine will. This is ground zero for spiritual formation. The Father will make us His obedience sons and daughters in and through The Son. That’s what we’re in for. Nothing less. This is the meat and potatoes of Engagement with God.
It occurs to me that there are a handful of things that we do – all of which are not bad in themselves and can be very wonderful – to keep this will-breaking work of God at bay in our lives:
- We get spiritual. We practice yoga and meditation. We go on solitude retreats and nature walks. We listen to beautiful music and drink in gorgeous surroundings in order to achieve a sense of peace, calm, and stability in our lives, and to give us a sense of connectedness to the Transcendent… but we never yield. We never repent. Spirituality is worthless without submission.
- We get religious. We stitch together an ornate web of ancient and modern religious practices in order to give us a sense of rootedness. We revel in our religious rhythms and systems, get serious and interested in theology, learn to pray in the way of the ancients… but we never yield. We never repent. Religion is worthless without submission.
- We get moral. We try to live our lives the best we can. We console ourselves with a truncated view of the Golden Rule (one in which the reality of God in Christ is really not required at all). We make sure our lives are basically upright… but in so doing we bracket out God. Or perhaps more accurately, “God” for us becomes a mere symbol of “trying to be the best person I can be.” But there is no Engagement with God. None. We are like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15). At home in the Father’s house… and yet just SO distant. Never yielding. Never repenting. Morality is a dangerous substitute for submission.
- We get involved (we get political). We tie our cart to our favorite global, humanitarian, or political cause. We get loud about it. We attend rallies. We shout down the opposition. We become righteous warriors against hunger, against greed and corruption, against Big Government, against bigotry and hatred… and on down the list. But here again we find that it is possible to be an “older brother” – so concerned with what is “right”, but ever so distant. Never yielding. Never repenting. Getting involved is a dangerous substitute for submission.
- We criticize “the system”. We excoriate the church for failing to live up to its calling. We protest pastors and church leaders who “just don’t get it”. We rail against governments that keep people down. We decry war. And perhaps our criticisms are not wide of the mark. Perhaps they in fact are right. But (and this again is where it’s all so sinister), all of our righteous indignation at “the system” may in fact be a way of keeping the work of God IN US at bay. A smug self-righteousness settles in, and whereas we think we’re lonely prophet, we’re really just the Pharisee – forever contended in his deflection… but never yielding. Never repenting. Criticizing the system is a dangerous substitute for submission.
Perhaps I have been overly harsh. But it seems obvious enough to me that the human heart is more often than not afraid of God. And so we construct elaborate methods for coming “so” far, but stopping short of complete surrender to the Divine Will… to the Spirit who will break us and then remake us in the Image of the Son, who lived to obey his Father. We get spiritual, we get religious, we get moral, we get involved, we criticize the system…
And all the while, we’re still holding tight.
It’s understandable… but tragic. Repentance, the shattering of our obstinacy, is hard and often very painful. But in the absence of a total yieldedness to God, what else is there for us? We’ve been saying all along that salvation is participation in the Triune life of God… but that participation is impossible so long as the Creature continues to hold tight to his rebel reign against the Creator. The flag must be raised. Our arms must be laid down. We’ll need to let him come in and plant the flag of his Reign in us. It is that or nothing. As C.S. Lewis so famously put it in The Problem of Pain:
George MacDonald, in a passage I cannot now find, represents God as saying to men, “You must be strong with my strength and blessed with my blessedness, for I have no other to give you.” That is the conclusion of the whole matter. God gives what He has, not what He has not. He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not. To be God – to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response – and to be miserable, those are the only three alternatives. If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows–the only food that any possible universe can ever grow–then we must starve eternally.
To share in the goodness and life of God in creaturely surrender – that is the only offer for happiness before us; that we would become sons and daughters of God in The Son, sharing in the joy and delight that the Son experiences as he Himself ever submits to his Father – that what is on the table. The question is always, will we be man or woman enough to take it?