Have you ever wondered why God did not make us perfect the moment we received Jesus? I have.
There was a time in my life when I would have given anything to be perfect. Or at least, less imperfect. I wanted to be a radical follower of Jesus, one who was open and bold about my faith in God, one willing to pay any price for the sake of the Kingdom, just as Jesus had. I not only wanted to be; I needed to be. For in my way of thinking, to be perfect was to be perfectly accepted.
But everywhere I turned, I found in myself something far less than perfect. I found a person more concerned with who I was in the eyes of complete strangers than who I was in the eyes of God. And nothing in me seemed able to change this undeniable fact.
I have spoken about my experience previously. But what I would like to do now is tie it in with our current discussion on Christian spirituality.
In our previous post, I mentioned a progression in the Christian life, from the outer courts of the tabernacle where Christian freedom reigns; to the outer sanctuary where obedience to the Law reigns; and lastly, to the inner sanctuary, where we meet with God and obey Him directly through the Spirit that dwells within us.
Now technically, these areas do not necessarily represent how we progress in the Christian life. They do, however, represent what might be called different parts of the Christian soul: The “outer courts” of our soul that does as it pleases, the “outer sanctuary” that seeks to be good, and the “inner sanctuary” that communes with, and surrenders to, the Spirit of God.
My problem was that I was attempting to live out the Christian life from the outer sanctuary. I had set before myself an ideal of what the Christian life should look like and was now trying to live up to that standard. The problem was not merely my desire to gain acceptance through good works; it was my attempt to operate from a part of the soul that could not possibly produce life.
We have already discussed that even as children of God, our only power over sin is life in the Spirit; that is, the inner sanctuary. The outer sanctuary, still under the dominion of sin, has no power to make us perfect. In fact, it only has the power to show us how imperfect we are. It is that part of us about which Jesus says, “Apart from me you can do nothing.”
But here’s the question: If God wants us to be perfect, why leave any part of the Christian soul powerless? Why not abolish the law of sin and death in us entirely, so that our perfection would be guaranteed — no matter what area of the soul we operated out of? Would that not better advance God’s goal of making us like Jesus (not to mention better advance His Kingdom on Earth)?
The answer to this question is, simply put, there is something more important to God than our moral perfection. God’s highest goal is not that I be perfect. Rather, it is that I be in perfect relationship with Him. Jesus put it this way:
I pray also for those who will believe in me through [the disciples’ ] message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17)
When we look at the life of Jesus, we do not find a man who is merely perfectly powerful or perfectly moral. We find a man who is perfectly in relationship with His Father. This is what God is attempting to restore in us.
And this has profound implications for properly understanding how life in the Spirit (that is, the Christian life) works. For one, it means that God’s chief aim in our lives is not getting us to be more like Jesus. It is getting us to become more like children. That is, He is more concerned with how we relate to Him than how we are living for Him.
That is why, in my case, God was not about to lift a finger to empower my efforts to be a radical follower of Jesus. Even though doing so would have satisfied His standard of holiness and advance His Kingdom, it was more important to Him that I knew that in my perfect failure, I was perfectly accepted.
But does this mean God is not interested in us becoming more like Jesus? Of course not. He is simply not interested in getting us to be more like Jesus. There is a big difference between God conforming us to the image of His Son (Romans 8:29) and us conforming ourselves to the image of His Son.
To confuse the two is, in my opinion, to grossly misunderstand how moral perfection in the Christian life works. According to Romans 7-8, it is only by the Spirit we can be perfected. And the Spirit is not a switch we turn on. Nor is it, according to the way of thinking by some, something we simply “tap into.” The Spirit is not a power source; the Spirit is a Person.
It is by relationship with God, then, that we become like God. And this is the counter-intuitive nature of life in the Spirit. We do not progress in the Christian life by improving ourselves; we progress in the Christian life by improving our relationship. Not by doing more for God, or even coming to know more about God, but by coming to know God.
But this is really not a new development in God’s relationship with mankind. At the Fall, the first casualty was not moral perfection; it was intimacy. Mankind’s act of rebellion was a moral transgression but equally a relational transgression. Adam and Eve believed a lie that caused them to break trust with God and consequently intimacy with God, exercising their own independence from God. What followed was our intellectual, physical and moral degradation.
Our moral failure before the Law, then, is a reflection of our loss of intimacy with God. It is only by restoring intimacy with God — who is the source of all power, all life, and all holiness and virtue — that we become like Him.
This is why our efforts in the outer sanctuary can never achieve moral perfection. It is because moral perfection can never be achieved by mankind apart from intimate connection with God, the very same intimate connection Jesus demonstrated.
It also explains why the outer sanctuary and even the outer courts exist. They were not created by God; they were created by us. They mark the distance between ourselves and God. Whether attempting to be like God or do as we wish, they represent our desire to remain independent — maintain a comfortable distance — from God.
As children of God, we can only be denied the benefits of God’s grace and mercy by remaining in the outer courts or outer sanctuary; that is, by rejecting His intimacy. It is only by refusing to become like a child that we fail to realize the benefits of a child.
God is not looking for radical followers; He is looking for radical relationships. In the next few posts, we shall explore in practical terms what this means for the Christian soul.
Photo by Robert Collins (no relation)