Not too long ago, I was having lunch with a new attender of our church who was a relatively new follower of Christ. This man was enthralled and enchanted by the vision of a life of increasing formation into the likeness of Christ. He was embracing the truth that it is possible, over the course of a lifetime, to cooperate with the transforming work of the Spirit of God in our inner being so that we are actually, in the details of our lives, learning how to routinely and easily live as Jesus would if He were us. And in the middle of our lunch he said something like this, “OK, Kent, I’m in. I want that kind of life. I know what a mess I make of things when I’m going my own way, so I want this new transformed life. So just tell me what to do. What do I do first? What are the steps? I don’t want to just talk about it and wish for it, I want to live it, to experience it. So tell me what to do.”
I think that’s a fair question. While acknowledging that our spiritual formation is never a simple linear process of following some kind of one-size-fits-all curriculum, there are foundational things that we can do, understandings that we can embrace, that with the empowering grace of God will actually begin to transform us into the people God created us to become.
I was thinking of these things while I was at NAB’s Triennial Conference in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 2009. I had some time to myself and I was sitting alone at a restaurant reading Dallas Willard’s book, Knowing Christ Today. There was one chapter tucked away in the middle of the book, chapter six, that wonderfully addressed this question of how I can experience the very real transformation of my inner being into the likeness of Christ.
As I read that chapter and the various passages of scripture it referred to, I found myself being extraordinarily excited, almost giddy, at the idea that this kind of life is well within my grasp, within the grasp of each one of us. I remember calling my wife, Diane, from the restaurant and talking to her about it and what a wonderful description it was of an interactive, experientially real life with God Himself. “Diane,” I said, “if I just spend the rest of my life trying to live out this chapter in the details of my life, I think this would result in the best of all possible lives—an extraordinarily good life.”
This chapter lays out four simple ways of living, four life orientations that, if pursued intentionally and with diligence, can open us up to the experiential reality of God and His work of transformation. I’m scheduled to write these articles about once a month, so in this article I’m going to begin with just the first life pursuit. I’ll work out the others in the months ahead. But this gives us a month to focus and reflect on one truth at a time.
Let’s begin with the life orientation of humility.
In Matthew 18, Jesus’ disciples (who seemed obsessed with this question) asked Him who the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is. In response, He calls over this little child, places the child among them, and says this wonderful thing:
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Matthew 18:3–5 NIV
I love imagining this scene. His disciples are once again thinking about greatness and how they could be great themselves, and Jesus calls this little child over and places him or her in their midst and says, “Look at this child. She’s not powerful in the world. She’s dependent on others to survive. She knows she can’t make it on her own, and so she simply comes with her need for help, and expects to be helped.”
To be humble is to come to the point in our lives where we admit that we are not in charge of our lives but that we are in desperate need of God, that we are lost without Him. It’s not that we just need Him in order to go to heaven when we die, but we desperately need Him today. We are lost today. We need to be saved today. Until we come to this point, we will never experience the reality of the kingdom of God in our midst.
In Luke 18, Jesus told the story of two men who went to the temple to pray. One was a religious leader and the other a tax collector. The religious leader thanked God that he was not like the other sinners, or like this tax collector over there, and then gave a litany of all the religious things he did. But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but he beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Jesus said that only one of the men went home that day accepted by God. Then He said, “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 18:13–14).
Now, why is this so important; why is humility so foundational to our spiritual growth? I think it’s because only the humble person will allow God to be God in his or her own life. Without humility, we will spend our lives defending ourselves, trying to make sure we get our own way. This is precisely the reason why we do not have experiential knowledge of the kingdom of God—we are primarily interested in our own kingdom, not God’s. As I reflect on this and consider my own life, even in this past week, I can easily think of a dozen times where I have failed this humility test.
For most of us it will be a huge battle to learn how to humble ourselves, for we have a lifelong habit of exalting our own agenda, and our own way, ahead of God’s and others’. But, I have grown increasingly convinced that if we desire to experience an authentic transformation, it begins with humility.
NAB Vice President of Leadership Formation