I was coaching my 13 year old son this week through the excruciating task of writing a research paper. The topic was the Transfiguration of Christ. It's a familiar story to me, but having never really stopped and meditated on the intricate elements, I had not received those deeply poignant and life changing messages woven within it. I found it interesting that six days before He allowed His veil of humanity to be lifted to show the disciples His divine glory, He had spoken of suffering. After Jesus speaks of His impending death and resurrection, Peter pulls Him aside to rebuke Him. Jesus, in turn, rebukes Peter saying: "You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." Later, on the mountain, as Jesus appears in His glory with Moses and Elijah by his side, Peter comes up with the great idea of building three shelters. Why? He probably wanted to go ahead and house this promised glory now and avoid the sufferings Jesus had spoken of. Peter just didn't seem to be on board with the whole suffering thing, yet Christ had also said: "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."
I begin to think about Jesus modeling suffering for us and what this means to me. I also begin to question if I, like Peter, want to avoid all of the suffering as well! How do I come after Jesus, deny myself, and take up my cross? Many Christians believe that Christ's call to deny ourselves means that we should not spend time trying to understand what is happening inside us. But this approach requires that we deny many things inside ourselves. A few years ago a deep, insatiable longing for something deeper in my life continued resurfacing until I could no longer ignore it. I tried many things to numb or fill up the longing. I related to people in a way that assured I felt good about myself. I spent a lot of energy insuring that my appearance, my image, and my accomplishments were recognized and valued by others. I had no freedom in relationships to really be able to love others. I was only capable of using them to fend off my insecurities. I certainly never wanted anyone to see my darkest parts of my heart. They may run away and certainly then I would be rejected. So I hid. But something inside me kept screaming. That something was God calling me to something more. He was calling me to "Life." He was revealing to me true intimacy and true purpose, not the counterfeit life I had created for myself. As I examined my current life, I began to see the effects - the harm done to me by living in a fallen world, a world full of sinful people. My parents had not loved me perfectly. My friends had not loved me perfectly. In fact, nobody on this whole planet had loved me unconditionally or completely and it had wounded me. I, in response, also being a sinful being, had learned some subtle and some not so subtle relational ways of dealing with this pain. As God made me aware of these wounds and the ways in which I had responded, He lovingly began to heal and restore these places in my heart. He took me by the hand, guided me into some painful memories, and then began mending. My willingness to do the self-examination was the beginning of the suffering. As the denied realities were exposed and healed, I then had to make a choice to surrender and let go of the old protective ways of relating. This was the next part in the process of suffering. I had a choice whether to choose independence (relying on my own resources for life), or dependence (relying on God to fulfill my desires). This is a choice that I still have to make every day of my life.
Mike Mason expresses the process beautifully:
"When the self knows that it is already accepted, unconditionally, there is no need anymore for it to preoccupy itself with advancing its own claims or with trying to create the conditions that might make it worthy of being loved. As long as the self is consumed in the struggle to make itself lovely, it cannot love. First it must come to the end of its own resources, for the power to love derives purely and solely from the knowledge that one is already loved in return. The energy for love flows not out of any effort, but simply from being loved."
This was the unconditional love I longed for. As I receive this love from God more and more, I realize that I don't have to hide those dark places in my heart anymore. Instead, I rejoice in the fact that I must depend on God for my strength. I can't love others with my own resources! If I could, I wouldn't need the cross!
Andreas Ebert writes:
"God saves humanity not by punishing it but by restoring it! We overcome evil not by a frontal and heroic attack, but by a humble letting go that always feels first like losing. Christianity is probably the only religion in the world that teaches us, from the very cross, how to win by losing."
So, how do I define God-exalting? It's following the example Christ set before us. The Transfiguration was an encouragement and a glimpse of Christ's glory. The cross was the fulfillment of God's purpose for his life...this was His true glory. Our glory is the image of God that we reflect, so as we suffer for the purpose of loving others...dying to self for the sake of others, this is God-exalting. "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and the sake of the gospel will save it." - Mark 8:34-36
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