The post is part of series looking at the image of God. We’ve seen that in our culture reality is malleable and desire is sovereign. What does the Bible make of this?
To see how counter-cultural the gospel has become consider Colossians 3:5-6: ‘Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.’ Paul is describing unrestrained sexual expression, desire, consumption – everything our culture celebrates. But Paul says it’s immoral, evil and idolatrous.
‘Know thyself’ has become ‘be yourself’, even ‘create yourself’. Our generation attempts to be self-ruling, self-creating and self-evaluating. We are our own king (self-ruling), our own creator (self-made), our own judge (self-evaluating): our own king, creator and judge – that’s idolatry!
It’s not desire itself is wrong. God is not a kill-joy who wants to stamp on our desires. Desire is part of what it means to be human. The problem is after humanity’s fall into sin our desires have become dis-ordered. They are mis-aligned with reality. So desire itself is no longer a good indicator of who we are or how we should live. We still have good desires, but we also have evil desires which do not lead to human flourishing.
I don’t drink coffee. The last time a drank a coffee I felt like my brain was firing. But it firing in different directions all at the same time. That’s what’s happened to human desires. The fall of humanity did not switch our desires on for the first time. They were already there. But now our desires are firing in different directions, sometimes contrary directions, sometimes harmful directions.
Today nearly all desires are seen as good.
But pursuing bad desires does not enable us to be the people we were made to be. They’re akin to a fish desiring to walk on the land. That desire will not lead to flourishing fish! God has not arbitrarily decided to punish some desires and not others. He didn’t look down from heaven and say, ‘That look fun – I better make a law against it’! Evil desires are evil because they’re not consistent with who God made us to be.
I’m making the case for self-denial and self-restraint. And I need to do that because self-denial and self-restraint have become counter-cultural.
When someone becomes a Christian they don’t simply change their opinions. Nor are they simply forgiven by God – though that, of course, is true. Paul’s view is much more radical than this. Paul says that when someone becomes a Christian they die and rise again: ‘You have died with Christ … you have been raised with Christ.’ This is what’s symbolised in baptism (whenever and however it takes place) (Romans 6:1-5). Baptism is like a funeral. How do we escape humanity trapped in sin and under judgment? Our old self (indebted and enslaved) dies and we rise to live new lives (free from the debt of sin and free from the slavery of sin).
Colossians 3:3-4 says: ‘For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also with appear with him in glory.’ We have died and risen to new life. But our new resurrection life is hidden. Christians are not glowing super-beings who float around free from the problems of this world. Our bodies are still subject to decay. But when Christ returns our glorious new life will ‘appear’. It will be evident as we receive glorious resurrection bodies.
So is resurrection just a future reality? No, we have resurrection life now. But it’s a hidden life. It’s not yet revealed in all its glory. So how does it appear? How do you spot a Christian? If it’s not because they glow with spiritual energy, how can you spot them?
The answer is there is verse 5 of Colossians 3: ‘Put to death’. Our new life is revealed in death. Our resurrection life is revealed as we put to death evil desires. That’s how you spot people with resurrection life: they’re the people denying themselves, putting others first, making sacrifices for Christ.
It’s not just that we die to self now and then one day we will receive life. It’s the other way round. We’ve already been raised with Christ. We’ve already received new life. How else is anyone going to die to self? Nothing is more contrary to the instincts of the old humanity. It’s only because we have received new spiritual life through faith in Christ that we want to and are able to die to self.
My friend Andrew has a severely handicapped daughter. It means he can’t stay away from home overnight. It means many hours of unrewarded patience and sacrifice. But quietly he gets on with it. He’s a nobody in our celebrity culture. But in the kingdom of God he’s a hero.
Does the pursuit of self-fulfilment make us happy?
You may be thinking, ‘All this talk of self-denial doesn’t sound much fun. It doesn’t sound like the good life.’ But here’s where things gets surprising. Yankelovich’s instinct was that the move to self-fulfilment would be liberating. But he admits the evidence shows the opposite. After 3,000 in-depth interviews and many more questionnaires, he concedes that the search for self-fulfilment has been futile.
If life is about self-fulfilment then it’s only as good as your last experience. If it’s about self-expression then it’s only as good as your last performance. It’s all precarious and we’re all insecure. So our generation suffers far more from depression, anxiety, mental disorders.
Or let’s return to Christopher West’s image of sexual desire as rocket fuel launching us beyond the stars. He asks, ‘What would happen if the engines of that rocket became inverted, pointing us back only upon ourselves and no longer toward the stars? Launch that rocket and the result is a massive blast of self-destruction.’ (Christopher West, Theology of the Body for Beginners, Ascension Press, 2009, Kindle Location 1001.) David Wells explains:
Whereas the older kind of success was durable, this is not. This is fleeting. It is dependent not on its own quality but on the perceptions of others. Perceptions, however, are fickle, changing, quickly superseded, quickly forgotten. Success today, therefore, has to be constantly renewed, burnished, updated, recast, reinvigorated, made even more current, made freshly appealing, dressed up afresh, and reasserted. This is an on-going project, and if it does not go on, our success begins to evaporate. (David Wells, The Courage to be Protestant, IVP, 2008, 152.)
Or think of it like this. Think of the Christians you know who are most preoccupied with themselves, their desires, their status. And then think of the Christians you know who are most preoccupied with serving others and God’s glory. Who are the happiest?
If life is about developing character and virtue then it has substance. You can find joy in the routine. We were made in God’s image to reflect God’s glory in his world. And Paul ends this section in verse 17 of Colossians 3 by saying whatever you do, do it in God’s name for God’s glory. Everything we do becomes an opportunity for a true self-realisation through self-giving. We gain our lives by losing our lives – including in the routine and everyday.
Jesus said, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.’ (Mark 8:34-35) Yes, this is eschatological (as Mark 8:38 makes clear). But it begins now. Those who live for themselves are relationally and emotionally impoverished. Those who live for Christ and for others are rich beyond wealth.
Our relentless desire for quite pleasures has is like a diet of whipped cream and sugar icing. If that’s all you ever eat then you’ll get ill. That’s our culture. We’ve over-dosed on self-fulfilment and now we feel sick. But virtue is deeply nourishing for the soul. It creates lasting contentment and joy.
Yes, following Christ does mean suffering and sacrifice. But we’re also being confirmed to reality. We’re becoming truly human. We’re living life as it is meant to be lived.