Last week I wrote about surrender of my personal desires in pursuit of Jesus’ example. This week I want to talk about surrendering who I am — my very self-identity, on all levels — to Jesus the Christ as integral to being a disciple.
My modest proposal focuses on two matters. The first is that biblical authority (I have written more about it here) does not consist only in Scripture’s teaching us what to think, but also in teaching us how to think, and then to do. This highlights a common misconception about what biblical authority implies, the expectation that by virtue of divine inspiration, the biblical texts have been designed by God to function primarily as some sort of instruction book. This is problematic on many levels, including that it misses the point of what the Scriptures teach clearly about the ministry of the Spirit to lead Christians into truth. The Spirit’s role in biblical interpretation is essential, but it is only a small slice of the Spirit’s ministry. And it is true that Christians will read biblical texts and derive fairly direct guidance from biblical authors for their contemporary questions. This results not from the universal validity of literal interpretation, but rather from the perception of similarities between a biblical context and the reader’s context. No more, no less. The conclusions derived are often perfectly faithful and valid. But such is not always the case.
Often, Scripture tells us stories that we need to allow to re-frame our thinking so that we are asking appropriate questions. Recall that Jesus frequently modelled the practice of answering questions not with answers, but with questions. Jesus was not being evasive. Rather, he was re-framing the conversation to help guide an individual’s thinking toward faithfulness. When we allow Scripture, through the Spirit, to guide us in this way, we are allowing Scripture to interpret us. We are allowing the light of biblical witness to shine into our lives, reveal our hearts, and invite us to yield ourselves in order to become more like Jesus the Christ. This is as important as it is for us to interpret it. This is at the heart of submitting to biblical authority. It is a continual reminder that we do not have a comprehensive grasp of the issues and problems, to say nothing of their resolution.
The second part of my proposal is that Christian discipleship, as a matter of imitating Jesus the Christ, entails a complete surrender of oneself, including one’s identity. If this seems unproblematic, then what is in view has not been grasped thoroughly. Jesus’ surrender to the Father meant that in light of his profound awareness of who the Father is, he laid aside everything, including his freedom to choose his identity or the course of his life. Why? So that he could fully embrace obedience to the Father. Jesus was not a hero intended to cause us to marvel. Jesus is the pattern for us to follow, full stop. What he did, we are to do. Let that sink in.
As is the case in much popular Christianity, this concept is frequently trivialized into near oblivion by people who make modest lifestyle changes and then believed they have engaged self-sacrifice in a Christ-like way. Or some trivial depiction of identity is added, slapdash, to one’s existing self-perception like a cheap coat of paint. It does not work that way. Identity is surrendered and changed wholesale by God from within. And it does not happen easily or without cost.
Christ-like obedience has two profound dimensions we need to name. First, particular personal desires are not a prerequisite to faithful obedience. Put simply, God is not overly concerned about what you want. In fact, a basic premise of biblical teaching about human desires is that faithful obedience is the prerequisite to the granting of faithful desires, not the other way around. So if you are waiting until you feel led to do something, or feel comfortable about it, you are asking the wrong question. If doesn’t matter if you’re torn up inside. If you don’t obey, you’re unfaithful.
The other profound dimension is that one’s personal identity is not something predetermined, something fixed and immutable that God simply has to work with, or around. Not only things like intelligence and personality, but also characteristics like ethnicity, language, gender, and sexuality are traits that God can mould, change, transform, or change to suit God’s purposes. Identity is something that God gives, because God creates it. This is why the past lives of biblical heroes were immaterial — because God chose to remake those people in line with God’s purposes. This is why biblical texts repeatedly use the metaphor of God as divine potter and God’s people as clay, to be shaped and reshaped as God chooses. For the lump of clay to question the process would be foolishness. Correspondingly, for God’s people to question either why they are as they are, or what God is making them to be, serves no good purpose.
What does this mean for us in relation to our genders? Our sexualities? It means that what we possess when we come to Christ is the beginning, not the end. It means that no one — no one — comes to Christ whole. Let there never be another reference to straight people and sinful people, as though some are not in need of grace. All are broken. All are sinners. All are in process, and sexual sins of any kind are all the same to God. In light of the composition of the average church, far more needs to be said about divorce, marital infidelities of many kinds, and sex outside the covenant of marriage — of the self-centredeness that is at the root of all of these varieties of sin — than about the forms of sexual sin that are the common targets of the self-righteous.
God doesn’t care a great deal who you are, because God is more concerned about who you are intended to be in Christ. God doesn’t owe any of us anything, and what we hold dear is not worth anything in comparison to what God wants to do in us anyway. In short, it’s not really about what you want; if you surrender, your faithfulness will lead to God having control of your wants so that you can follow faithfully in obedience, and your desires will become conformed to the pattern of Christ. Are you same-sex attracted? Fine. Sexual attraction is normal. Same-sex attraction does not seem to me to offer the same opportunities for intimacy that attraction toward the opposite sex does, but heterosexual attraction is not a free-for-all, and Christians need to be clearer about this. Feelings of attraction are just that — feelings. Deciding what to do with them is the deciding factor, and that decision needs to be made in light of what faithfulness to the example of Christ requires.
Let’s think in terms of something different. Are you an alcoholic? Okay. Are you tempted to gamble to excess? Whatever. Are you tempted to cheat on your partner? Understood. Everyone has issues. Everyone has temptations. Temptations are not sin. But everyone is called to obey. That is far easier to say than to do — I get it. But the call remains.
Moreover, the call to discipleship negates our preconceptions about who can come into the community of faith. Discipleship is about drawing near to Jesus in response to the Spirit’s prompting. Those who are inclined to exclude some based on presumptions of particular guilt should recall Jesus’ warning in Luke 17 about those who hinder the faith of others: “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.” (Luke 17:2–3 NIV)
What do we conclude at the end of all of this? First, we need to remember that God’s plan for believers is that they surrender all. What people are, or have been, or think they are, has no bearing on God’s will. Gregory of Nazianzus said of Jesus’ incarnation that “that which He has not assumed He has not healed.” The corollary of this is that all of what we are, Jesus the Christ has assumed, and God can heal it. This means that a life lived in obedience to the call of Christ is possible. Whether we are excited about it or not is irrelevant.
We need also to remind ourselves that where we are on the road to discipleship is less important than the direction we are moving. If we expect that perfect holiness is the requirement for a place in the body of Christ — that unity is synonymous with uniformity — then what we are creating is not the community of the sanctified, it is the community of the sanctimonious. Some Mennonite Brethren seem to think that they are particularly susceptible to this by virtue of their past legalism. MBs do have a history of legalism, but so do other groups, and honest self-reflection is a better remedy than self-flagellation.
The posture toward those who harbour doubts and concerns should be openness and care rather than condemnation. That this need be repeated is a profound indictment of Christian communities. Christian faith is a lived faith. It is perpetuated not in unquestioning inner assent to doctrinal principles, but rather to public and mutual commitment to living in accord with the agreed-upon commitments of the Christian community. As we walk together, we help each other, hold one another accountable, pick one another up when we fall (and we all fall), and help one another live the glory of the kingdom that will ultimately be revealed fully.
I have shared fellowship with not only LGBTQ+ people, but also adulterers, liars, gossips, and murderers (yes, more than one). No one is excluded. The call of Jesus the Christ is extended to each one. Who we are when we arrive simply highlights the wonder of the work God does in our lives to make us what we were always intended to be. Rather than ask ourselves whether we are straight, gay, bi, or something else — defining our identities in terms of something that derives from us — why not define ourselves in terms of what Christ is doing in us, and ask instead what needs to change to allow that to happen? The call to surrender ourselves — our bodies, our wills, our minds — is for each of us.