Some time ago I came to real­ize that I did not love the peo­ple next door. They were, by any stan­dards, dan­ger­ous and unpleas­ant peo­ple — ex-bik­ers who made their liv­ing sell­ing drugs.

They had nev­er tried to harm my fam­i­ly, but the con­stant traf­fic of peo­ple buy­ing drugs, a num­ber of whom sat in the yard while shoot­ing up, began to wear down my patience. As I brood­ed over them one day, indulging my irri­ta­tion, the Lord helped me see that I real­ly had no love for them at all, that after suf­fer­ing” from them for sev­er­al years I would secret­ly be hap­py if they died so that we could just be rid of them. I real­ized how lit­tle I tru­ly cared for near­ly all the peo­ple I dealt with through the day, even when on reli­gious busi­ness.” I had to admit that I had nev­er earnest­ly sought to be pos­sessed by God’s kind of love, to become more like Jesus. Now it was time to seek.

But is it pos­si­ble to be like Jesus? Can we actu­al­ly have the char­ac­ter of the heav­en­ly Father? We know God shows sin­cere love for every­one and is con­sis­tent­ly kind to even the ungrate­ful. Jesus like­wise showed him­self to be mer­ci­ful, freely for­gave injuries, and was glad sim­ply to give, expect­ing noth­ing back.

It is pos­si­ble, I now believe, to put on the Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 13:14). Ordi­nary peo­ple in com­mon sur­round­ings can live from the abun­dance of God’s king­dom, let­ting the spir­it and the actions of Jesus be the nat­ur­al out­flow from their lives. The tree” can be made good, and the fruit will then be good as a mat­ter of course (Matt. 12:33). This new life God imparts involves both a goal and a method.

His Heart, Our Heart

As dis­ci­ples (lit­er­al­ly stu­dents) of Jesus, our goal is to learn to be like him. We begin by trust­ing him to receive us as we are. But our con­fi­dence in him leads us toward the same kind of faith he had, a faith that made it pos­si­ble for him to act as he did. Jesus’ faith was root­ed in his gospel of heav­en’s rule, the good news of the king­dom of heav­en” (Matt. 4:17).

Heav­en is a deeply sig­nif­i­cant word. From Abra­ham (Gen. 24:7) onward, it sig­ni­fied to the peo­ple of Israel the direct avail­abil­i­ty of God to his chil­dren, as well as his suprema­cy over all that affects us. From heav­en, the eyes of the LORD are toward the right­eous, and his ears toward their cry” (Ps. 34:15; also 1 Pet. 3:12).

Jesus was con­cerned to pass on to his fol­low­ers this real­i­ty of heav­en’s rule that under­gird­ed his life. When he sent his twelve friends out on their first mis­sion, he told them it was like send­ing sheep in the midst of wolves.” It would be but­ter­flies against machine guns. Nev­er­the­less — imag­ine sheep being told this! — there was no need for them to fear. Two spar­rows cost a pen­ny. Yet not one falls upon the earth with­out your Father’s will.” Heav­en is so close that even the hairs on our heads are num­bered. Fear not,” Jesus tells us, you are of more val­ue than many spar­rows” (Matt. 10:16, 29 – 31).

Avoid­ing Drea­ry Substitutes

Liv­ing under the gov­er­nance of heav­en frees and empow­ers us to love as God loves. But out­side the safe­ty and suf­fi­cien­cy of heav­en’s rule, we are too fright­ened and angry to real­ly love oth­ers, or even our­selves, and so we arrange our drea­ry sub­sti­tutes. A con­tem­po­rary word­ing of Jesus’ com­par­i­son of God’s kind of love, agapē, and what nor­mal­ly pass­es for love might be: What’s so great if you love those who love you? Ter­ror­ists do that! If that’s all your love’ amounts to, God cer­tain­ly is not involved. Or sup­pose you are friend­ly to our kind of peo­ple.’ So is the Mafia!” (Matt. 5:46 – 47).

Now reflect: Has your heart gone out in gen­er­ous bless­ing to some­one who has insult­ed or humil­i­at­ed you? Can you work with­out thought of gain for the well-being of some­one who open­ly despis­es you, maybe has told you to drop dead? Are you enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly pulling for the suc­cess of some­one com­pet­ing with you for favor, posi­tion, or finan­cial gain?

A much-used door­mat says: Wel­come, friends!” Could yours also gen­uine­ly wel­come ene­mies? When you lend a dress, a stereo, a car, or some tools or books, are you able to release them with no hope of see­ing them again as Luke 6:35 sug­gests we should? I do a good bit of my own mechan­i­cal and car­pen­try work, and I have a good sup­ply of tools — which neigh­bors soon dis­cov­er. I am glad for oppor­tu­ni­ties to lend a chain saw, an ax, a cres­cent wrench, or pli­ers, for I see them as a true spir­i­tu­al exer­cise in aban­don­ment to God. I am learn­ing to love oth­ers in these lit­tle things that tru­ly matter.

The Gold­en Triangle

If this life of faith and love from heav­en is the goal of the dis­ci­ple of Jesus, the nat­ur­al ful­fill­ment of the new life in Christ, how can we enter into it? While it is in one sense a result of God’s pres­ence with­in us, the New Tes­ta­ment also describes a process behind our putting on” the Lord Jesus Christ. It is repeat­ed­ly dis­cussed in the Bible under three essen­tial aspects, each insep­a­ra­ble from the oth­er, all inter­re­lat­ed. This process could be called the gold­en tri­an­gle” of spir­i­tu­al trans­for­ma­tion, for it is as pre­cious as gold to the dis­ci­ple, and each of its aspects is as essen­tial to the whole as three sides are to a triangle.

One aspect or side of our tri­an­gle is the faith­ful accep­tance of every­day prob­lems. By endur­ing tri­als with patience we can reach an assur­ance of the full­ness of heav­en’s rule in our lives.

James, the Lord’s broth­er, began his mes­sage to the church by instruct­ing us to be supreme­ly hap­py” when trou­bles come upon us: When all kinds of tri­als and temp­ta­tions crowd into your lives, my broth­ers, don’t resent them as intrud­ers, but wel­come them as friends! Real­ize that they come to test your faith and to pro­duce in you the qual­i­ty of endurance” (1:2 – 3, Phillips). When endurance or patience has been giv­en full play in the details of day-to-day exis­tence, it will make us per­fect and com­plete, lack­ing in noth­ing” (v. 4).

Cer­tain­ly James learned this from Jesus, his old­er broth­er, dur­ing more than 20 years of some­times ran­corous fam­i­ly life (John 7:2 – 8). We must nev­er for­get that for most of his life Jesus was what we today would call a blue-col­lar work­er, a trades­man, an inde­pen­dent con­trac­tor. His hands had cal­lus­es from using the first-cen­tu­ry equiv­a­lents of ham­mers, drills, axes, saws and planes. He was known in his vil­lage sim­ply as the carpenter.”

There James saw him prac­tice all he lat­er preached. We know what it is like to do busi­ness with the pub­lic.” So did Jesus. Every sin­gle thing that Jesus taught us to do was some­thing he had put into dai­ly prac­tice. In the tri­als of his every­day exis­tence, in fam­i­ly and vil­lage life, he ver­i­fied the suf­fi­cien­cy of God’s care for those who sim­ply trust him and obey him. And, at least in ret­ro­spect, James under­stood. Once he saw who his old­er broth­er real­ly was, he real­ized the pow­er of patience in the events of dai­ly life — man­i­fest­ed above all by an inof­fen­sive tongue (James 3:2) — as the path in which God’s char­ac­ter is ful­filled in our lives.

Open­ing Our Lives to the Spirit

The sec­ond side of our tri­an­gle is inter­ac­tion with God’s Spir­it in and around us. As Paul points out, the Spir­it allows us to walk in” the Spir­it (Gal. 5:25). This all-pow­er­ful, cre­ative per­son­al­i­ty, the promised strength­en­er,” the par­a­clete of John 14, gen­tly awaits our invi­ta­tion to him to act upon us, with us and for us.

The pres­ence of the Holy Spir­it can always be rec­og­nized by the way he moves us toward what Jesus would be and do (John 16:7 – 15). When we inward­ly expe­ri­ence the heav­en­ly sweet­ness and pow­er of life — the love, joy, and peace — that Jesus knew, that is the work of the Spir­it in us.

Out­ward­ly, life in the Spir­it man­i­fests itself in two ways. Gifts of the Spir­it will enable us to per­form some spe­cif­ic func­tion — such as ser­vice or heal­ing or lead­ing wor­ship — with effects clear­ly beyond those of our own mak­ing. These gifts serve God’s pur­pos­es among his peo­ple, but they do not nec­es­sar­i­ly sig­ni­fy the state of our heart.

The fruit of the Spir­it, by con­trast, give a sure sign of trans­formed char­ac­ter. When our deep­est atti­tudes and dis­po­si­tions are those of Jesus, it is because we have learned to let the Spir­it fos­ter his life in us. Paul con­fessed: I have been cru­ci­fied with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). The out­come of Christ liv­ing with­in us through the Spir­it is fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kind­ness, good­ness, faith­ful­ness, gen­tle­ness and self-con­trol (Gal. 5:22 – 23).

Both gifts and fruit are the result, not the real­i­ty of the Spir­it’s pres­ence in our lives. What brings about our trans­formation into Christ­like­ness is our direct, per­son­al inter­ac­tion with Christ through the Spir­it. The Spir­it makes Christ present to us and draws us toward his like­ness. It is as we thus behold the glo­ry of the Lord” that we are con­stant­ly trans­formed into the same image from glo­ry to glo­ry, just as from the Lord, the Spir­it” (2 Cor. 3:18NASB).

The Dis­ci­plines of Christlikeness

The third side of our tri­an­gle is made up of spir­i­tu­al dis­ci­plines. These are spe­cial activ­i­ties, many engaged in by Jesus him­self, such as soli­tude and study, ser­vice and secre­cy, fast­ing and wor­ship. They are ways in which we under­take to fol­low the New Tes­ta­ment man­date to put to death or make no pro­vi­sion for” the mere­ly earth­ly aspects of our lives and to put on the new per­son (Col. 3).

The empha­sis in this dimen­sion of spir­i­tu­al trans­for­ma­tion is upon our efforts. True, we are giv­en much, and with­out grace we can do noth­ing; but our action is also required. Try your hard­est,” Peter directs us (2 Pet. 1:5, NEB). We are to add virtue to our faith, knowl­edge to our virtue, self-con­trol to our knowl­edge, patience to our self­-con­trol, god­like­ness to our patience, broth­er­ly love to our god­like­ness, and agapē to our broth­er­ly love (vv. 5 – 7).

In Colos­sians 3, Paul urges us as the elect of God, holy and beloved” to renew our inner selves with organs (“bow­els” in KJV) of mer­cy, kind­ness, hum­ble­ness of mind, meek­ness, long-suf­fer­ing, for­bear­ance, for­give­ness, and agapē (vv. 12 – 14). We should not only want to be mer­ci­ful, kind, unas­sum­ing, and patient per­sons, we are also to make plans to become so. We are to find out, that is, what pre­vents and what pro­motes mer­ci­ful­ness and kind­ness and patience in our souls, and we are to remove hin­drances to them as much as pos­si­ble, care­ful­ly sub­sti­tut­ing that which assists Christlikeness.

Many well-mean­ing peo­ple, to give an exam­ple, can­not suc­ceed in being kind because they are too rushed to get things done. Haste has wor­ry, fear, and anger as close asso­ciates; it is a dead­ly ene­my of kind­ness, and hence of love. If this is our prob­lem, we may be great­ly helped by a day’s retreat into soli­tude and silence, where we will dis­cov­er that the world sur­vives even though we are inac­tive. There we might prayer­ful­ly med­i­tate to see clear­ly the dam­age done by our unkind­ness, and hon­est­ly com­pare it to what, if any­thing, is real­ly gained by our hur­ry. We will come to under­stand that for the must part out hur­ry is real­ly based upon pride, self-impor­tance, fear, and lack of faith, and rarely upon the pro­duc­tion of any­thing of true val­ue for anyone.

Per­haps we will end up mak­ing plans to pray dai­ly for the peo­ple with whom we deal reg­u­lar­ly. Or we may resolve to ask asso­ciates for for­give­ness for past injuries. What­ev­er comes of such prayer­ful reflec­tion, we may be absolute­ly sure that our lives will nev­er be the same, and that we will enjoy a far greater rich­ness of God’s real­i­ty in our lives.

In gen­er­al, then, we put on” the new per­son by reg­u­lar activ­i­ties that are in our pow­er, and we become what we could not be by direct effort. If we take note of and fol­low Jesus in what he did when he was not min­is­ter­ing or teach­ing, we will find our­selves led and enabled to behave as he did when he was on the spot.”

The sin­gle most obvi­ous trait of those who pro­fess Christ but do not grow into Christ­like­ness is their refusal to take the rea­son­able and time-test­ed mea­sures for spir­i­tu­al growth. I almost nev­er meet some­one in spir­i­tu­al cold­ness, per­plex­i­ty, and dis­tress who is reg­u­lar in the use of those spir­i­tu­al exer­cis­es that will be obvi­ous to any­one famil­iar with the con­tents of the New Testament.

Like Stars in a Dark World

The three sides of the gold­en tri­an­gle of spir­i­tu­al trans­for­ma­tion belong togeth­er. No one of the three will give us a heart like Christ’s with­out the oth­er two. None can take the place of any oth­er. Yet each, con­nect­ed to the oth­ers, will cer­tain­ly bring us to ever-increas­ing Christlikeness.

In Philip­pi­ans 2 the apos­tle draws all three togeth­er in one grand state­ment: You must work out your own sal­va­tion in fear and trem­bling; for it is God who works in you, inspir­ing both the will and the deed, for his own cho­sen pur­pose. Do all you have to do with­out com­plaint or wran­gling. Show your­selves guile­less and above reproach, fault­less chil­dren of God in a warped and crooked gen­er­a­tion, in which you shine like stars in a dark world” (vv. 12 – 15NEB).

When we accept moment-to-moment events and tribu­la­tions as the place where we receive God’s pro­vi­sion, we patient­ly antic­i­pate the action of his Spir­it in our lives. In hope we do our best to find the ways in which our inner self can take on the char­ac­ter of the chil­dren of the High­est. This is the path of rad­i­cal change — change suf­fi­cient to meet the needs of the world and pre­pare a peo­ple to be the habi­ta­tion of God.

Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished in Chris­tian­i­ty Today, August 20, 1990. Avail­able in The Great Omis­sion, San Fran­cis­co: Harper­Collins, 2006

We grate­ful­ly acknowl­edge Dal­las Willard’s web­site for per­mis­sion to use this article.

Pho­to by Adam Neu­mann on Unsplash

Text First Published August 1990 · Last Featured on January 2023

📚 The 2022 – 23 Ren­o­varé Book Club

This year’s nine-month, soul-shap­ing jour­ney fea­tures four books, old and new, prayer­ful­ly curat­ed by Ren­o­varé. Now under­way and there’s still time to join.

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