When my eldest two boys were three and four, they were given life sized dolls of Bert and Ernie—from the television program Sesame Street—for Christmas. Pretty cool presents, I thought. But upon opening their presents, what captivated them was not Bert and Ernie but two small bags of balloons that they had each received along with Bert and Ernie. Hmmm. What to get excited about, Bert and Ernie, or balloons? I would have thought Bert and Ernie. But not to their three and four-year-old minds. Balloons were definitely the main attraction.
That is often how it is in life. I am currently without a job. What invariably excites me these days is a potential job opportunity, a “position,” an area in which I can make a contribution—you get the idea. In fact, at the time of writing this I was scheduled to leave in a week’s time for a month long teaching trip overseas in two countries. That’s a month of feeling like I have something to offer, a month of feeling useful, a month of feeling like I have a place in the world. But of course, Coronavirus has put a stop to that. So now what?
We men—and it may well be the same for everyone—live to contribute, to make a difference; we want to feel valued and we want to be active. But what excites us is not always what excites God. Now don’t get me wrong, God is interested in our work, our activities, and so on. But they are not always what he is passionate about. To him they can be like bags of balloons while the real gift is standing right in front of us to be enjoyed. How so, you ask? Let me start with a personal story.
Recently I was talking to my wife about the Christian concept of “calling.” A call, to put it loosely, is when God places something on your heart so strongly that it becomes your mission or goal. I was telling my wife about what I thought my “calling” was in this season of unemployment. It was to do . . . how to put this, hmmm, well, what I felt God had called me to do. Sounds straightforward. Except an hour later I was reading in 1 Corinthians 1 as part of my daily Bible reading plan. Here are the first two verses of that chapter:
1 Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours: (1 Corinthians 1:1–2)
The words “called to be his holy people” stood out to me like a neon light. And it was not so much the content of the words, but the fact that God, in my mind anyway, was addressing my earlier discussion with my wife on calling. It was though his word to me was “Alan, this is your calling, to be holy; and what a better time for you to learn that—no job, no income, no overseas travel, etc., etc., etc. Perfect!”
Have you ever had the experience where you feel like God has a direct word for you at a particular time? It’s a tremendous confidence boost. To think that God would speak to your situation, to you! personally. God does things like that. I knew of course that I was called to be holy, every Christian knows that (see Romans 8:29). But that this would be highlighted for me within an hour or two of me discussing my calling with my wife, this had to be more than a coincidence. God was taking my attention off the metaphorical bag of balloons and focusing it on the metaphorical Bert and Ernie.
The thing is that being called to be holy is for all of us. God just reminded me in a way that I couldn’t merely think, “Oh, I know that already, now what about a job for me Lord?”. I do not mean to suggest that I relax my search for a job, only that God was highlighting where my focus was to be—and indeed where his focus was. It’s hard though, I admit. Being called to be holy is not always number one on my priority list. But it should be, and here’s why. We’ll begin in Genesis 1 where we are told God’s plan for our lives:
Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” (Genesis 1:26)
Image is about how we want to be known, how we want to be identified. We may want to be identified as slim, sporty, tough, sensitive, funny, well mannered, hard-working, intelligent, easy going, flexible, tolerant, wealthy, educated, moral, religious, and so on. Genesis 1 tells us that God created us so that we might be identified with him! God created us so that when people look at us, they might see something of his glory, something of his character, something that points people to understand more of who God is. It’s a simple plan!
In fact, we can see that this is his plan by following, very briefly, the storyline of the Bible. Following God’s creation sin enters the world and interrupts God’s plan. But notice the effects: with sin came a preoccupation with self. First, Eve is motivated by what she perceives to be good for her. Second, Eve and her husband are struck with self-consciousness, and fear drives them into hiding. Third, neither are willing to bear responsibility for their actions and so they blame someone else (Genesis 3:10–13). If you are a parent, you may have noticed the sequence of these events in your kids. But it’s not just children. Selfishness has entered the world and now characterizes humanity. But notice how it all ends up. By the end of the first major section in Genesis, self-absorption characterizes the “whole world” (Genesis 11:1):
1 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. 3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:1–4)
The motivation for humanity’s building project is their image: “that we may make a name for ourselves.” So . . . the first section of the Bible begins with God’s overwhelming passion for his image and ends with humanity’s overwhelming passion for their image. The first section of the Bible begins with God’s creation pointing to him and ends with humanity’s creation pointing to them. The first section of the Bible begins with God’s motivation to make a name for himself and ends with humanity’s motivation to make a name for themselves.
God created human beings so that we might be identified with him. Now every human creates so that we might be identified with our accomplishments. Those accomplishments might be the accumulation of wealth, a successful business, a healthy body, a great marriage, godly children, a big house, a stellar reputation, intelligence, and so on. It’s the way we are wired; it’s in our DNA (from Genesis 3) we might say. And it was there that day when I was thinking about my calling—until God called me back to his original intention, an intention that has been his since the very beginning.
Look at how the next major section in Genesis starts. God promises to make Abram’s “name great” (Genesis 12:2). This promise shows us just how important the theme of image/name/identity is. In the previous chapter “the whole world” sought to “make a name” for themselves and now God responds, “I will make your name great.” The same promise next occurs when God promises David, “I will make for you a great name” (2 Samuel 7:9).
The link between Abraham and David points ahead to “Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1) who will baptize people into his “name” (Matthew 28:19), indicating that salvation in Jesus and identity are bound up together. Hence, from Genesis 12 it is clear that if our “name is ever to become great it will not be because of any self-initiated effort. The great name will be a gift, not an achievement.”
Here is the point. All of the above reveals God’s heart, that is, his consuming passion, his longing or overwhelming ambition; or we might say his highest goal or purpose. God’s heart is his image. We can tell this from thinking about the non-human aspect of creation. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1). Creation is intended to reflect God in some way. Thus, “what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Romans 1:19–20).
Couple these passages with God’s intent to create human beings in his image and likeness, and we get a very clear picture of God’s heart for us. He has designed every square inch of his creation—non-human and human—so that wherever we look we might get a glimpse of God. Thus, God’s all-consuming passion is to reveal himself, and that the revelation of himself may spread through his image bearers, so that eventually “the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9; see also Habakkuk 2:14); “may the whole earth be filled with his glory” (Psalm 72:19).
A few years ago, I was a passenger in a car in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka. Suddenly the man driving proudly asked me to look up at a giant billboard with a pretty young girl jumping in the air. It was his daughter. God created us so that we, his children, might be his billboard for all to see. This is what his promise to Abram was all about; Abram and his descendants were to be “a display people, a showcase to the world;” one writer has said, God’s “poster child.”
So once again we are brought back to God’s heart, God’s passion! It is for a people who image him. In fact, God is so serious about this that he became a billboard himself. “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known” (John 1:18). Thus, Jesus could say, “The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me” (John 12:45), and “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). “The Son is the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:3).
Since no other individual, or nation, in history had been able to image God perfectly, God did it himself; and he went to extreme lengths to do it. John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus ultimately revealed the Father on the cross (see e.g., John 7:39; 12:16; 13:31; 17:1).
The cross is the pinnacle of what God has been seeking to do from the very beginning, to glorify his name (John 12:28). In going to the cross Jesus revealed the true image of God. “I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do,” he said (John 17:4). How does the cross glorify God? In short, “by conveying divine love.” At the cross “We are seeing, in particular, what God’s own love looks like.” We all know John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son.” However, it is better to translate the verse “For God loved the world in this way: He gave His One and Only Son” (Holman Christian Standard Bible).
In other words, God’s love for the world is most evident in Jesus’ death on the cross. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12). The point is that God has gone to extreme lengths to reveal who he is to the world; to show the world that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).
Now let’s return to the call to be holy! In being called to be holy, we are simply being called to image God: “Be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16). Notice how Paul goes on to explain what it looks like “to put on the new self, which is being renewed . . . in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:10). He tells his readers to, “as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” He concludes with “And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:12–14). Jesus said it like this, “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36).
Being like God is crucial to understanding God’s call on our lives. Jesus told his disciples to “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34–35).
He did not say “By your accomplishments everyone will know that you are my disciples.” Neither did he say, “By your church attendance everyone will know that you are my disciples.” And he did not say, “By your theology everyone will know that you are my disciples.”
Love! By love everyone will be able to tell that we belong to Jesus. Love is the defining characteristic of brothers and sisters in God’s family (Matthew 22:36–37; Romans 13:8–10; Colossians 3:14; James 2:8)—this kind of love:
16 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.1 John 3:16–18
The apostle Paul puts it like this: “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (Ephesians 5:1–2, NIV84).
So, you see, imaging God has always been God’s intention: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). Whether we think about the creation of the world, God’s promise to Abraham, or God’s call on our lives right now, his calling for us has not changed.
But here’s my problem, and I suspect I might not be alone. My greatest desire, my heart, my passion—above all passions—is not always to be holy/to be conformed to the image of Jesus. My passion is to contribute, to make a difference, to feel useful, to feel like I have a place in this world where accomplishing is the name of the game.
I came across the following news article a number of years ago that well illustrates what many men probably struggle with:
ANDREW Griffiths worked seven days a week, starting each day at 6am and not finishing until 9pm. He put on 50 kilos and his marriage of 10 years broke apart.
His job ruled his life.
“I’d always been a workaholic,” Mr Griffiths, owner of the Oceanic Marketing Group said.
“I based a lot of my self-worth on my success or failure in business.
“That translated to me working harder and harder to prove to the world I was successful. Everything else in my life became secondary.”
All of his relationships suffered, not just with his wife. And due to lack of exercise and poor diet, Mr Griffiths’ weight gain saw him tip the scales at 150 kilos.
There it is: “I based a lot of my self-worth on my success or failure in business.” It might not be business of course that we find our self-worth in, it could be our qualifications, our ability to preach great sermons, our wisdom, our possessions, our abilities, our reputation, or a thousand other things that we might want to be identified for. But God’s call always calls us back to something greater, not greater according to our egos, but greater according to the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22).
To be focused on imaging Jesus means to be focused on people, and how best we might serve them. This after all was Jesus’ focus (Mark 10:45). Here is how I am trying to work this out in my own life.
It is always tempting to look into the future. But God is more interested that we focus on who we should be today (Matthew 6:33–34). The future is not unimportant of course, but so often our future obsessed thoughts concern our metaphorical bags of balloons.
So, I ask myself, “What is in front of me right now?” It might be my wife, one of my kids, someone I am talking to after church, a friend I am meeting at a café, a sermon I am preparing, dishes to wash, a meeting to attend, at the dinner table with family or friends, an article to write.
In each one of these situations God is calling me to image Jesus. We struggle, I know, because our minds are often running ahead to our real passion—the business, work, the appointment we have later on, our spare time, a holiday. We are so prone to getting caught up with our own perceptions of greatness (Matthew 18:1–4).
If it is a conversation, to listen well; to give the person our undivided attention, to be Christ to that person. If it is a task or activity, to be conscious of who the task is for and thus perform it with an attitude that basically says, “I am helping someone by doing this.”
Currently as I write I need to be thinking, “How can I best serve those who read this?” rather than, “How can I write in a way which impresses those who read this?”
For those who preach, “How can I write this sermon in a way that best serves those who hear?” rather than, ““How can I write this sermon in a way which impresses those who hear?”
For those who are a mechanic: “How can I fix this car with an attitude of “I am fixing this car to help make someone’s life better”?
To image Jesus in every situation is to love them, to show them mercy, to act justly toward them (Matthew 23:23). It is to be concerned for them as a whole person, their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.
Whenever I lose my focus and get caught up with those bags of balloons, there is a beautiful song that serves to remind me of my calling. It’s counter cultural and runs against the grain of how many think even in the Christian world. It’s called Dream Small:
It’s a momma singing songs about the Lord
It’s a daddy spending family time
That the world said he cannot afford
These simple moments change the world
It’s a pastor at a tiny little Church
Forty years of loving on the broken and the hurt
These simple moments change the world
It’s visiting the widow down the street
Or dancing on a Friday with your friend with special needs
These simple moments change the world
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with bigger dreams
Just don’t miss the minutes on your way, your bigger things, no
‘Cause these simple moments change the world
Out of these small things and watch them grow bigger
The God who does all things makes oceans from river
Don’t bother like you’ve gotta do it all
Just let Jesus use you where you are
One day at a time
Loving God and others as yourself
Find little ways where only you can help
With His great love
A tiny rock can make a giant fall
- Victor P. Hamilton, The Book of Genesis Chapters 1–17 (NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), 372.
- Durham, Exodus, 263 cited in Bartholomew, Drama of Scripture, 44.
- Goldingay, Reading Jesus’s Bible, 164.
- Koester, The Word of Life, 122.
- N. T. Wright, John for Everyone Part 1 Chapters 1–10 (vol. 5; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 33.
- Myles Wearring, “Beating Workaholism,” (Oct 23, 2009): https://www.news.com.au/news/beating-workaholism/news-story/af20ba94cafd20fa072543004c22f871.
- Josh Wilson, “Dream Small.” Listen to it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dOBaLrItEyc
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About the author
Dr Alan Stanley is the former director of postgraduate studies, lecturer in Bible and Theology at the Brisbane School of Theology and now lives in New Zealand.
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