When asked what is the goal of the Christian life, a typical mantra heard in evangelical circles is the knee-jerk response, “To become Christ-like.” Some folks really think through what they are saying and their views are more nuanced than this slogan. But most Christians, I fear, just parrot what they’ve been taught. This post examines this motto with a view toward articulating what the goal of the Christian life should be.
When I was a young man, I desperately wanted to be Christ-like. I was told that this was the primary objective of the Christian life. The more I worked at it, however, the more I began to see my failings. Every time I needed to ask forgiveness from someone, I considered myself a failure at the prime objective. Every time someone corrected me or pointed out some blind-spot in my life, I realized that I was treading backwards. It started to unnerve me. As the years rolled on, these constant failings became too much. Slowly, imperceptibly at first, I recoiled at the notion that I was still a depraved sinner. After all, I had been a believer for many years—shouldn’t I be reaching perfection by now?
Of course, I rejected the Keswick model of sanctification—the idea that one could be in fellowship one minute and out the next, in the next, and so on; that wasn’t my problem. I also had rejected the Wesleyan perfectionism model—at least, theoretically. I knew that I really was never going to be perfect in this life, even in a limited sense. But I nevertheless assumed that I should be much more mature than I really was. So, in order to salve my conscience about reaching the goal of Christ-likeness, I began to hide my sin. I put blinders on when I was confronted about my behavior, and wormed my way out of asking for forgiveness, justifying my lack of need for such on the basis of my supposed maturity. I would rationalize my sin, and see fault in the one who pointed it out. “Ah, that guy is not very godly, so why should I listen to him?”
At one point, when I was in college, I made a table of the characteristics of love mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13. At the end of every day I would rate myself on how I was doing. I’d use a 100-point scale. The irony is that the very passage that was intended to help me focus on others became a means for me to focus on myself. Christ-likeness meets legalism!
But the more I studied scripture, the more I came to realize that I had gotten the focus of the Christian life totally out of whack. If my goal is for me to become Christ-like, then my goal is inevitably and necessarily self-centered. How well am I doing at this goal? What do I look like as a Christian? My goal had become my role, and the focus had become too inward.
There is time for introspection in the Christian life. It should, however, be a time of repentance toward the Lord and gratitude for his love and mercy. But there is also the need for robust concentration on the Lord and on others. Paul tells the Philippians, “Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself” (Phil 2.3 [NET]). I used to argue with this verse: “Yes, but if all of us did this, then no one would be more important than anyone else!” Missing Paul’s point is putting things charitably. The Lord was the first to rub Deuteronomy 6.5 Leviticus 19.18 together, calling them “the greatest commandment” and one “like it”: Love God and love your neighbor (Matt 22.34–40). The focus in these passages is not on one’s role and therefore not on one’s self-image, needs, or ego. The focus is on the glory of God and the needs of others.
There it was, in black and white, and I missed it all these years! If the goal of the Christian life is primarily to glorify God, then the focus is certainly not on myself. It’s the combination of attitude and actions that work together to magnify the Lord. And the second goal of the Christian life is to focus on the needs of others. “Love your neighbor as yourself” does not mean to love your neighbor as you should love yourself. No, self-love is assumed, not commanded. Loving one’s neighbor is not.
One of the implications of this new revelation (to me) about the goal of the Christian life was that by focusing on what I should become I was missing the proper outward and upward view of life. And it became harder and harder for me to admit my wrong to others. But the believer who seeks God’s glory and thinks hard about the welfare of their fellow-saints is not arrogant, does not hold grudges, is not self-absorbed. All of us, for as long as we live in this world, will need to ask forgiveness from someone. The mature person recognizes his own sins and readily admits them to others whom he has offended. The one who focuses on his own Christ-likeness is focusing on a tertiary goal and can end up being blinded by his own ambition.
For many, this blog is a simple lesson, one that you’ve come to recognize for a long, long time. For others, it may be startling, unsettling. But the self-absorption of American Christianity has a lot to learn. I pray that each of us can make the main thing the main thing, shed ourselves of our insecurities, and begin each day by asking, “How can I magnify you today, Lord?”