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31. Basic Principles of Being Perfect in Christ

Chapter 31

Basic Principles of Being Perfect in Christ

Perfection is ignored, even rejected, by most Christians today, yet it is the one thing that drives the apostle Paul forward, and causes his heart to burn with a fiery zeal to “present everyone perfect in Christ. To this end I labor, struggling with all his energy, which so powerfully works in me” (Col.1.28-29, NIV).

Today not many Christians understand and even fewer share Paul’s concern for perfection. Today the chief, and perhaps sole, concern is getting saved. Getting someone to make a profession of faith or a decision is the goal. After that has been done, our mission is accom­plished for that person or persons, and now it only remains for them to wait for heaven. Anything beyond getting saved—sanctification and perfection—is of no real concern. How totally different is this from the apostle Paul, for whom perfection was the one thing that burned in his heart; he toils and strives that everyone may be perfect in Christ.

Many churches are content with getting people to “make a decision for Christ”. To be fair to them, they often have no idea what more they can do for the spiritual growth of those who “come to Jesus” other than asking them to join a church group or be involved in some service in the church. But these activities in themselves do not necessarily help bring new believers to Christ-likeness, to which God calls every believer.

1. The Man of God Strives For Perfection

Close your eyes if you wish, and think of a dynamic Spirit-filled Christian whom you know personally. If you know any such person, try to think of him or her for a moment. Right now I do have some­one in mind, and somehow this person causes my attention to be directed to Christ. This person has a Christ-likeness that deflects my thoughts to the Lord like a mirror. Do you know anyone like that? Perhaps you have in mind a lay Christian, a Christian worker, or a pastor. The church is desperately in need of such people. In fact, when I asked you to think of a dynamic Spirit-filled Christian, you probably had to search hard through your mental database.

And when you think of him or her, what spirit­ual qualities come to mind? I can say categor­ically that in every such case, he or she is the kind of person who is striving for perfection in Christ, that is, for Christ-likeness. There is no exception to this spiritual rule. Any Christian who radiates Christ-like quality is a person who shares the same goal as Paul: “I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Phil.3.14, NIV). The upward call—the heavenward calling—is nothing more, nothing less, than the call to perfection or Christ-likeness (cf. v.12). There is no Christian who mani­fests spiritual excellence, who is not driven forward by the Spirit towards this kind of perfection.

2. Pressing on Toward the Goal

One chapter earlier, in Philippians 2.13, Paul says, “It is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure”. The natural man does not pursue the things of God in a spiritual way. He is mainly interested in things such as money, position, enjoyment and praise from men. No one will strive for perfection unless his heart is open to the Spirit of God driving him forward and implementing God’s will in him.

Do we know what this heavenward call is? Is it more Bible study, more prayer, more evangelism, more church activity? All these things are good, but that is hardly what Paul means by the goal of the upward call. We need to know what the goal is, or we will end up going nowhere or running towards the wrong goal. There was once a conference on the theme, “Press on Towards the Mark.” At the end of the confer­ence we were no wiser than at the beginning as to what the mark was that the conference wanted everyone to press towards!

In these last days it is urgent that we turn our attention to the matter of being per­fect in Christ precisely because so few people know anything about it. Because of that ignorance, they suppose perfection to be some impractical ideal. The fact is that it is a most practical matter. God never commands something that has no prac­tical spiritual value. By rejecting His call to perfection do we not imply that God is impractical, out of touch with reality? Are we ignorant of the fact that He is reality? Without Him there is no real­ity; without Him there is nothing.

The Christian life that does not aim for Christ-likeness will sorely lack spiritual dynamic. We will lack vigorous motivation until we say, “By God’s abundant grace I press wholeheartedly towards the mark to which He has called me.”

Take a look at your own life and see how much spiritual vitality you have. The intensity of your pressing towards the mark is a spiritual barometer of your Christian life. If pressing towards the mark means little to you, to that extent you will lack spiritual strength; but if it means a lot to you, to that extent you will have spiritual vigor.

In talking about perfection, we therefore are talking about the practical Christian life, not some pie-in-the-sky ideal that we could leave to our old age to consider. We are talking about the driving force in the Christian life, our very motive for being a Christian.

In chapter 17, we looked at the three types of perfection in Philippians 3. It is in that context of perfection that Paul talks about pressing towards the mark (v.14).

One result of pressing towards the goal to which God has called us is that we experience in ourselves His resurrec­tion power: “That I may know him and the power of his resur­rection” (Phil.3.10). That power is seen not only in the future bodily resurrection, but also in a spiritual life and strength that we experience through faith already now. This in turn empowers us to pursue the objective before us with yet greater vigor. The result is an “upward spiral” in the spiritual life: pressing upward—experiencing his resurrection life and power—pressing forward, and upward even more; this is a progression from strength to strength (Ps.84.7), and from grace to grace (Jo.1.16).

3. What Exactly is the Goal?

Many people in church don’t seem to be experiencing God. There may be a sincere faith and some measure of love, but God is still not experienced in a deeper way. What is helpful for making progress in this direction is not just to aim for Christ-likeness for ourselves individually, but putting other people’s interest before our own, to assist them in the direction of becoming perfect in Christ.

When we do this, we will be surprised to find ourselves progressing while at the same time bringing others along with us towards the goal. This is experiencing the principle of “Give and it will be given to you” (Lk.6.38). We find this in the case of Paul, who not only pressed forward but also passionately strove to help everyone else do the same.

What hinders spiritual progress? Is it not a lack of direction, not knowing what is the goal to which we are called? The lack of a clear goal results in lukewarmness. How can we be zealous and focused when we don’t know what exactly we are to be zealous or focused about?

Try this test: Ask the average Christian what is the “goal” (Phil.3.14) of the Christian life, and see how many will know the answer. You will discover that very few Christians know what the goal is. Is this not cause for dismay? But did you know the answer yourself? How can we press forward towards the mark when we don’t know what exactly it is? And what happens when we don’t press forward? We will end up in spiritual stagnation, going nowhere.

In stark contrast to such aimlessness, Paul pushes forward with vigorous determination because he knows what the objective is that he is aiming for: to “gain Christ” (Phil.3.8). Now the all-important question is: How can we “gain Christ”? Christ is not a piece of property that we can gain possession of.

There are three (mutually related) ways in which we can gain Christ:

(1) We gain Christ by becoming like him, that is, by gaining his image or likeness. We let the Holy Spirit mold us into Christ’s image. His image is the expression of his nature; the more fully we gain his image the more completely we gain the essence of his life and character. We will possess his image fully when the Spirit molds our character into one that reflects his likeness completely (Ro.8.29).

(2) We gain Christ by pleasing God. It is God’s predetermined plan that we should be conformed to the likeness of His Son (also Ro.8.29), therefore being like Christ is also to be most pleasing to Him.

(3) We gain Christ through “knowing him” in an ever deeper relation­ship with him. This “knowing” is not head knowledge, but knowing him experientially in daily life. It is a process that involves the Holy Spirit. Through “knowing him,” we gain an ever deeper relationship with him, and through this relationship we are being transformed into his likeness (again Ro.8.29).

So important is “knowing Christ” that the apostle Paul mentions it twice within three verses (Phil.3.8,10), and speaks of “the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord… that I may gain Christ” (v.8).

4. Experiencing God in the Pursuit of Christ-like Perfection

The lack of spiritual determination and direction will prevent us from knowing God and experiencing His power in our lives. Our lifestyle must be one of pressing forward to know the Lord, and through knowing Him to become more like Him.

In learning to be like Christ, the Son of God, one aspect of which is to intercede for others (Heb.7.25), the Lord granted me many experiences of his grace and power. Here is one relatively recent example. I was driving to Toronto in foggy and difficult road conditions. Traveling alone on this occasion, I was communing with God in the car. My thoughts were eventually led to one part­icular person who had been coming to church and who was in a desperate spiritual condition. Suddenly the Spirit of Yahweh God moved in my heart, and I said, “Lord, as You are moving me, I am going to claim this person for You. He has been languishing in hopelessness for a long time, and no one has been able to help him, least of all himself. So I claim him for You.” In this simple prayer, I took hold of him for the Lord by faith.

After arriving in Toronto, I had many church matters to attend to, and thought no more of the matter. Early Tuesday, at 5 or 6 o’clock in the morning, I clearly heard the voice of this person whom I had claimed for the Lord, and it was calling my name. To me it was a most unusual experience. I had heard the voice of the Lord speaking to me before, but I cannot recall any previous occas­ion of this kind in which someone called my name. From this I knew that God had answered my prayer, and had done something in this person’s life.

When I returned to Montreal on Wednesday night, my wife Helen told me immediately upon my arrival, “This person called you half an hour ago.” I said, “I know what has happened in his life.” She asked, “How do you know? You just came in through the door.” Then I told her how I had claimed the person for the Lord, and how I heard his voice somewhat like what happened in the Macedonian vision (Acts 16.9). In my case, I did not see a vision; I only heard a voice calling me clearly and distinctly. The person’s distinctive voice was easily recognizable, and I knew what God had done. I related this to Helen upon my arrival, so that she can be a witness that God had given me prior knowledge of His work in this person’s life.

The next day I felt tired and unwell, so I slept through most of the day. In fact most of those who visited Toronto that weekend also got sick. The follow­ing day, I phoned up this person, and the first thing he said to me was, “I have committed my life to the Lord!” I told him I had already known about this. I told him about the voice I had heard, and then said to him frankly, “If God hadn’t revealed this to me, I would have been skeptical (because of his former unstable character) about your commit­ment to the Lord.” The Lord’s deeds are remarkable. Our God is the living God.

5. God Does Wonderful Things

This is not to say that we should seek signs and wonders as an end in themselves; we should not. There is a danger of becoming fascinated with these things instead of seeking God Himself. I know from exper­ience that when we follow God, signs and wonders follow us. We don’t follow them; they follow us (Heb.2.4; Mk.16.17).

Some time back, when a certain preacher and I were standing at the water’s edge by the riverside near my home discussing the Lord’s work, a fish swam out of the water onto the river bank direct­ly in front of our feet! It was not a big fish, being slightly less than a foot in length, but it was evidently meant to convey the Lord’s response to our discussion. Since the Lord uses fish as a metaphor for people (Mt.4.19; 13.47ff.), he was clearly saying that he himself would send the people to us. This is in fact what he has done. That preacher is an eyewitness to this remarkable episode; other­wise it may sound like a really fishy story! A few co-workers had that fish for dinner. God is so amazing.

Yet there are many Christians who rarely experience God. But those who follow Him, pursuing perfection or Christ-like­ness, will certainly experience Him. He dwells in them and works through them; how can they not experience Him? If you walk with God, you will see His wondrous deeds. Jesus says to his disciples, and therefore to all Christians:

“I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14.12, NIV).

The Lord gives us the Spirit in order that the Spirit may indwell us and do great things in our lives. How wonderful it would be if the church is full of people who manifest God’s power such that people at your school or place of work would say, “Something is different about your life.” Then you can tell them that the credit goes to the living God. If no one has ever said that to you, there may be a problem with your Christian life. You are a lamp that is not shining.

6. Perfectionism and Psychology

When we hear all this talk about perfection, we might say to ourselves, “Wouldn’t all this emphasis on striving after perfection make the Christ­ian life exhausting?” Let us address this concern.

Perfectionism is often regarded today, especially in psychology, as something that is bad for your mental health. An example of this can be seen in an article in a popular magazine[91] with the title, Perfection Can Be Bad For You, written by a psychiatrist. The subtitle says, “Striving compulsively for impossible goals can lead to depression, troubled relationships, and decreased productiv­ity.”

Well, after reading this, you wouldn’t want to think about perfection any more. If perfection leads to depression, low producti­vity, strained relationships, and even broken marriages, then cer­tainly newlyweds, for instance, wouldn’t want to think about perfection at all!

The writer of the article says, “By perfection I do not mean the healthy pursuit of excellence by those who take genuine pleasure in meeting high standards.” Well, it’s comforting to know that pursuing perfection is not always bad. The writer goes on to say, “Without concern for quality, true accomplish­ment would be rare.”

He draws a useful distinction between a healthy pursuit of excellence, and perfectionism, which his subtitle defines as “striving compulsively for impossible goals” and which is, consequently, bad for mental health. If “compulsively” here means being driven irra­tionally and irresistibly to pursue goals which are impossible to attain, then we can certainly agree that perfectionism is undesir­able.

The writer of the article confirms that this is indeed what he means by “perfectionism”. He writes, “I am talking about people who strain compulsively and unrelentingly towards impossible goals, and measure them­selves entirely in terms of their achievements.”

As for straining towards impossible goals, is Christ-likeness possible or impossible? It is humanly impossible, so it is true that we are striving towards an impossible goal. But it is possible by the power of God. If you try to be Christ-like by your own efforts, or imitate Christ externally, then yes, you are pursuing an impossible goal. In this case we would agree with the psychiatrist. We would be attempting the impossible, and would be heading for depression, troubled relationships, and the like.

God’s call to perfection is certainly not compulsive in the sense of being irresistible; nor is it unattainable by the grace He abundantly supplies through His Spirit. It may seem irrational to the self-centered human mind, but it makes perfect spiritual sense. That being so, perfection is the dynamic pursuit of spiritual excellence, which is Christ-likeness. When we talk about perfection, therefore, we are not talking about “perfectionism”.

In a Christian maga­zine, I came across another article with the title, “No One Is Perfect, Not Even the Perfectionist”. Whereas Paul ex­horts everyone to strive for perfection, this Christian magazine belittles the pursuit of perfection. It is true that nobody is perfect, but that is precisely why we must press on towards perfec­tion. In any case, the title is redundant given the fact that few Christ­ians are striving for perfection anyway.

The writer is a psychologist employed by the Christian organ­ization that publishes the magazine. It would be interesting to know how many psychologists today are employed by Christian organizations. They are influencing a large segment of church mini­stry but, sadly, mostly (though with some notable exceptions) in a human rather than a spiritual direction.

The article has a section titled “Symptoms of Per­fection­ism” (by the word “symptoms” he is clearly comparing “perfectionism” to a disease or sickness) which says, “The perfectionist is most likely to be a workaholic, and one who depends on his work to give him pleasure and satisfaction; work is all-consuming in his life, and he is helplessly controlled by it.” It goes on to say, “The perfect­ionist is indecisive.” I don’t know if the state­ment works backwards: if you are indecisive, then you are a perfectionist!

It also says, “He takes problems at work very seriously. And when someone makes a statement about his work, he interprets it as an affront or criticism.” Is there something wrong with taking problems at work seriously? The definition of perfection­ism has been stretched so wide as to become almost meaning­less.

It continues, “As a result he cannot relax and play. He is often described as grumpy, anxious and isolated.” If that describes your college roommate, you had better watch out because he may be a wretched perfectionist!

“A perfectionist Christian is usually thing-oriented rather than people-oriented. In his world view, things have a higher priority over people.” Well, this statement does harmonize with the fact that most Christians today are thing-oriented rather than people-oriented—so most Christians are perfectionists!

“And he is very meticulous in how things should be done… Because of this tendency to be a workaholic and thing-oriented, the perfectionist Christian is often unable to express warm and tender emotions.” Perhaps this confirms the observation that your room­mate (or spouse) is a perfectionist!

Further on, the Christian writer seems to contradict himself when he says that a perfectionist is often authoritarian. So is a perfectionist auth­or­itarian or is he indecisive? Or an indecisive authoritarian!? How can he tell others what to do if he himself can’t decide what to do?

This is not to suggest that there is no truth whatever in those articles. But even valid observations, especially in the case of this Christian psychologist, often appear to be exaggerated to the point where they are distorted into the ridiculous.

How much opposition there is to being perfect! You are striving for perfection and then along comes a Christian psychol­ogist telling you that perfection is bad for your mental health! Though, to be fair, he is striking at perfectionism. But the impress­ion left with the reader is that perfection in general is, or could be, included in his strictures against perfectionism.

7. Perfection versus Perfectionism

A moment ago I acknowledged that there are some valid observ­ations in the critique of perfectionism set out in the two articles. Let me elaborate briefly on this.

Insofar as certain aspects of the analyses of perfectionism are valid, it will be seen on closer inspection that the problems which the articles expose all have to do with the type of behavior which the Bible shows to be typical of the natural or carnal man. In other words, “perfectionism” is the natural man’s attempt to achieve per­fection by his own wisdom and effort. It is man’s attempt to reach the heights of heaven by building his own tower of Babel (Gen.11.4). It is man perfecting himself in his own way, and according to his own ideals. If he could achieve it, it would be a monument to his own glory.

If the definition of “perfectionism” is strictly limited to the carnal striving after self-perfection, then it becomes a useful term to describe the kind of perfection which is the diametrical opposite of the spiritual perfection that the Lord calls us to pursue.

But it is absolutely essential that perfection and perfectionism are clearly defined and clearly distinguished from each other, and not confused in any way. One of them is a God-centered, God-motivated and God-empowered perfection; the other is a man-centered and man-driven perfection. Except for the use of the word “perfection,” the two have nothing whatever in common. We can therefore, for con­venience’s sake, call man-centered perfection “perfectionism,” since it does indeed have many of the negative characteristics and conse­quences which the magazine articles describe.

Used in this way, “perfectionism” becomes a useful reminder to avoid man-centeredness at all costs, and to seek always and only the precious and vital perfection that is in Christ.

8. Spiritual Perfection is Essentially Christ-likeness

Can we still say that the one who strives after the perfection taught in Scripture is a tense workaholic who is unable to express warm and tender feelings? Is he driven compulsively like a drug addict towards some­ mirage? Are all the servants of God in the Bible neurotics? Do we set a goal in front of us, and then strive for it with obsessive-compulsive intensity? When you read his letters, does Paul appear to be someone who stands with his eyebrows knit together, and his eyes fixed on some distant mark? And if you talk to him, he would say, “Don’t interrupt me. I am concentrating on the goal!”

This may be caricature, but that is basically how some psycholo­gists, both Christian and non-Christian, caricature the person who pur­sues perfection. Such a person is depicted as being a joyless ob­sessive-compulsive workaholic who is fixated on some unattain­able ideal.

Would any of the above descriptions aptly describe Jesus Christ, of whose life and character we have a portrait in the gospels? Could he be described as a “tense workaholic who is unable to express warm and tender feelings”? Anyone who thinks that Jesus could be des­cribed in those terms has not read the gospels or had any personal experience of Jesus working in his or her life through the Holy Spirit.

It is important to stress that the perfection of which Scripture speaks (and with which this book is concerned) is essen­tially nothing more or less than Christ-likeness. Would this Christ­ian psychologist care to level, against Jesus, his massive array of criticisms against perfection (which he generally fails to distinguish from perfectionism)?

For those who are new persons in Christ, what perfection would they desire and pursue other than becoming like him? What else would anyone who loves his Lord and Savior consider as perfection? Would that Christian psychologist or any other Christian care to deny Christ’s perfection? If not, then why the unmitigated attacks on perfection, rather than encouraging us to become like Christ while at the same time cautioning us to avoid human or man-made perfection?

The perfection of Christ is obviously something that Christ­ians are not deeply aware of; otherwise they would have seen that an attack on perfection generally would amount to an attack on Christ, who is the embodiment of perfection.

The kind of thinking exemplified in the Christian psychologist’s article shows what happens when we fail to properly distinguish between perfectionism and perfection. The consequent view of perfect­ion is disastrous for the Christian life because it provides justification for not obeying the Lord’s call to be perfect, to become like him. Thus it becomes an effective tool in Satan’s hand to pre­vent spiritual progress and thereby ensure spiritual stagnation.

9. Joy in Pursuing Perfection

But what really is the lifestyle of the Christian who strives for perfection? Are there so few who pursue perfection in Christ that the matter has to be discussed theoretically? Is there no one we know who serves God and aims for Christ-like perfection? If we do know such a person, does he or she fit the portrait of the perfect­ionist which psychologists have painted?

In fact, if you meet servants of God, you will be amazed by their abundance of joy. These servants of God laugh readily and heartily, and find great joy in the Christian life. Seeing their joy you may even be inclined to have doubts about them, because they don’t conform to the notion of a perfectionist who has his eyebrows knit together in some sort of tense concentration, lost in otherworldly contemplation.

When you pursue God, it is remarkably easy to be joyful and relaxed. I wonder if some people may be offended when they see God’s servants laugh so often and so heartily. It seems to be a common notion that holiness is incompatible with joy and laughter. Portraits of saints always show them to be somber and unsmiling. The more holy, the more somber!

We do well to ponder the significance of Jesus’ words: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt.18.3). Are little children somber by nature? Do they not, on the contrary, tend to be cheery and joyful? In this respect, men of God have much in common with little children who rejoice in their Father’s presence. They are not tense or neurotic; their eyes are not focused on some distant object, looking past everyone—as some preachers do when they preach!

If we had the opportunity to meet with the apostle Paul, we would be amazed by his joyful and relaxed character. I draw this conclusion not only from reading his letters (e.g. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!” Phil.4.4) but also from having had the privilege of knowing a few outstanding men of God when I was a young Christian. Meeting them was an arrangement made possible through God’s remarkable provision. When I got to know them, I thought that every Christian was like them, only to discover later on, to my great disappointment, that there are actually not many like them.

The first thing I noticed about men of God was their undivided loyalty to God, and their unrelent­ing pursuit after Christ and Christ-likeness, which is the essence of perfection. At the same time there was a remarkable joy and peace even under intense pressure and persecution. I had never seen people so relaxed, so thankful, so full of peace, as these men of God, even when their lives were in constant danger.

I also noticed their loving and caring attitude. The fruit of the Spirit is love, and love does not look past the people it meets. When a disciple is pursuing after Christ, he or she is concerned about the needs of the brothers and sisters. When Paul says that he strives and toils to present every man perfect in Christ, you might say to him, “Do you really have time for me? I thought you were single-mindedly pursuing after Christ.” He cares for you precisely because he is pursuing after Christ and Christ-like­ness.

Another reason why Paul wants to present every man perfect in Christ is that the pursuit of perfection is not a solitary effort. The church is a body, the Body of Christ. When we strive for perfect­ion together, the body of Christ grows harmoniously. A finger cannot say to itself, “I want to be a super bionic finger; the rest of the body doesn’t concern me.”

Five Basic Principles of Growing into Perfection

First Principle: Remove the Body of Flesh

There are five basic principles of growing into perfection. The first principle is to remove the body of flesh from your heart. I am, of course, using Paul’s language here, an example of which is seen in Colossians 2.11: “In him (Christ) you were also circumcised with a circum­cision made without hands, in the removal of the body of flesh by the circumcision of Christ”.

The apostle’s language may seem hard to under­stand, but there is nothing mysterious about it. First we note that Paul is talking about circumcision, a procedure that cuts off flesh.

Secondly, it is a “circumcision made without hands”—that is, a circumcision carried out by God, not by man. Hence it is also called the “circumcision of Christ,” the Son of God. We cannot perform self-surgery and remove the flesh from our own hearts; it is God who, by his Holy Spirit, carries out the surgery. And when does that take place? The next verse says, “You were buried with him in baptism” (v.12). It is at baptism that the circumcision of Christ takes place, by which the body of flesh is removed and buried.

Thirdly, “He is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit” (Rom.2.29). Spiritually, you are not a Jew by literal circumcision but by being circumcised in your heart.

Fourthly, Paul speaks of the “body of flesh” because the flesh is integral to the body, and is its dominant element. Flesh does not exist by itself, apart from the body. If the flesh controls our lives, it exerts its influence through the body. But when, by God’s grace, the body of flesh is “removed,” it means that its control over us is removed, and we can now live under the gracious lordship of God.

Sad to say, many Christians are still controlled by the body of flesh. Examine your own way of thinking. Is it controlled by things such as food, clothes, money, praise, the comforts of life, and sexual desires? In short, is your way of thinking domi­nated by the body?

Teenagers are particularly prone to this, and it continues on to adulthood. From their conversations you can tell that their thinking is controlled by things pertaining to the body. These things are not sinful in themselves, but if our thinking is dominated by the body of flesh, we will not experience spiritual reality, vitality, and power in our Christian lives.

In the important chapter on baptism, Romans 6, Paul says, “Our old man was crucified with him (Christ), that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin” (v.6). At baptism we are crucified with Christ and buried with him. Our “old man” is crucified so that the body of sin may be done away with—not in the sense of physical extermination, but of being removed from our hearts. It no longer exercises control over our hearts.

If the body of flesh is not removed from the heart, our thinking will be controlled by it and will produce “the deeds of the body,” which will result in death. The apostle explains the matter like this, “If you are living according to the flesh, you must die, but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Ro.8.13). Many Christians have made ship­wreck of their faith because they have not, by the Spirit, put to death “the deeds of the body,” also called “the deeds (or works) of the flesh” (Gal.5.19).

This explains why there are so many weak, unhappy, and stressed-out Christians. Whereas the servant of God is relaxed, the defeated Christian is tense because he knows he is not living as he ought to.

If you are not striving for perfection in Christ through the Spirit, you will be unhappy and powerless. The battle between flesh and Spirit will create great inner tensions. The tendency is to compro­mise, but the price you pay for that is the loss of joy, of power, and of the fruit of the Spirit.

Second Principle: Joyful Acceptance of Suffering

We come to the second point about the Christian who strives for perfection: His striving for perfection is expressed in a joyful accept­ance of suffering. When the body of flesh is removed, you won’t be afraid of suffering, fatigue, poor health, or lack of sleep. You will fear nothing, not even death.

Whereas suffering is an unwelcome topic to those who are in the flesh, it is embraced by those who are pressing towards the high calling of perfection. They are aware of the important fact that it is through suffering that we are made perfect, as was true even for Jesus himself (Heb.2.10; Heb.5.8,9).

Interestingly, when Paul brings up the topic of suffering, he often does it “out of the blue,” without any obvious connection to the main discussion. For example, in Romans 5.1-2, Paul begins a discourse on justifi­cation by faith: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.” (NIV)

Then suddenly in the next verse (v.3) he says: “Not only so”—which means to say that the things he just referred to, namely, justification by faith and entering into the glory which God has prepared for us, are not the only reasons for our rejoicing! Paul declares there is yet another equally import­ant reason for our rejoicing: “…we rejoice in our sufferings.” Do we, like Paul, see suffering as something to rejoice in? Not unless we pursue Christ-like perfection as he did.

But Christians today generally don’t consider suffering as cause for rejoicing, do they? Many Christians complain, “Why is God so unfair to me? Why did He give me a wife (or husband) like this? I was merrily living my life—until I got married. I thought marriage was going to be heaven on earth, but it turned out to be years of torment. God didn’t give me a good job either; my boss makes it his business to wring my neck every day. Add to this my poor health, my aches and pains.”

The man of God, on the other hand, rejoices in suffering because he knows that it will lead to spiritual excellence. Through suffering, he is molded into the likeness of Christ. That is why Paul considers suffering as good a reason for rejoicing as justification by faith!—for Christ-likeness is the goal of justification. God justified us so that we may be conformed to Christ’s image.

That is what God has predetermined for all who through faith have responded to His call (Rom.8.29,30), for we “have been called according to His purpose” (v.28). And what is that purpose? To be “glori­fied” (v.30). And what does “glorified” mean? To become a new person who “is conformed to the likeness of His Son” (v.29). But this cannot be accomplished without suffering, for if we wish to “share in his glory” we must also share in “his sufferings” (v.17).

Romans chapter 8 is a vital discourse on life in the Spirit. Yet all of a sudden, in the midst of wonderful statements such as “the Law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death” (v.2) and “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (v.16), Paul again brings up the topic of suffering right out of the blue, for in the very next verse (v.17) he continues, “Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory”. To us this may seem an abrupt change of subject, but it demonstrates the importance of suffering and the reason for rejoicing in it.

Many people grumble over small misfortunes, but the man of God rejoices in every situation. That is why the servants of God are happy. If you can rejoice in suffering, what is there you cannot rejoice in? When Paul and Silas were beaten and thrown into jail, what did they do? They sang hymns and praised the Lord (Acts 16.25)! Just how does anyone suppress Christians like these?

Are we able to say, “Praise God, my car broke down this morning and I got stranded on the road for three hours! I had a great time of communing with Him, time that I couldn’t find during the past week!” Thanking God for a breakdown may seem insane, but is that not what makes a disciple of Jesus extraordinary? In that situation, some people would be cursing and swearing. If Christians behaved in the same way (but using more polite language), where is our witness?

Third Principle: Set the Mind on Spiritual Things

Thirdly, the Christian who strives for perfec­tion will set his mind on spiritual things. He is inclined towards spiritual things because the Spirit of God is guiding him into all the truth (Jo.16.13). He sets his mind on the things above, not on earthly things (Col.3.2). Paul warns us:

For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace. (Romans 8.5-6)

What you set your mind on—either the flesh or the Spirit—is a matter of life and death. If you set your mind on the flesh, you will die. If you set your mind on the Spirit, there is life and peace; this explains the inner peace that fills the man of God even in situations of danger.

In China many years ago I had the privilege of knowing brother Yang, a faithful servant of God, and sharing a room with him for several months. His monthsmmmis life was in constant danger. He knew he could be arrested at any moment for preaching the Gospel. At that time, such arrests routinely led to prison, labor camps, and frequent­ly to death in those camps. Yet I have never seen a more peaceful man in the face of danger. There was not a hint of fear or anxiety. His life spoke more powerfully to me than a hundred eloquent mess­ages. His heart and mind was so focused on God and on the things which are eternal, that transient earthly trials did not disturb him.

What are “the things of the Spirit” we can learn to set our minds on? Meditate on love, joy, peace, the fruit of the Spirit as a whole, the glory of the Church in Christ, the things to come, the coming of the Lord, God’s power to transform people, and His plan for your life.

As for God’s plan for your life, have you ever considered what God could do through you? Do we suppose that God has use for only one John Sung, one Wang Ming Dao, or one D.L. Moody? He can use any of us to shine forth His light to this generation.

Fourth Principle: Let God Do His Will in You

The fourth point touches on something we mentioned earlier: Let God do His work in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure. We may be familiar with these words in Philippians 2.13, but we often quote them as if they happen by some automatic or self-fulfilling process. The fact is that this verse is simply not a reality in most people’s lives. To make it true in us, we must yield our lives wholly to God.

The verse before that (v.12) speaks of obeying God and of working out our salvation with fear and trembling. If we don’t obey God, He won’t do His work in us. If we are disobedient, we are acting contrary to His will. For the great majority of Christians, God cannot carry out His will in their lives because they are set on going their own way. “I do it my way” is their motto. God doesn’t impose His will on the heart that is hardened by disobedience.

If God could fully implement His will in the lives of His people, there would be many spiritual giants in the world today. The reality is that God is prevented from willing and doing His good pleasure in most Christians today because most do not submit wholly to His will.

Only when our will is totally yielded to God’s will can He will in us as He wishes. Then we will do whatever He wants us to do, think as He inspires us to think, and live according to the mind of Christ (1Cor.2.16); then He will be able to work mightily and effectively through us.

Fifth Principle: Faith in God’s Power

Fifthly, the man of God stands fast in the truth expressed in Romans 8.28ff, “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him, to those who are called according to His purpose.” Can you catch the spirit of this statement? The one who loves God and pursues after spiritual excellence is confident in God’s love and power. He knows that God’s will for him is always that which is for his good. God’s will is the expression of His perfect love. That is why the one who loves God does not fear God’s will, but delights in it.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ” (Ro.8.35)? Nothing can separate us, neither tribulation nor distress nor persecution. If there is anything or anyone that could separate us from the love of Christ, it is we ourselves. Paul gives a long list of things that cannot separate us from Christ, but he never says you cannot separate yourself from Christ.

The tragic reality is that there are Christians who in one way or another are doing this very thing through their continual disobe­dience to the Lord. This results in their being “severed from Christ… fallen from grace” (Gal.5.4). This is especially true in these last days when, as the apostle forewarns us, some will separate themselves from Christ: “The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons” (1Tim.4.1, NIV).

These people deny the faith (1Tim.5.8), “even denying the Master who bought them, bring­ing swift destruct­ion upon themselves” (2Pet.2.1; Jude 1.4). There is, however, no external power, neither in heaven, nor on earth, nor under the earth, that can separate us from the love of Christ.

The man of God is confident of God’s love and power. He lives in Christ’s love, having yielded himself to God’s will without reserve. He is relaxed, yet also dynamic and intense. His intensity comes not from himself, but from the Lord. It is he who mightily inspires us to go forward. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal.2. 20).

By daily applying these five principles of spiritual victory, none of us need to live second-rate Christian lives. May Yahweh God be pleased to raise up mighty men and women for Himself in this generation and reveal His saving glory to the world through them.


[91] Reader’s Digest, April, 1985

 

(c) 2012 Christian Disciples Church