We’ve been hearing, pretty consistently these days, the phrase “God loves me just the way I am.” This true but rather static description of the divine-human relationship is sometimes appended with the phrase, “and too much to leave me that way.” It is admittedly a rather pithy sentiment, but one that nevertheless encapsulates the basic message of Christianity. God did not incarnate as Jesus Christ in order to leave us just the way we are – sinful, rebellious, disobedient – but to give us the gift of transformation so that we might become the people God wants us to be.
Nevertheless, it has become popular to just stop at “God loves me just the way I am.” While the intention may be to indicate that God’s love is expansive beyond current social conventions – a truth clearly demonstrated by Jesus – it also denies the very real and fundamental need for human transformation and opens the door for a wide range of behaviors that might seem natural even if they clearly violate Biblical precepts. The philosophy that accepts all behaviors because “that’s the way I am” is called naturalism. If you guessed that naturalism is well accepted by atheists you would guess correctly, but it is also surprisingly endorsed by many Christians. In this mold, we are deemed immutably constructed by God and therefore must be loved by God because of our immutability. It is a philosophy that is irreconcilable with basic Christian teaching. While the image of God may be unimpeded in a newborn infant, life is generally corrosive over time as we are subject to temptations, bad influences, or simple ignorance. “The way I am” for an eighteen-year-old is very unlike “the way I am” for an infant. Every human is subjected to the corruption of sin from a very early age, and therefore every human who wishes to walk the path set out by God requires the transformation offered by Christ and his redeeming sacrifice. We are not set out upon a journey to discover who we are; we are set on a journey to discover who God wants us to be.
It is said that the great renaissance artist Michelangelo meditated for a year on a large block of marble before seeing the sculpture hidden within, which he then transformed into the famous and flawless statue of David. This is a very apt metaphor for transformation. The block of marble was what it was, but the artist transformed it into a thing of great beauty. Yes, we each of us are who we are, yet it requires the hand of an artist to make us into a person of God. And, like Michelangelo, God sculpts us over time, perfects us, until we are totally formed as his work, not our culture’s or our own. It is not too much of a stretch to say that those who resist transformation are those who would prefer to remain marble blocks.
This necessity for transformation leads us to the purposes behind God’s incarnation as Jesus, his death and resurrection. Yet, through naturalism, we deny this necessity in order to sideline Jesus and elevate ourselves. For example, we see the diminution of Jesus in the misinterpretation of his emphasis on grace as being affirming of all things uncritically – hence, “God loves me just the way I am” – and downplaying the mystically transformational power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus is also diminished when we misinterpret his expansive sense of grace and forgiveness as a sort of wink-and-a-nod towards human sinfulness. Jesus entire purpose in expansive forgiveness is to engender radical transformation such that a person need not be forgiven for the same sin twice.
However, the seminal concept in the diminution of Jesus over the last half-century has been the idea that Jesus was not resurrected – that he was a great moral teacher who got entangled in Judean politics and died on the cross, end of story. His followers invented the resurrection to create “Christ” in order to give themselves supernatural authority to spread his teachings. The human necessity for God’s authority is what caused the resurrection, not God. While the vast majority of Christians still hold a belief in the resurrection as an actual event, the seeds of doubt have been sown deeply enough that it is becoming hard for some Christians to just come right out and say it – “Jesus rose from the dead” – fearful that they’ll look ignorant or superstitious in our scientific and material age.
As in all things, faith and belief, or doubt and unbelief, have consequences. While no one wants to put their faith in something that is ultimately untrue, a life of doubt easily becomes a cynical life. Our need for anchors and a basis for moral authority can be seen as the drivers for the human creation of God by the cynical, but for believers the equation is reversed. God knows of our need for anchors and moral authority and has provided us with the tools to enact his will. Which of these is true?
For Christians this dilemma is solved by Jesus Christ. For the more literal minded, there is little doubt among scholars and historians that Jesus of Nazareth existed. The documentation provided by the Gospels gives evidence of his stature as a great moral teacher. But to instill confidence in the actuality of the more miraculous and mystical portions of Jesus’ story, we must link together Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. In fact, if we accept that God incarnated as an infant, a God who “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” as is recorded in Philippians, chapter 2, then the rest follows logically and inevitably. Squabbles about a virgin birth or perpetual virginity are unimportant next to the central assertion that God chose to become one with his own creation, that “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” This is an extraordinary assertion. Mythical gods interacted with humans all the time, but I know of no other case where one actually became human, much less chose an excruciating death as an act of redeeming self-sacrifice. As I said before, to believe in God’s incarnation – or to not believe – has consequences. But if the human will were to create this story, wouldn’t it be more typical to have the “hero,” Jesus, be victorious in a more conventional way? Why not have Jesus fulfill his Davidic destiny and lead a great army, or have Jesus be the military leader of the rebellious Sicarii at Masada? Stories of divine humility and self-sacrifice aren’t very common and would seem at odds with the Judean desire to overthrow their Roman occupiers. As mind-bending as the thought is, it seems more logical that the Gospel writers recorded what they saw, miracles and all, as evidence of an incarnated, embodied God.
From that starting point, we can proceed to the consequences. As part of the Gospel documentation, Jesus tells his followers multiple times about his coming demise on the cross. And though the disciples are resistant to this outcome, it makes perfect sense. Why would God go to all the trouble of incarnation only to take a sort of tourist trip through human existence? And would God incarnate at all if not for some larger purpose? I think we can all accept that God has no trivial purposes. To die on the cross, to be the ultimate, final sacrifice, is indeed a greater purpose. All of the ritualistic sacrifices required by past, present and future sins are carried out by God himself. All debts are paid, and the slate is wiped clean. Jesus wasn’t born to be an impartial observer. He was born to give all manner of gifts to humanity including the ultimate gift of self-sacrifice entirely for humanity’s benefit. But even that was not the final consequence.
Clearing the slate did not mean that humanity would never sin again. Simply paying the debts accrued by the Old Covenant would just put humanity back at the starting point. It would be as if someone had paid all your credit card debt, then left you unattended and free to rack up even more. What God provided is a new covenant, proof-stamped by Jesus’ resurrection as a promise of a new life. The guy who had all of his credit card debt wiped out now receives counseling and guidance on how to not pile up those debts again and instruction on why this might be beneficial to him. This massively important concept is summarized in a very simple word: grace.
This is the transformation offered by Christ. If we look at the corruption of the world as the accumulation of debt, the grace of Christ gives us a path to get out of that trap. This grace has been provided by Christ at great cost to himself, and that alone ought to impress upon us the seriousness of this transformative process. In that light, it seems ludicrous to take this on half-heartedly, or to diminish Christ and insert our own authority. We didn’t pay the price: he did. An “almost Christian,” as John Wesley termed tepid believers, is like a snail chasing an eagle. If the snail decides he’s fine “just the way I am,” he will never catch up. It is only through the transformative power of Jesus Christ that the snail can grow wings and fly.
Of course, nobody actually just stays the way they are. The real question is: how do you want to be transformed? One way is to simply accept the corrosion inherent in a human-guided journey through life, believing that all you know is all there is, thus making all you know into that which defines you at any given moment. And while it is true that Christians throughout history have to some extent borrowed from local cultures and customs to provide avenues of Christian expression – a process called syncretism – it is quite another thing when Christianity is itself transformed in order to conform with the culture around it. Inevitably, Christ is watered down, trivialized or mythologized, and placed in a back seat behind other forces who sit in the driver’s seat. Honestly, it seems like no choice at all: riding in a transformational car driven by marble blocks and snails, or one driven by a God who, besides being all knowing, has emphatically proven his trust in acts of incarnation, wisdom and self-sacrifice for your sake. Through the eyes of Jesus, God does not see you simply as the way you are – not as a block of marble – but as a person with the greatest potential to be more under the skillful hands of the master sculptor. Either way, you will be transformed. The only question is: by whom?