How wide is the gap between the ways of Jesus and the ways of the world? An historian writes of the eighteen century English statesman Sir Robert Walpole: “He was unscrupulous, and did very dirty work; but he did it to serve his country, and not for any selfish end other than that of retaining political power. He himself said that he was ‘no saint, no Spartan, no reformer’; it was all a matter of business.” There is at least a bracing honesty in Walpole’s assessment of himself. While that remark could stand as a motto for any number of contemporary public figures, I think I heard it originally in one of the Godfather movies.
At the other extreme is a seemingly frivolous remark, “Encumbered with a low self-image, Bob takes a job as a speed bump.” That reveals the depth of the problem of identity formation as it is experienced by many people. A simple truth from Proverbs catches us up short: “As a man thinks in his heart, so is he” (Prov. 23:7). The question that should be raised immediately is, “Are we stuck with character flaws and weaknesses we now have?”
An essential element in human personality formation is understanding the basic freedom we have in effecting change within ourselves. A principle of psychology says that if we know where in our past we learned the behavior that upsets us in the present, that knowledge frees us to decide to do things differently. Jesus said, “If you know the truth, the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). That includes even the truth about yourself. Contempative Theology tells us that there is no true knowledge of God without the accompanying knowledge of one’s self; that is, in knowing Him, we begin, only begin, to see ourselves as He sees us.
An Old Testament figure named Jabez illustrates the importance of self-knowledge and its place in our prayers. Jabez’ name unfortunately translates as: “He Will Cause Pain.”
Now Jabez was more honorable than his brothers, and his mother called his name Jabez (He Will Cause Pain) saying, because I bore him in pain." And Jabez called on the God of Israel, saying, "Oh, that You would bless me indeed, and enlarge my territory, that Your hand would be with me, and that You would keep me from evil, that I might not cause pain!" So God granted him what he requested." [I Chron. 4:9,10].
When we acknowledge to God the pains and inadequacies that spring from our families of origin He stands ready to heal. Indeed God names Himself “I am the God Who Heals You” (Exodus 15:26). Jabez’ discovery of his origin and his prayer for deliverance from the terrible name he received from his mother must have caused great anguish. A commentary on the Torah speaks of the resistance we have to transformation, “the stone does not take sides with the master, but against him; to the stone, the first stroke struck to form it, appears as a most unnatural action.” All beginnings are hard, especially the beginning of self-discovery and transformation.
This re-formation of our old identity into a new Christian identity is what the Scripture calls sanctification. Sanctification is an old word that unfortunately has fallen out of use. Sanctification is the process of becoming holy, which may be why it is no longer a popular idea today. The deeper meaning of sanctification is the restoration to wholeness. Holiness in thought and action flows from the wholeness that comes as God’s gift of grace in our lives.
The theology of the Greek Fathers refers to this as deification following the teaching of St. Peter (2 Peter 1:3-7), “3 His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, 4 by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. 5 For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, 6 and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, 7 and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” That sanctification, that deification, is in the end result a work of the Cross.
Paul shares with us two secrets about this interior transformation. The first is that we are to be transformed by the “renewing of our minds” (Romans. 12:2). Spiritually you are what you eat, therefore Paul says again, “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy -- meditate on these things” (Phil. 4:8) Second, transformation comes from beholding the glory of God in prayer and worship, “we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as by the Spirit of the Lord” (2 Cor. 3:18). What you put in your mind colours and forms your identity. Who you worship, anchors that identity in practical reality.