We might offer many answers to this question beyond the basic reply of “becoming like Jesus” (Rom 8:28-29; 2 Cor 3:18), but there is one aspect of Jesus that may be helpful to consider. Jesus manifested a dependence and inability to act independently throughout his ministry. The work of God the Spirit and the authority of God the Father show predominantly in Jesus’ claims that his teaching was not his own (John 7:16; 12:49), that he did only what the Father showed him (John 5:19-20), and that he could do nothing on his own authority (John 5:30; 8:28). Jesus claimed that his works were actually the Father’s expressed through the Son of Man (John 14:10).
These examples of Jesus’ dependence are a stark contrast to the impulse to self-sufficiency and personal initiative that sometimes tempts us when we desire productivity, action and results. I suggest that one important metric of Christian growth is an increase in one’s sense of dependency on God, together with the feeling of inability for the task at hand. The cry of “I’m not up to this” is a sign of having come to know that God’s works are much greater than what we could begin to accomplish on our own. In fact, Jesus says that on our own we can do nothing, any more than a severed branch can produce grapes (John 15:4-5).
Long experience with certain tasks of teaching, study or caring for people may give us a sense of competence, and familiarity with the behaviors of evangelical Christianity may make it more comfortable for us, but I think the fact remains that knowing God more means knowing better our incapability of acting without his involvement. Instead of having confidence in our abilities, preparation, and diligence, maturity should mean we have learned that we are emptier vessels than we earlier realized, with nothing to offer others than what God works through us. Suffering can help with this, so that the works we do are evident as beyond our capability (2 Cor 4:7), since our obvious inability is the platform of weakness on which God more clearly displays his ability in power (2 Cor 12:9-10).
What we count as metrics for answering the question of “What is Christian maturity?” drives how we make choices and forms our sense of progress or failure to arrive at the goal we envision. By comparison, if I am trying to get to Seattle from Los Angeles, but I find myself veering towards Dallas, then I will be frustrated and discouraged about how far off-course I am. Contrarily, if I am actually moving towards Seattle, then I will be happy about my progress since that is where I think I need to be headed. This situation can be self-assuring.
My concern in this is that, like the Pharisees told about in the Gospels, evangelical metrics are far too easy to accomplish. We set our sights on Seattle, but what if God has called us to arrive at Cuba? What if our veering towards Dallas is actually God’s work to get us to Cuba while we are steering ourselves to Seattle? The way we answer the question of the right metrics for Christian maturity will drive a host of other decisions and experiences of our daily life. What does it mean to become like Jesus?
Options that seem to be the markers Christians use as guidelights for telling progress in sanctification are:
- the practice of spiritual disciplines
- activity in ministry
- feelings of closeness to God
- feelings of connectedness with a local church
- shifts in behaviors of:
- forgiving others
- refraining from anger
- refraining from complaining about life
- being busy with one’s time to do good things (instead of losing time to entertainment)
- spending lots of time in prayer for others
- being kind, considerate, humble, and concerned for others instead of worrying about one’s own situation, desires, and experiences.
What is wrong with these practices and attitudes? Nothing—they are all admirable and picture the healed life in Christ as moved by the Spirit of God. The problem is when I rely on them for my assurance about my progress in sanctification. The problem is using superficial traits that can be performed externally by personal diligence and will-power as indications of being conformed to Christ. When we count as metrics the behaviors of Christian practice for our assurance of progressive sanctification in ourselves or others, we are making judgments based on appearances (John 7:24). We do not know enough to make these judgments. Only God is the Judge.
Instead of the hard data of hours logged in prayer, study, ministry, or the increased facility with the virtues of compassion and wisdom in care for others, or a noticeable decline in the force and frequency of sinful behaviors in my life, I submit that the metrics of Jesus’ dependence on the Father and his disavowal of self-sufficiency are better metrics for us to see the progressive sanctification that God is accomplishing in us—we are his project, not our own project (1 Thess 5:23-24; Eph 2:10).
God’s vision of who he wants us to be and how we operate in daily life is likely much different than our visions for ourselves. God likely envisions the heavy and powerful influence and operation of his own activity in us, so that we are like the cloth of a sail or a hot air balloon, and his activity is the wind and energy that fill and move us about as he wants (“be filled with the Spirit” Eph 5:18; cf. John 3:8; Acts 2:2-4). From the inside, we need to see that we are incapable in ourselves, that our knowledge and skills are worthless, that our exertions and virtues are useless—like dry branches severed from a grapevine (John 15:4-5), but that God chooses to act through us (John 15:7-8). Only with God’s action do worth and value appear in our efforts.
The primary metaphor of Christian discipleship is lifelong crucifixion (Luke 9:23; cf. Gal 2:20), so perhaps the thing that must die as part of living in Christ is our illusion of our independent ability, that lie that we have a contribution to make from ourselves, and our delusion of self-sufficiency to work at a life as we envision it. Instead of self-sufficiency and personal initiatives at aspiring to be a better version of ourselves, becoming like Jesus is to surrender ourselves to God’s leading in daily life (Rom 8:14) so that we live not by our metrics but by him directly. The Word and Spirit were Jesus’ guidelines to the Father, and these same are provided to us as guidelines also—not to chart our own course to fulfill our own agenda, but so that we may be led by God in living with him.