Conforming to The Right Image
“What we are worshipping, we are becoming.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said those famous words. In other words, our deities shape our identities. And we can see the truth of this statement in the lives of two fairly famous men.
The evolutionary scientist Charles Darwin once wrote in his autobiography: “My chief enjoyment and sole employment throughout life has been scientific work.” From this work, he added, “I am never idle,” as it is “the only thing which makes life endurable to me.” What effect did devoting himself to scientific work have on the person Darwin became?
Up to the age of thirty poetry … “gave me great pleasure, and … I took intense delight in Shakespeare. … But now for many years I … found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me … My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts. (This) loss is a loss of happiness … (I became) a withered leaf for every subject except Science” (which he saw as “a great evil”).
Now look at the life of the great theologian Jonathan Edwards. At age 19, Edwards wrote, “Resolved … to cast my soul on the Lord Jesus Christ, to trust and confide in him, and consecrate myself wholly to him.” Later in his life Edwards reflected on how his object of worship affected his soul over the years: “[It] brought an inexpressible purity, brightness, peacefulness and ravishment to the soul. In other words, it made the soul like a field or garden.”
Two gifted men. One became “a withered leaf” and the other a “garden.” The object of their ultimate devotion shaped the very different kind of men these two became.[i] “What we are worshipping, we are becoming.”
So who, or what, are we worshipping? If you’re watching today, chances are you just gave the “church” answer to that question. “I’m worshipping God, of course.” But are we, really? In recent weeks, we’ve had a lot that we hold dear stripped away from us. We’re trying to stop the spread of something we can’t see, hear, smell, taste, or touch, and it’s taken away our sense of safety and security. When someone throws a ball at me, I can duck. But what do I do when the ball is so small that I can’t see it? And while the ball might just make me sick, it could be deadly to someone I love very much. But I can’t see it coming.
Many of us aren’t working right now, and businesses that are open are struggling to make ends meet. It’s put economic pressure on all of us. Bank balances are getting low. We’ve all felt the pressure of, “What if I can’t pay the bills this month?” and that’s a question some of us aren’t used to asking. And many of us aren’t working or are working in a modified way, and it’s left us feeling empty, without a purpose.
And we’ve temporarily lost our ability to move around and go where we want. Some of us think the idea of a perfect vacation is to go places and experience new things, but for others, those of us who are more introverted, the idea of a staycation, where we stay home and don’t do anything, sounds kind of perfect. And here we are, many of us on a government mandated staycation, and we’re chaffing to get out and do something. In most circumstances we’d CHOOSE to stay home, but told that we pretty much HAVE TO and now we suddenly want to get out. There’s just something about human nature that is fine not doing something until you tell us that we can’t. Then, suddenly, we almost have a drive to do that thing. “Life is too busy, I just want to stay home. Okay, stay home. Don’t go out unless you absolutely must. I am so tired of staying home. Tell us we have to stay home and suddenly the whole population wants to go for a hike. We’ve spent years telling people to get out and be more active and what have they done then? Stayed home and watched a whole season of Ozarks on Netflix in a single weekend. That drive to do what we’re told we can’t or shouldn’t do is our sinful nature coming out.
I’d say many of us SAY we are worshipping God, but we’re really worshipping our ability to earn and save money, our strength and vitality, and our freedom to move and go where we want, when we want. And because of that, we’re really struggling right now.
As we continue our journey through Paul’s letter to the Romans, we’re looking today at one of the most comforting passages in the entire Bible. In it, God reminds us that he IS in fact working for our good, and that he IS in fact shaping us into the image of Christ. He isn’t making us divine. We will never be divine. But he IS shaping us into the image of Christ, so that our lives look more and more LIKE the life of Christ, so that our characters look more and more LIKE the character of Christ. Romans 8 is the perfect chapter to be looking at right now given all that we are facing in this country, on this planet. And this is our 5th week in Romans 8. In it we’re reminded that regardless of what we face in this life, we can know that God has set us free from the power of sin and death, that he has adopted us into his family as his daughters and sons, and that he is at work in us and for us. So turn with me today to Romans 8:28-30.
This passage begins with this incredible promise, this promise that we KNOW that for those who LOVE GOD and have responded to God’s invitation, those who are CALLED by God, ALL THINGS work together for GOOD. Entire sermons have been preached just on this passage. When we do that, we just have to make sure that we don’t strip it from its context to make it say something Paul never intended to say. In its context, this is still a powerful, comforting promise. So let’s take a good look at it.
Paul starts by saying that we KNOW that this is true. Not that we hope, not that we wish, not that we want it to be true. He says simply we know. God will absolutely and without question make sure that what Paul is about to say happens. So what do we know? What are we absolutely sure of?
That for those who LOVE GOD. Let’s stop right there. He comes back to the same idea at the end of the promise when he says, “those who are called according to his purpose.” This promise applies to those who love God. This involves more than just believing that God exists. He’s talking about a loyalty to God. The word he uses for love here, pictures the highest form of love possible, what we as disciples of Christ often refer to as agape love. It describes love as an act of the will, making a decision to love regardless of the consequences. It isn’t just an emotional connection, although that can be there too. It is to love with all of your heart, and mind, and strength. And who are those who love God? To love God is to respond to God’s invitation in Christ and align your life with God’s purpose. It is to follow Jesus, to be a disciple of Jesus. These are the people to whom this promise applies.
So we can be sure that for those who love God, ALL THINGS. Again, let’s stop right there. All things. Good and bad. Seen and unseen. The good, the bad, and the ugly. All things what? All things work together for GOOD. Now this is where we have to understand what Paul is saying, and we cannot apply a 20th century western definition of good to Paul’s words here. Paul is NOT promising that God will bring us material wealth and physical well-being. I hear this all the time. A relationship doesn’t work out, so God must have a better person for me. I lose a job so God must have a better, more profitable job for me. That isn’t what God promises here. You see, that understanding of this promise assumes that God is promising good IN THIS LIFE, but that isn’t what we’re talking about here. Health and wealth and everything else. That isn’t the promise.
What IS being promised is that everything we experience is being used by God for our good. Not that every experience will lead to good in this life. Now, there’s another mistake that we often make here, and that is to assume then that because all things work together for the good of those who love God, all things are therefore good. We wrongly say this a lot to people who are grieving a deep, deep loss. “Well, all things work together for good, so the loss of your child must be a part of God’s plan, so chin up.” That is NOT what this passage is teaching. Does God use everything? Absolutely. For my good? Yes. Does this mean everything IS inherently good? No. And some people like to take it a step farther and say that God actually CAUSES bad or even evil events to happen. Does God allow it? Yes. Creation itself, along with every human heart, is marred by sin and is experiencing the impact of the fall. That is why creation herself groans, longing to be set free from the impact of our sin, as we talked about last week when we looked at Romans 8:22, which serves as part of the context for this passage. Sun and rain fall on the just and the unjust, the godly and the ungodly alike. The promise isn’t that we won’t experience any real evil or anything really bad in this life. The promise is that God will use everything we experience for our good. And what is our good? Look down at Vv, 29-30.
Theologians and biblical scholars love to dig into, argue really, about the meaning of all of the big words in this sentence … foreknew, predestined, called, justified, and glorified. And that’s important. But the truth is, it all comes down to this – God. Is. Sovereign. Our salvation begins and ends with God’s decision to save us and actions in saving us. God is in control. Again, this isn’t to say that God CAUSES bad things to happen. We do have the freedom to choose, the freedom to love and follow or deny and disobey God. But our salvation started in the heart and mind of God, and it will end with God’s finishing of the process God started. 1 John 4:19 says “We love because he first loved us.” We have a role to play to be sure, because God has given us a role to play. But even that was a sovereign decision on his part.
In his book Knowledge of the Holy, A. W. Tozer attempts to reconcile the seemingly contradictory beliefs of God’s sovereignty and man’s free will:
“An ocean liner leaves New York bound for Liverpool. Its destination has been determined by proper authorities. Nothing can change it. This is at least a faint picture of sovereignty. On board the liner are scores of passengers. These are not in chains, neither are their activities determined for them by decree. They are completely free to move about as they will. They eat, sleep, play, lounge about on the deck, read, talk, altogether as they please; but all the while the great liner is carrying them steadily onward toward a predetermined port. Both freedom and sovereignty are present here, and they do not contradict. So it is, I believe, with man’s freedom and the sovereignty of God. The mighty liner of God’s sovereign design keeps its steady course over the sea of history.”[ii]
Paul’s bigger point here is to remind us that the promise of God, the promise that all things work for the good of those who love God, is founded not in our faithfulness but in God’s sovereignty. God WILL bring this about because God has PROMISED that he will do so, and he cannot and will not fail. In Philippians 1:6, Paul says exactly the same thing. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
But sometimes we miss what Paul says right in the middle of this big, theological description of our salvation in Christ, and that is that God is shaping us into THE IMAGE OF CHRIST. And THAT is the good that God is causing all things to work together for in our lives. The good isn’t a better job, or a better person in your life, or a better situation in life. The good is being conformed to the image of Christ. So maybe I experience the loss of a good job and the resulting financial challenges not because God has a better paying job out there for me, but because God wants me to focus less and worry less about my finances and my stuff and focus more on daily dependence on him for provision. That is being conformed to the image of Christ. And sometimes, the good that God has for us hurts IN THIS LIFE.
In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says, “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what he is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised.
But presently he starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is he up to? The explanation is that he is building quite a different house from the one you thought of—throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards.
You thought you were going to be made into a decent little cottage, but He is building up a palace. He intends to come and live in it himself.”[iii]
In Philippians 2:4-15 Paul likens us to shining stars. “Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.” The word shine means to reflect. The scientific term is albedo. It’s a measurement of how much sunlight a celestial body reflects. The planet Venus, for example, has the highest albedo at .65. In other words, 65 percent of the light that hits Venus is reflected. Depending on where it’s at in its orbit, the almost-a-planet Pluto has an albedo ranging from .49 to .66. Our night-light, the moon, has an albedo of .07. Only seven percent of sunlight is reflected, yet it lights our way on cloudless nights.
In a similar sense, each of us has a spiritual albedo. The goal? One hundred percent reflectivity. We, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord. You cannot produce light. You can only reflect it.[iv] But reflect it we must, as God makes all things, everything we experience, the good, the bad, and the ugly, to work for our good, conforming us into the image of Christ. I might modify Emerson’s words just slightly. He said “What we are worshipping, we are becomeing.” I’d say, “What we are worshipping, we are becomeing LIKE.” Let us pray.
[i] Thaddeus J. Williams, Becoming Yourself by Mirroring the Greatest Person in History, (Weaver Book Company, 2017), Introduction
[ii] Douglas G. Gerrard, Kingston, Ontario. Leadership, Vol. 6, no. 4.
[iii] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
[iv] Mark Batterson, If: Trading Your If Only Regrets for God’s What If Possibilities (Baker Books, 2015), page 220