When once you have accepted the Jesus Christ Message, nothing is ever the same again. All values change radically. The things that one spent time and energy in striving for are felt to be no longer worth the having, while other things that one passed by on the way with scarcely a glance, are discovered to be the only things that really matter. (Emmet Fox, The Sermon on The Mount)
Meeting Christ is a radical experience. It is a life changing message. However, there is no preset list of changes that you are handed when you meet Christ. No one can say that your experience of Christ means you must give up drinking, smoking, gambling or the like. What will change are the things that are separating you from God. If you truly seek to live a Christian life, all those things that prevent you from living that life will fall away. Each of us has different issues in our lives that separate us from God. Where are your troubles? Does drinking separate you from God? Pray and work for release, it will come. Does another addiction, be it smoking, gambling or sex, separate you from God? Pray and work for release, it will come. Does anger or jealousy or pride separate you from God? Pray and work for release, it will come.
If these things are problems in your life and they separate you from God, indeed, they should change. But, becoming a new creation in Christ means different things to different people. For example, I do not have a drinking problem. An occasional beer or glass of wine does not separate me from God. Meeting Christ, accepting Jesus as my savior doesn’t mean I have to give up drinking .. it means I must give up anything else that does separate me from God. For me, that means things like, anger, envy, jealousy and everyday acts of simple pettiness. These are the difficult changes for me. I struggle with these sins almost on a daily basis. But, I am a new creation in Christ. These are the things I must leave behind. They become easier and easier to avoid when I give my heart, my mind and my soul to God.
Dealing with my anger has been the biggest challenge for me as a Christian. Anger is the most debilitating sin that has plagued me. My anger has caused pain and misery not only for myself, but others around me. Through my relationship with Christ, I have seen ways to tame my anger, I have learned ways to use my anger more constructively, and sometimes how to avoid it all together. My anger is not totally gone, but God and I are working on it, together. It is part of my becoming a new creation in Christ.
For me to take that personal experience and try to force it on everyone would be a mistake. I cannot say that since anger is a sin for me that it is therefore a sin for everyone. In reality, anger is a positive, motivating force in the lives of some people. It can even help them serve God. Take Martin Luther for example. He wrote that his anger was a source of spiritual strength:
I never work better than when I am inspired by anger; when I am angry, I can write, pray, and preach well, for then my whole temperament is quickened, my understanding sharpened, and all mundane vexations and temptations depart.
Not so for me. Anger, for me, is a thorn in my side, an easy way for Satan to tempt me away from my work for God. Anger works against me. When I am angry I cannot write, pray or preach well. My whole temperament is vexed, my understanding is muddled, and the temptation to strike out in an unChrsitian way is heightened. I cannot find God in times of anger. For Luther it was different. His anger brought him closer to God, mine separates me from God. Therefore, I would be mistaken if I believed that all Christians should rid themselves of anger. I can only speak for myself.
To rid ourselves of behaviors that separate us from God, we must look to the divine and discover what behaviors we should be modeling as new creations. Jesus tells us we’ll be known by our fruits. In Galatians 5:22-23, Paul tells us the fruit of the spirit is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such is no law.”
As I try to cultivate the fruit of the spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control — I cannot help but give up my old ways. How can I practice any of these things when I am angry? How can I cultivate these fruits when I am envious or jealous or thinking of how I can take my revenge on someone who has offended me in some petty fashion? The simple answer is, I cannot. All these sins seek to defeat me. If I practice love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control, I will not have the time or energy for anger, envy, jealousy or schemes of getting even.
This is the beauty of Jesus’ message. Our change comes when we change our thoughts about the things and people around us. Instead of dwelling on my anger, and how people piss me off, God instructs me to dwell on love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. If I turn my thoughts to these sorts of things, I begin to see the difficult person before me in a whole new light. Instead of being irritated or angry with them, I see them through the eyes of Jesus’ perfect love. They stop being my enemy, they stop being someone to be dealt with and done with .. instead they become a fellow child of God. Emmet Fox believed this is the essence to Jesus’ instruction to “turn the other cheek.” The instruction “refers to the changing of one’s thought when faced by error, changing from the error to the Truth – and as a rule, it acts like magic.”
When we make this change, Fox theorized that our thoughts switch from the trouble before us to the Divine. If we then concentrate on what Fox called the “Real Spiritual Self” of the person before us, their conduct will immediately change. “If people are troublesome,” Fox wrote, “you have only to change your thought about them, and then they will change too, because your own concept is what you see. This is the true revenge.”
Try it sometime. The next time you deal with a cantankerous person, switch your perception off them and their behavior, and think on the fruit of the spirit, think on the Divine. I’ve tried this in the situation where my anger threatens to overtake me on any given day: traffic. The idiot that cuts me off, or does something stupid in front of me deserves my ire, and the international sign of friendship I flash at them, right? They are in the wrong, after all. I’ve often ruined my entire day by remaining angry at some person who pissed me off in traffic. I’ve taken that anger with me and ruined the day of everyone I came in contact with after that. I finally realized that the only person I’ve truly injured in these situations is myself. The person who cut me off probably went on to have a good day, blissfully unaware of my ire. In the end, my anger at them affects no one but me and those around me.
This sort of anger, allowed to run rampant, has wreaked havoc in our society. It’s the cause of much of the road rage violence we’ve seen around the United States. People refuse to let go of their anger, and often it ends in injury and death. How much better would society be if we could all stop and think a moment and switch our thoughts from the human plane to the divine, and dwell on thoughts of love and peace instead of anger and revenge?
Easy? No way. But in Christ, we are new creations. But don’t wrongly believe that we spring forth fully as new creations the moment we accept Jesus. No, we are constantly being renewed in Christ. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 3:18 that we are being changed into God’s likeness, “from one degree of glory to another.” This means we are on a journey with God .. a progression from one stage to another. We may never be perfect, but living a changed Christian life means we are ever striving to live by Jesus’ example of perfect love.
My anger didn’t disappear the moment I accepted Christ as my savior. My anger is an ever present force, reminding me of what I once was. I wrestle with my anger on a daily basis, and sometimes I have to back up and start again when I fail. I’m learning to let my anger go, and to dwell instead on thoughts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. Now when I’m cut off in traffic, I try to smile, and give the offender the benefit of the doubt. I realize now, my anger does nothing but ruin MY day.
There are a myriad of other sins and wrong thoughts that God and I work on together. The process of becoming new in Christ is not an easy one, and it can mean a lifetime of work. That work is not without reward. Jesus assures us that “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
What Is That To You?
Some may read this essay to this point and say, “that is all well and good that you’re dealing with your anger and other sins, but what about the ‘obvious’ sin … what about the sin of your sexual orientation?”
Such is the case with Mike Lawlor who wrote:
Just believing in Jesus is not enough. Even Satan believes who Jesus is. One must be born again and this means turning from your sinful behavior and letting the dear Lord Jesus make you a new creature.
I agree wholeheartedly with Mike that just believing in Jesus is not enough. Indeed, we must be born again .. we must be made new creations in Christ. Unfortunately, Mike is like many Christians who want to dictate what that new creation will look like. He has a preset list of changes he expects to see occur when one becomes Christian. His list includes a change in sexual orientation. Mike wants to point out the speck he believes he sees in my eye and say that is what must change before I can say I have truly become a new creation. Without that change, in Mike’s opinion, I am not Christian. The Good News? His opinion makes no difference in my transformation in Christ! Just because I am still a lesbian does not mean that God has not worked incredible miracles in my life!
Mike and Christians like him, whether they know it or not, put stumbling blocks in front of their brothers and sisters with this attitude. By wanting to dictate the change that God must make in someone’s life before they are “right” with God, they prevent many gays and lesbians from even thinking about a relationship with God. It’s daunting to give yourself to Christ, only to be told by other followers that the changes you’ve made, or have not made, are not good enough or are just plain wrong.
We are admonished over and over again by Christ not to judge one another. Yet, we do it everyday. Someone isn’t “good enough” their faith isn’t “strong enough” or they aren’t acting “Christian enough.” Sure, they may not live up to our standards, but those are not the standards we must live up to .. it’s God’s standard we must strive to meet. In John 21, Jesus tells Peter to “feed my sheep.” This is the simple instruction for the church and for us as Christians .. feed one another, edify one another, build each other up in Christ. This is the standard we must meet.
But we are like Peter. We want to know what God will do about the sins of others. Peter asks Jesus about the fate of the one who would betray him. Jesus’ response? “What is that to you?” Jesus says the same when we fret over the sins of others and question their salvation. “What is that to you?” God and the person in question will take care of the sins, and God alone can grant salvation. It is not my concern. My duty is to feed the sheep. My duty is build up my fellow Christian. My duty is to love my fellow Christian. I ask the same of Mike and Christians who seek to judge me or other gays and lesbians simply because our sexual orientation has not changed when we became Christians. “What is that to you?” Jesus’ instruction is clear. Concern yourself with the mission you are here to do. “Feed my sheep.”
How can we feed the sheep when we spend time questioning each other’s sincerity as Christians? How can we feed the sheep when we are leading one another to slaughter? How can we feed the sheep when we attack one another like wolves? Is not our common goal to feed the sheep?
If we live by the spirit, let us also walk by the spirit. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking of one another, no envy of one another. (Galatians 5:25-26)
Let us live by the spirit, brothers and sisters. Let us have no self-conceit, no provoking or envying of one another. We have accepted the Jesus Christ Message, and nothing is the same. All our values have changed radically. We no longer spend time and energy on things that interested us before we met Christ. Instead we are discovering the things that really matter. We have a common goal, to edify and build up one another in love. Let us become new creations, alive and loved by God. We don’t all have to agree with one another about every issue, but we are commanded to love one another. We are commanded to feed the sheep. This is what really matters.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.