The great goal of the Christian life is to be conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. The Christian longs to be influenced by Christ to such an extent that every thought is one Jesus would think, that every action is one he would take. Such conformity depends upon a renewed mind, for it is only once our minds are renewed that our desires and actions can follow (Romans 12:2). The Christian life, then, is one of taking off the “old self with its practices” and putting on “the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:9-10).
So noble a goal can only be achieved with great effort and lifelong commitment, for we are sinful people, only recently liberated from our captivity to the world, the flesh, and the devil. The Christian life is not a leisurely stroll but a purposeful journey. Jesus tells us we must “strive to enter through the narrow door,” knowing that the Christian life permits no complacency, that salvation must be “worked out,” not waited out (Luke 13:24; Philippians 2:12). The Christian is not a passive spectator in sanctification but an active participant.
We are looking at “8 Rules for Growing in Godliness,” a series of instructions for becoming increasingly conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. (Here’s the Introduction to the series.) The first rule for growing in godliness is this: Trust the means of grace. Every Christian is responsible to diligently search out and discover the disciplines through which God grants increased godliness. Then he is to make a lifelong, whole-hearted commitment to each of them.
It is a conviction meant to quiet our minds and encourage our hearts: In some way God has a hand in our suffering. Whatever circumstances we experience can no more arise without the hand of God than a saw can cut without the hand of the carpenter. Job in his suffering did not say, “The Lord gave and the devil took away,” but, “The Lord gave and the Lord took away.” Suffering never comes our way apart from the purpose and providence of God and for that reason, suffering is always significant, never meaningless. Here are some ways that God brings good from our suffering.
Suffering is our preacher and teacher. It was Luther who said that he could never properly understand some of the Psalms until he endured suffering. A sick bed often teaches more than a sermon, and suffering first teaches us about our sin and sinfulness. Suffering also teaches us about ourselves, for in times of health and prosperity all seems to be well and we are both humble and grateful, but in suffering we come to see the ingratitude and rebellion of our hearts. We can best see the ugly face of sin and the reality of spiritual childishness in the mirror of suffering.
It’s a funny little story that could only have happened during the church’s earliest days. Paul has been on one of his missionary journeys and, while traveling through Asia Minor, stumbles upon a little group of believers. But there’s something unusual about them, something missing. Here’s how Luke describes it:
And it happened that while Apollos was at Corinth, Paul passed through the inland country and came to Ephesus. There he found some disciples. And he said to them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?” And they said, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” And he said, “Into what then were you baptized?” They said, “Into John’s baptism.” And Paul said, “John baptized with the baptism of repentance, telling the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. And when Paul had laid his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in tongues and prophesying. There were about twelve men in all. (Acts 19:1-6)
There in Ephesus, Paul comes across a group of disciples. What exactly it means that they are disciples has been the subject of much debate. Are these genuine pre-Pentecost believers who have trusted in Jesus Christ but not yet heard about the Holy Spirit? Or are they disciples of John who have simply never been told of Jesus? For our purposes it probably doesn’t much matter. Whatever the case, Paul quickly comes to see that something isn’t quite right.