I once thought that the Bible’s admonition to work out my salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12) meant getting my actions right. Pray harder. Live holier. Love deeper. A soul could do worse than to pursue those ends, yet as Christ has worked in me—often in spite of me—I am learning that the end goal of my worked-out salvation isn’t what I do, but who I am becoming.
“Lay aside the old self,” Paul writes to the Christians in Ephesus, “which is being corrupted in accordance with the lusts of deceit, and . . . be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created in righteousness and holiness of the truth” (Eph. 4:22-24). Working out salvation isn’t about getting my actions right so much as getting me right. Who I am. Who I am called to be.
Working out salvation isn’t about getting my actions right so much as getting me right. Who I am. Who I am called to be.
The world calls us to be many things, and our seduction begins at a young age. I know a teacher who tried an experiment with his middle schoolers. He gave half his classroom red armbands to wear and the other half, blue armbands. Then he went about the school day as if nothing was different. As the day progressed, he observed children congregating based on armband color. Children with different colors—even ones who were close friends at the day’s outset—began to speak unkindly to one another. Their behavior became so ugly that he ended his experiment early.
We are called to new selves in the likeness of God but are tempted to conform instead to other tribes, to make enemies of outsiders. This certainly isn’t limited to schoolchildren, is it? Most of us find ourselves continuously and subtly tempted to conform in how we dress, how we talk, and even how we pray. We are tempted to gossip about those who don’t conform and to keep them distant from our lives and hearts.
You’d think a silver lining of so much pressure to belong to a group would be a tendency to put our community’s interests ahead of our own. In reality, however, it appears that our society is becoming more self-centered, even in the midst of our conformism. After studying everything from psychological tests to the rising use of the words “I” and “me,” researcher Dr. Jean Twenge found that the average American is more narcissistic than ever.
It sounds schizophrenic to crave both conformity and individuality. I’d be inclined to believe a person could be driven by only one or the other desire, except that I find both in my own heart. I monitor what I say, how I dress, what I eat—for fear of other people’s opinions. At the same time, I want to stand out from the crowd. Perhaps this isn’t an American dilemma so much as a human one: we want to fit in, yet we are rebellious.
We are constantly enticed to forge our own paths. “Create your own world,” is one slogan from a ball cap manufacturer. “Be uniquely you,” urges a popular brassiere maker. Even tried and true institutions aren’t immune; witness the U.S. Army’s unfortunate “Army of One” campaign a few years back. You aren’t somebody, the messengers of culture whisper, unless you are very different than all the other somebodies. It’s a paradoxical trap. Marketers know that we are terrified not to fit in, just as they know that we all want to feel special. So they pressure us to conform to the illusion that each of us is the hidden standard—and that an exemplary life is one in which a person delves deeper and deeper into the wonder and mystery of himself. Be like everyone else, our culture demands, by pretending to be more special than anyone else.
The world says to be uniquely and wonderfully ourselves, but God invites us to partake of His wonder. Paul writes, “Put on the new self, which in the likeness of God has been created . . .” (Eph. 4:24). But what does it mean to put on a new self in the likeness of God? God in all His holiness. God who forged creation. God who is three in one. How can a person even begin to comprehend such a calling?
We Must Decrease
Perhaps we should begin at the Trinity. Here we see something that is easy to overlook, especially when immersed in a culture that praises self-regarding individuality. The Trinity that is God, in stark contrast, is a community of other-regarding, sacrificial love: the Father gives all things to His Son; the Son honors the Father and makes way for the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit fills man with conviction to worship Father and Son in spirit and truth. Occupying a distinct place, each Person is defined in relation to and filled up with love for the others. And in God’s infinite mercy and compassion, that love is extended to us, though we’ve not earned it.
Putting on a new self in the likeness of God means adopting this same commitment to other-regarding love. How very different than the “new self” our culture encourages us to fashion. “Express yourself,” says the world. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” says Christ. We are called not to self-aggrandizement, but to community.
The world says to be uniquely and wonderfully ourselves, but God invites us to partake of His wonder.
A regard for others is how we become, paradoxically, more fully ourselves. “For what is a man profited,” Christ preached to His disciples, “if he gains the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself?” (Luke 9:25). If I put my life first, I lose the one God offers me. This is the exact opposite of worldly wisdom, which urges me to claim my life by forging my own path, creating a newer, better, more brilliant and unique me. Christ calls me to find myself by taking up a cross and following Him: “Whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it” (v. 24).
When Simon of Cyrene set out for Jerusalem, he had no idea that he would be handed a cross and compelled to carry it to an area that the locals called the “Place of the Skull” (Mark 15:22). Certainly he did not picture himself as a cross-carrier. Certainly he had other visions for what his life meant, for what it would become. Yet our good works have been prepared for us beforehand (Eph. 2:10), and on the day of Christ’s death, Simon’s good work was to bear the cross of the Savior. Simon (whose name means “obedience”) may have had one plan for what his purpose in the world would be, but his self-guided path intersected with Christ’s path—and his path became Christ’s. Simon the Cyrene became Simon the Cross-bearer. He became who he was crafted to be, because he joined himself to God’s labor.
Would that each of us has the perseverance to do the same. May our paths meet Christ’s. May we discern our callings by following that single path to Golgotha, to the death of our old selves and to newness of life.