My Communications professor used to say, “Whatever a person perceives is truth to them.” I believed him, or at least I perceived that I did. “True to them” is the operative phrase. Right or wrong, perception is, in fact, our version of the story.
I think I am doing OK at the Christianity thing, but how do I know whether or not my version of the story is true? What if the sensations that I usually label as growing in Christ likeness are really aroused by counterfeit emotions? For example: feelings which are not responsive to God’s holiness but to self-importance; desires which are not for inner transformation but for an appearance of goodness that makes me feel better about myself; and actions which are not motivated by love but by the lure of approval.
What if my sense of doing well spiritually is nothing more than a judgment of how well I measure up against other Christians I know? What if I have simply learned how to spin perception (mine and others) to make myself look better than I really am?
“Feeling good about it” and “looking better than them” are false standards, imaginary treasures. Our pursuit of them reveals something about what we really want, which in my case is to feel important or successful. At the end of the day the most unpolluted standard is, as Jonathan Edwards called it, the “loveliness of God’s holiness.” I’m not going to pretend that I understand all of what that means. I’m sure grasping it has something to do with an honest consideration of just how pure and perfect God really is and how mercifully and generously He has dealt with us. I imagine that the fruit of such consideration would be an increased hatred of sin, an increased love of righteousness and something like esteeming others as better than me.
These are altogether different than conventional standards. Ask someone how they are doing spiritually, and they are not likely to tell you how much they hate their sin or how much they love righteousness. They are more likely to talk about their hatred of guilt or disapproval and their love of success. They will tell you how often they have or have not had “quiet times” recently (which is commonly misunderstood as a measurement of spiritual success or failure today). Or maybe you will hear about their material blessings. People frequently describe their spiritual life to me in terms of how profitable their business is or isn’t. More mature Christians like me may tell you about ministry successes and failures. It all sounds so innocent and nice, but it is way off the mark.
Authentic transformation and Christian maturity is not essentially a matter of what we know or do, but of what we want. Our learning and doing are merely consequences of what we want, which is why Christian knowledge and activity can be corrupted by our desires to be smart or look good. But when our love and aim is Christ Himself—and not the particular things that our Christian circles deem most important—we can become the kind of people who hate sin and love righteousness. We can act with good motives. We can lose ourselves in the activity of God. This is the life of Christ, which becomes ours as we want it. “For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Colossians 3:3-4).[Will Walker lives with his wife, child and dog in Austin, Texas. He also writes for the Musings blog at walker.typepad.com.]