We are all powerfully affected by the world around us. Clearly, we have all been greatly shaped by our families, our communities, and our culture. In addition to that, our day-to-day lives are often a series of responses to the people and events that we encounter each day.
Most of us find it fairly easy to respond with a cheerful wave and hello to friends who greet us warmly. We can usually smile at those who smile at us. When we are surrounded by a pleasant and peaceful environment, most of us can maintain a sense of peace and well-being. Of course, the reverse is also true. When someone is inconsiderate and treats us rudely, it is natural to flare up and want to lash out in retaliation. We have all seen how easily others can bring out the best or the worst in us. It happens in the home, on the job, and in Church congregations.
Have you ever thought about what defines Jesus Christ? Did He go through His life simply reacting to His surroundings? Did He lash out in anger and resentment toward those who tried to hurt Him in some way? If not, why not?
While human beings naturally react to the world around them, Jesus Christ defined Himself by always responding to the “above.” Rather than letting other people determine His mood and behavior, He sought always to let the Father in heaven direct Him.
“Well,” you might think, “He was Jesus Christ and He could do that, but I’m just a human being!” This brings us to part of the meaning of the Pentecost season. Pentecost reminds us of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ promised to His disciples (Acts 2:1–4). The Holy Spirit is the means by which Jesus Christ will actually live the same life in you and me that He lived as a human being when He walked the earth almost 2,000 years ago (cf. Galatians 2:20).
Whether we are defined by the “around” or by the “above” is a vital question that we all must face. If we simply go through life reacting to the world around us, we are living after the flesh and will ultimately perish (Romans 8:13). If, on the other hand, we seek to go through life continually responding to the “above”—regardless of the people and circumstances surrounding us—we are being led by the Spirit of God, and are on our way to life everlasting (v. 14). To react to the “around” comes easily—after all, it is natural! To respond to the “above,” day in and day out, is spiritual and not natural.
What is the difference between reacting naturally and responding spiritually? How do we move from the natural to the spiritual? Can we as human beings cease being defined by our surroundings?
The answers to these questions are made clear in the pages of Scripture. When you really understand and apply these answers, they will transform all of your relationships! This transformation is made possible through the indwelling power of God’s Holy Spirit.
Defined by the “Around”?
Jesus’ disciples were both bewildered and frightened on the night when Jesus was arrested by guards sent from the High Priest. When Judas embraced Jesus, the guards quickly surrounded Him. Simon Peter’s immediate response was to grab for his sword and move against the guard closest to him. Swinging at the High Priest’s servant, Malchus, his sword missed its intended target and struck off an ear (John 18:10). As Malchus raised his hand to the side of his head, blood streamed down, and he began to feel the sharp pain that resulted from the cut he had received. Jesus quickly reattached the severed ear to the side of Malchus’ head (Luke 22:50–51)!
Jesus told Peter to put away his sword, and warned him that those who live by the sword will die by the sword. He then reminded Peter that he could ask His Father for twelve legions of angels, if He wished (Matthew 26:52–53).
About 30 years later, Peter wrote a letter to Israelite Christians living along the southern shore of the Black Sea (cf. 1 Peter 1:1). His words illustrate the difference between Christ’s response and Peter’s on that evening. “Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example, that you should follow His steps,” he wrote (1 Peter 2:21). Peter had been an eyewitness to the example of Jesus, “who, when He was reviled, did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously” (v. 23).
How many times over the years had Peter “replayed” the events of that evening in his mind? As he thought about his own reaction, and how totally different it was from Christ’s response, he considered how Jesus was actually setting an example for His disciples. He had not allowed Himself to be defined by others’ attitudes and behaviors. Hours later, when Jesus was nailed to the post upon which He was to die, He looked down at callous soldiers, squatted at the foot of His cross, who were dividing His clothes among them and gambling over His seamless coat. “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do,” He prayed (Luke 23:34).
“But Jesus was the Son of God,” you may be thinking. “Surely a normal human being could never be expected to respond in a similar way!” Yet in Acts 7, we read about Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Taken outside Jerusalem’s walls to be stoned to death, Stephen’s final words were, “Lord, do not charge them with this sin” (v. 60). In his death, he followed the example of his Savior. Stephen was not defined by simply reacting and lashing out at the unfairness around him. First and foremost, He responded to God and followed the example of Jesus Christ.
These are dramatic examples of responding to God in a time of severe crisis. Most of us have not found ourselves in such dramatic encounters, so how do these examples apply to us? Almost every day, we all encounter situations that require us to choose how we will respond. In daily circumstances, in our families and on our jobs, how do we handle life’s frustrations and hurts? To what extent are we defined by others?
Trying to Protect the Self
Our reactions are often motivated by desires to protect and advance the self. We engage in self-protective strategies because we do not want others to hurt us. That is natural, but it is not the approach that Christ chose!
Notice the instruction that Jesus gave to His disciples as recorded in Matthew 16:24–25 and Luke 9:23–24. He explained that anyone who truly wishes to be His disciple must deny the self, take up his cross daily, and follow Him on the journey through life. Think about what that really means, because it goes completely contrary to the self-centered spirit of our age.
Self-denial requires a spirit of sacrifice. It means that we recognize a cause that is of far greater worth than anything we could achieve here and now. As the prophet Isaiah expressed it, “the earth will grow old like a garment, and those who dwell in it will die in like manner; but My salvation will be forever” (Isaiah 51:6). This contrast between what is permanent and what is temporary should put our choices into perspective.
The Christian walk starts with an attitude of self-denial rather than self-fulfillment. This means a willingness to say no to our human desires and pleasures, in order that we might do the Work for which God has called us.
Jesus’ listeners were very familiar with the cross as an instrument of Roman torture. They had seen posts erected on the hillsides, where the Romans hung those deemed enemies of the state. The Romans made a public spectacle of executions, even forcing the condemned man to carry his own instrument of torture to the place where he was to die. It is in this context that Christ said His disciples must be willing to carry their assigned burden every day. Simply put, we are to follow Him. His example is paramount, and is one that we must seek to emulate as Christians.
Emulating Christ will certainly bring criticism and reproach from the world around. However, those who would be Christ’s disciples must practice Isaiah’s admonition: “Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, you people in whose heart is My law: do not fear the reproach of men, nor be afraid of their insults” (Isaiah 51:7). With whom are we most impressed—with God, or with other people? Our answer will determine many of the choices we make.
Consider many of the Jewish religious leaders in Jesus’ day. Virtually all had heard some of His sermons, and many had heard of, or had direct knowledge of, His miracles and healings. Did you know that quite a few actually believed that Jesus was the Messiah, but kept silent because they valued their status and reputation, and did not want to risk being ostracized by those who were “important” in their society (John 12:42–43)?
Take the example of Nicodemus, a prominent Pharisee who came to Jesus privately near the beginning of His ministry (John 3:1–2). We read of an event that occurred about two-and-a-half years later, at the fall festival season of 30AD. Some of the leading Pharisees and chief priests had sent soldiers to bring Jesus in for questioning, but the soldiers returned empty-handed. When questioned as to why this was so, the awestruck soldiers said that they had never heard anyone speak the way that Jesus spoke (John 7:46). The angry Pharisees replied dismissively with the question: “Have any of the rulers or the Pharisees believed in Him?” (v. 48). The answer to that question was actually “yes”—but they just did not know! Nicodemus, present as part of the group, had never told them of his belief. When he asked a mild question, trying to soften their approach toward Jesus, he was immediately “put down” (vv. 50–52). He did not argue, or say anything further. Nicodemus, along with Joseph of Arimathea and others, was a “secret” disciple, perhaps out of fear of the religious leadership or because he desired their approval (cf. John 19:38).
This fear of rejection and harsh criticism produced an outward conformity on the part of many religious Jews of Jesus’ day. On the one hand, they recognized that this Teacher from Galilee was from God, yet they were also very reluctant to say or do anything that would directly associate themselves with someone so controversial. Ultimately, they all had to come to terms with this issue: “Whose opinion really counts?” Was it God’s approval, or that of their fellow Jews, that mattered most?
When Jesus was arrested, tried and executed, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea finally had to take a public stand (John 19:38–39). At this lowest point, they came forth and identified themselves as disciples and friends by claiming His body for burial. Having wrestled for about three years with their fear of what other people would say, they recognized that what God would say was far more important.
Almost 80 years ago, Herbert W. Armstrong had to face this same test when he was first being converted. Upon learning that his wife wanted to begin keeping the biblical seventh- day Sabbath, he worried about what his business associates would think. It seemed like fanaticism, and he worried about rejection and disapproval from men whom he held in high regard. Ultimately, he came to the point where the approval of men was insignificant to him, in comparison to God’s approval. Only when we come to that point can we surrender unconditionally to God. We cannot be defined by the opinions and expectations of others around us, while at the same time being the complete bond-slave of Jesus Christ!
Handling Life Properly
The Bible is replete with stories in which people addressed their fears and frustrations the wrong way. It is relatively easy to respond as we ought when doing so is to our advantage. Satan thought that Job only obeyed God because of all of the protection and blessings that he received (Job 1:9–11). Soon, Job’s whole world turned upside down as he lost his family, his wealth, his social position and even his health. Yet, though he became deeply frustrated and discouraged, Job never turned bitter against God, as Satan had predicted he would. In his depths, Job could still declare: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that he shall stand at last on the earth” (Job 19:25). Job anticipated the resurrection, and the time when he would finally see God (vv. 26–27).
Knowing that God is real is vital to handling life properly. The Apostle Paul expressed it in Hebrews 11:6: “But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.” The men and women whose lives are cataloged in Hebrews 11 understood the profound reality of their Creator. That knowledge put into perspective all of the tests and trials they faced.
Why was Moses not intimidated and awed by the pomp, grandeur and power of ancient Egypt? Because God and His power were far more real to him (Hebrews 11:27). Moses made a decision that he would rather suffer affliction with God’s people than enjoy the temporary pleasures afforded by sin (v. 25). He understood the relative value of these rewards. The treasures of Egypt had no hold on him, because he recognized the far greater value of the promises offered by God. Through faith, Moses put his options into perspective, and had no trouble deciding what was truly important.
Others took a far different approach. When Jeroboam was an up and coming officer of King Solomon, rushing to and fro on government business, the prophet Ahijah confronted him with the startling news that he was destined to inherit most of his master’s kingdom (1 Kings 11:26–37). Ahijah conveyed God’s promise that if Jeroboam would faithfully serve God, and keep his commandments as King David had done, his dynasty would be established permanently (v. 38). Over the next few years, this all came to pass—and Jeroboam found himself the king of a great nation. Soon, however, Jeroboam began to worry about the future. He became afraid that as the people went up to Jerusalem year by year to celebrate God’s festivals, they would eventually become nostalgic for “the good old days,” and would wish to re-unite the country under David’s dynasty (1 Kings 12:26–27).
Jeroboam’s apprehension about the future (and his wish for security for himself and his descendants) caused him to follow a human strategy that led the whole nation into idolatry. God and His promises were not real to Jeroboam, in the way they had been real to King David decades earlier. Jeroboam pursued the way that seemed right to him, rather than believing God’s promises and trusting his Creator to make it all work out.
It is natural to focus on the world around us, and to allow our choices and our behavior to be determined by it. It is quite natural to react to our surroundings—after all, human beings have been doing so ever since the Garden of Eden, when Eve listened to Satan’s “sales pitch” and Adam followed his wife! However, to do what comes naturally ends in death.
On the other hand, God offers us His Holy Spirit so that we might overcome the pulls of the flesh and resist doing what comes naturally. If we follow the lead of the Spirit, we are on the way to life everlasting (Romans 8:12–13).
To what extent are we simply reacting to what is around us, and doing what comes naturally? Or are we using God’s Spirit to reject the natural way and follow the spiritual way—responding to the “above”? “For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (v. 14).
What defines your life—the “around” or the “above”?