The Counterintuitive Gospel Life
One of the most difficult things about the gospel is that everything about it is counterintuitive. Do you want glory? You have to humble yourself. Do you want to be first? You have to be last. Do you want to live? You have to die. It’s almost impossible for our finite and sinful minds to take in.
I was in ninth grade when I realized that the gospel outlook was profoundly different from the world’s. I was on the cross country team, and we were choosing a team captain. The group had nominated my friend, Ginny, and me. At the time, I was not walking faithfully with the Lord, so my heart was selfish. Nonetheless, I’d grown up hearing the gospel, and its counterintuitive mentality was in my bones. So, when I looked at my ballot and wanted to vote for myself, I swallowed my pride and voted for Ginny. The votes were tallied, and Ginny won. Later, my coach pulled me aside. “You know,” she said with exasperated correction, “If you had just voted for yourself, you would have won.” The message? The right thing to do is to seek your own good before you seek the good of others. And I felt like that was exactly what I should have done.
Paul Miller, director of seeJesus who recently taught a DMin class at Western Seminary and spoke at The Spurgeon Fellowship, describes the world’s framework as a ladder. At the top of the ladder is success; at the bottom of the ladder is failure. Apart from Christ, every single one of us naturally sees life through this lens. Our time and energy are devoted to climbing this ladder and avoiding the bottom at all cost.
Yet Jesus reveals an entirely different worldview. Rather than seek his own glory, he humbled himself. The incarnation shows this. Paul the apostle writes, “Although he existed in the form of God, [he] did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, being made in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2:6-7) Although Jesus deserved to be first, he chose to be last. Remember the Last Supper? The disciples were arguing about which one of them was the greatest. Meanwhile, Jesus “got up from supper, and laid aside his garments; and taking a towel, he girded himself. Then he poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet.” (Jn. 13:4-5) It’s hard for us to imagine how shocking and scandalous would have been. The Master stooping to take the place of a servant to wash the disciples’ feet? Unthinkable! But that is just what Jesus does. Finally, rather than seeking to preserve his own life, Jesus chose to die. He said, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” (Jn. 10:11) And that is exactly what he did. He did it for you and for me, and he did it because he loves us.
Paul Miller has another chart to describe this kind of life – the gospel kind of life. He calls it “The J Curve.” Picture the letter J, starting at the top of the short curve. The word “life” is written there. Trace the curve down to the bottom. The word “death” is written there, in the trough of the J. This is the counter-intuitive gospel way. It is the way Jesus walked for us. Instead of trying to go up the ladder, he went down in sacrifice. And it is the way that we are called to live, too. Remember that verse in Philippians where Paul says that Jesus humbled himself? Well, the beginning of that verse says, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus “(Phil. 2:5). As you know, Jesus instructed, “If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow me.” Death to self is the norm for the Christian. We move completely out of a lifestyle of trying to scramble up the success ladder and willing choose “The J Curve.” When we do this, by the power of the Spirit, out of love for others, we get the joy of fellowship with Jesus in his sufferings. It can be as simple as willingly taking out the trash when the person who was supposed to do it forgot…and never mentioning it. A mini-death to self for the sake of another.
But that is not the end of the story! Go back to your mental image of the letter J. You’re at the bottom. But now trace the curve up the long side of the J. At the top the word “resurrection” is written. This is because the Father moved in power and raised Jesus from the dead. And as a result of Jesus’s death and the Father’s resurrection power, much fruit was produced. You and I are that fruit! Jesus was exalted, and one day will be glorified by the Father before every living creature.
When we choose to die to ourselves – to travel to the bottom of the J – we are assured that our heavenly Father will provide resurrection.
Our lives are the same. When we choose to die to ourselves – to travel to the bottom of the J – we are assured that our heavenly Father will provide resurrection. We can’t determine when it will happen or what it will look like, but we can rest assured that he will do it. Jesus promised, “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. . . . if anyone serves me, the Father will honor him” (Jn. 12:24-26). We get glimpses of this here on earth with heart change in us and blessings from the Father, but best of all, one day we will be fully and finally resurrected when Jesus returns.
What does this all look like in your life? Maybe it is laying down your life daily to love someone who never appreciates you. Maybe it involves holding your tongue when all you want to do is defend yourself. Perhaps it means letting go of something you desperately want for the sake of another. Whatever it is, know that your heavenly Father promises to give you the Holy Spirit to enable you to follow through. You can ask him to move you from seeing life through the success/failure ladder to the “J Curve.” And best of all, you can rejoice as you die, knowing that you will see resurrection. It is our sure hope.