Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
-Paul the Apostle (according to Philippians 2:5-8)
I’ve never been comfortable with the phrase accept Jesus as your personal savior. It smacks of narcissism, conjuring in my weird imagination cartoons of God as a kind of trophy or idol. I picture a small, squat talisman whose belly is rubbed for good luck or a tickle-me-personal-savior-god you might find on the shelf of your favorite toy seller. The phrase smells of consumer marketing. Step right down and get your very own personal savior today. Act now! For a limited time, you too can have a personal Jesus! Is he a product we’re selling? A new philosophy? Some form of iconic personal deliverance? Or is there something far less appealing behind the shiny bottle of snake oil? Something the marketing experts might want to cover up? Jesus-as-personal-savior seems to me a remarkable contrast to the call of Jesus who asks us not to “accept” him but, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “bids us … come and die.” From the personal savior angle, death to self must be a part of the fine print.
In the spirit of full disclosure, if Christ’s life established the prototype for his followers, death to self ought to be a defining characteristic of our salvation stories. Jesus-as-personal-savior seems strikingly pregnant with self, not empty of it. The Greek word kenosis denotes an emptying. The Apostle Paul used a form of it in his letter to Christians in Philippi when he says that Christ “emptied himself (2:7).” Commentator Marvin Vincent says this emptying is a “graphic expression of the completeness of [Christ’s] self-renunciation.” To imitate Christ is to renounce self. It is to lose everything to gain something that cannot be seen. A savior who dies a shameful, humiliating death is a pretty radical prototype. Not exactly the product that lends itself to mass marketing. To die to self daily (ie, to daily take up the cross) is to exercise the radical faith of the New Testament.
In my upbringing, which was marked by Sunday School and youth camps, I learned about the Bible and Jesus and answers to theological questions. And to the credit of the Jesus-as-personal-savior phrase, I learned that God could be personal. What I missed in this view of God’s salvation, however, is that imitating Christ and identifying personally with Christ has less to do with ascent or acceptance and more to do with total self-renunciation. Instead of life coming together as a result of conversion, following Christ is more like coming undone as a result of crashing into a rock. The real Jesus is nothing like a trophy promising personal deliverance from a whacked out life, but a Gibraltar calling us to a voluntary death, death to self, personal acclaim and grasping, to name a few. Shane Claiborne, in The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, illustrates this radical nature of Christianity:
I know there are people out there who say, “My life was such a mess. I was drinking, partying, sleeping around … and then I met Jesus and my whole life came together.” God bless those people. But me, I had it together. I used to be cool. And then I met Jesus and he wrecked my life. The more I read the gospel, the more it messed me up, turning everything I believed in, valued and hoped for upside down. I am still recovering from my conversion.
I love that phrase. Recovering from conversion. Jesus-the-wrecker-of-life-as-you-know-it isn’t exactly what we’d call an easy sell, but he’s part of the deal. And though the fine print is this hard, Christians generations over died for their association with Christ because they trusted that wrecking on the Rock of Christ was better than being duped by the world’s false idols, even the world’s misinterpretations of Jesus. It’s because he is better, because his way is better than anything this world offers, that I need to wake up to this day, and remind myself to lay everything I prize and desire on the proverbial altar. For the joy set before him, Jesus scorned the shame and humiliation of Cross, for joy — joy so rewarding and as much a part of identifying with Christ as suffering and surrender that only short-sighted fools would live a life denying its value.
I’m a short-sighted fool most of the time, and that’s why I have to keep making myself say out loud the things I prize – like my comfort, my way, my time, my faulty images of God – and wrangle them to an altar over and over again. It’s why I have to train myself to keep scorning the shame and humiliation of Cross, like my savior did. I’m not saying those pesky and unruly idols of mine obediently stay there. But joy is why the process of being undone by conversion to Christ is worth it. Somehow in the process of deconstructing me, I have to trust that God is, in Christ, building me anew too and preparing me for a joy beyond my wildest aspirations. It would be the kind of joy that comes not by becoming the very best me I can be or accepting a talisman Jesus, but the kind that comes by — emptying. Emptying and self surrender is where the real Jesus and I meet, and where he exceeds and destroys my flawed and selfish images of him and truly gets more – – personal.