Is there anything more discouraging than to work hard at something and give it your best—only to realize in the end that all your efforts were in vain?
While I was in seminary preparing for the ministry, I was assigned to write a paper by a professor well-known for only rarely giving A’s. I liked this kind of challenge, and I was committed to ace that paper no matter how much research it required or how many hours it took.
So I dug in and spared no effort. I clocked allnighters, I did the research, I studied the original biblical languages. I wrote eighteen pages (though the professor only asked for ten or twelve), and carefully entered all the footnotes to cite my sources. I went the distance.
When I got my paper back, the letter F was marked on the front of it. Not only did I miss getting an A…I did not even make a B or C or D. You can imagine how crushed I felt.
I was thinking, How dare he give me an F! Then something caught my attention on the bottom of the page. It was a note the professor had written just below the grade mark: “Great scholarship, great detail, magnificent effort. But you answered the wrong question.”
THE WRONG FOCUS
All that work addressing the wrong thing—the wrong assignment, the wrong purpose. My problem wasn’t that I hadn’t worked hard or wasn’t sincere in what I’d written. The reason I missed out on what could have been a wonderful achievement was that, in my desire to score high, I was so focused on me and on what I wanted to achieve that I completely lost sight of what the professor actually wanted from me.
How closely does that picture apply to our Christian life?
Many of us are working hard at being a Christian. We’re giving it overtime efforts—going to church, reading the Bible, saying our prayers, always trying to do better. We keep making promises to the Lord: We’ve committed our life, then recommitted it, and then recommitted the recommitment.
But it’s not working. We still fail.
It’s not that there’s no sincerity; it’s not that there’s no trying; it’s not that we aren’t striving to be our best.
No, the real problem for so many of us is that we’re so often focused on the wrong thing. We’re missing what God is really looking for. So I want to help you understand what that is.
FINDING THE PURPOSE
We like to tell ourselves that God will work all things for good—an assumption we base on one of the greatest passages of the New Testament, where we find these words: “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). But we tend to forget the last phrase in that verse—called according to His purpose. God is going to work all things for good only as those things fit with His purpose.
So when things in my life aren’t coming together or working out for good—could the reason be that I haven’t yet connected my life with His purpose? Maybe I’m still trying to get everything to work together for the good of my purpose.
So what is God’s purpose for us?
God hasn’t left us to guess the answer on our own. In the very next verse of that great New Testament passage, He clearly states His purpose for you and me: “For those whom He foreknew, He also predestined to become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many brethren” (Romans 8:29).
God is telling us that He’s looking for only one thing from you and me: that we be conformed to the image of His Son, Jesus Christ. That’s His goal, the driving force that He wants behind our entire existence, and His only objective in knitting together all the details of our life.
It’s also the only assignment God grades. It’s the only direction He wants us going, and if you’re not going there, you’re just not on the same page with God. So if you’re moving in any direction other than conformity to Christ—then don’t expect the pieces of your life to make sense.
With God, this purpose is a family affair. God places a priority on reproducing His Son in a multitude of redeemed humanity, so that Christ will be “the firstborn among many brethren.” God didn’t want there to be only one Person who reflected His character—He wanted Jesus Christ to have a whole host of little brothers and little sisters who reflect their big Brother’s character and goodness.
God the Father is so in love with His Son that He wants to make a whole community of people who look just like Him—so that when people see you and me, they’ll get a glimpse of Jesus.
The Father is so high on the Son that He wanted to give Him something. “What can I give My Son to let Him know how much I love Him? I’ll give Him an entire race, a company of redeemed citizens!” So if you are saved, you are a gift from the Father to the Son.
JUST LIKE JESUS
Many people who have visited our home have marveled at something they see on a little table near the entry. It’s a picture frame containing side-by-side photographs. On the right is a picture of me when I was eighteen; on the left is a picture of my son, Tony Jr., when he was eighteen. People are amazed by the close resemblance, and they say we look like twins. Why do we look so much alike? Because of a DNA connection. My essence has been transferred to my son, and in the process of his development, he winds up looking like me.
In the living body of Jesus Christ, we see a human being who perfectly contains all the DNA of deity. Over and over again the Bible assures us of this fact. Jesus is “the exact representation” of God’s nature (Hebrews 1:3); “in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9). Therefore Jesus “is the image of God” (2 Corinthians 4:4), “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15).
And now God wants to transfer that same divine DNA to a group or class of people called “Christians”—the redeemed community of saints, the elect of God, who are adopted into His family. They’re the men and women and boys and girls who are committed to God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and His divine DNA transfer is accomplished in them when they come to faith in Christ as their Savior.
That’s why Peter tells us that through God’s promises we “may become partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). “That’s My purpose for you,” God is telling us, “and it’s My only purpose. And to accomplish this purpose, I’m going to take all the pieces of your lives—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and I’m going to orchestrate them together for good, for your maximum benefit and your abundant life.”
Our problem—and the reason so many of us stay so defeated for so long—is that we’ve failed to grasp this purpose. We’re working on the wrong assignment, writing the wrong paper. Because unless the priority of your life and my life is Christlikeness—being conformed to the image of Jesus Christ—you won’t be able to recognize God working all this out. You won’t be able to see it.
That’s a great tragedy, because by coming to faith in the Lord Jesus as your Sin-Bearer, and by launching out into this destiny of conformity to Christ, you’ve gotten mixed up into something that’s beyond your wildest dreams. You’ve been divinely called into a cosmic relationship with staggering implications.
We get a glimpse of it in John 17, in what’s known as the “High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus. He prayed these words to His Father on the night before He died on the cross.
He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You” (John 17:1). And again, “Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was” (17:5). Jesus was essentially saying this: “Father, make Me look good so I can make You look good, and We’ll make each other look good!”
This glory extends to you and me as well. Jesus prayed for His followers—all of us—and spoke these words: “The glory which You have given Me I have given to them” (17:22). And He prayed this: “Father, I desire that they also, whom You have given Me, be with Me where I am, so that they may see My glory which You have given Me” (17:24). He’s including us in all this looking good! The Father and the Son were having so much fun, they wanted to share it. They wanted a company of redeemed humanity who could get in on all this.
You and I have gotten hooked up into the reality of the Father and the Son making each other look good, and Jesus makes it clear that He wants us to be a part of it. The Father is consumed with the Son, and the Son is consumed with the Father—and together, they want to let you and me get in on this interpersonal immersion.
It’s all something bigger than you or I could ever imagine, with eternal implications connected to it.
But here’s the problem. If all this doesn’t match our own priority, then we won’t be hanging with the Father and the Son the way They intend for us to.
IT’S NOT ABOUT HAPPINESS
Let me say it again: God’s purpose for you and me is Christlikeness, which means being conformed to the character of Christ. It’s having God’s values and God’s conduct expressed in your humanity, through the uniqueness of your personality. Christlikeness simply means emulating who Christ is—not because you’re stressing and straining, but because Christ is in you.
That means His purpose for you is not a great job, or your perfect health. His purpose for you is not that you have a wonderful family. Those are benefits—good benefits. And it’s fine to want a good job and a nice family and good health. But none of those happen to be His major objective for you.
His purpose is not even your happiness. Am I suggest- ing that God wants you unhappy? No. I’m suggesting that happiness is not His prevailing goal for you. Conforming you to His Son is what He’s really after.
In Gethsemane, on the night He was betrayed, Jesus said to His Father, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me” (Matthew 26:39). It was like He was saying, “This cup of suffering is an unhappy position, and it’s not where I’d rather be. But I’m not here for Me (‘Not as I will…’); I’m here for You (‘Your will be done’ [v. 42]).”
What I’m talking about here implies a radical departure from the way most of us look at our life. Most of us think that we are here on this earth for ourselves. Most of us spend our time wanting God to bless what we’re about. God is not against blessing what we’re about—as long as what we’re about is what He’s about, which is one thing only—conforming us to the image of His Son.
And when we conform to the Son, we also conform to the Father, because Jesus was perfectly conformed to God in heaven. According to John 14, they let us in on their relationship.
I like the twist we see in John 14:19-20. Jesus is helping His disciples glimpse the new realities they’ll enjoy after His resurrection, and He says, “Because I live, you will live also.” Then He mentions three things that they will grasp and understand “in that day”: “You will know that  I am in My Father, and  you in Me, and  I in you.”
Imagine, if you will, a large envelope that represents God the Father. Then imagine another envelope inside the larger one. The inner envelope is His Son, Jesus Christ, and inside it are all those who follow Him. And that makes us feel good—it’s a picture of security, because we’re sealed (or marked that we belong to God) inside that envelope by the Spirit: It’s by “the Holy Spirit of God” that we “were sealed for the day of redemption” (Ephesians 4:30).
But the picture doesn’t end there. Jesus tells us in John 14:20 that not only is He in His Father, and not only are we in Jesus, but Jesus is in us. He doubles back on us!
When we read in the Bible how you and I are in Christ, that speaks of our secure relationship with the Lord that He gives us through our salvation. And when we read how Christ is in us, it leads us to God’s whole purpose for our salvation, which is that Christ might express His life through our lives. He tells us, “You’re not only in Me, but I am now in you.”
If you take a poker and set it in a fireplace where a fire is raging, the poker will eventually become red-hot. It doesn’t get that way because it wants to be red-hot or because it’s in a hot mood or because it’s trying so hard to heat up. It gets that way just because of where it’s hanging out— because of its environment; it’s in the fire. And because the poker’s in the fire, the fire is now in the poker. If you take it out and reach over to touch the hot tip to a newspaper or a sofa pillow or the window curtains, you’ll set them aflame.
So in your own life, if you’re touching the people and situations around you, and nothing’s burning, nothing’s changing, no spiritual fires are starting… maybe it’s because you haven’t been fully in the fire.
A PROBLEM OF CAPACITY
Suppose I had a genuine, heartfelt, passionate desire to be a great professional basketball player. More than anything else in the world, I wanted to play in the NBA on the same level as Michael Jordan.
Well, there are some obvious problems with that. First, there are physical limitations. I’m only six feet tall, and I’m too fat and slow. And I’m in my fifties, about thirty years too old to start a professional basketball career.
Furthermore, there’s also the little problem of my lack of skills to play at that level.
So the problem with me being an NBA basketball star would not be a lack of desire or a lack of study, but a lack of capacity. Even if I read Michael Jordan’s latest instructional book, I just don’t have what it takes to pull off what he writes about. I can read it over and over, understand every word, and go out to my driveway and practice all day. But none of that changes the fact that I simply don’t have the capacity to do what he did. And the harder I tried to play on his level, the more I would end up frustrated and discouraged.
Likewise, there are a lot of Christians who are frustrated and discouraged because they can’t seem to pull off living the abundant life Jesus promised them. They can’t seem to make themselves more like Jesus, no matter how hard they try. They’ve read all the fundamentals God has given them in the Bible, and they even do their best to put them into practice. But they just can’t make it work.
In truth, there isn’t one man or woman who has ever lived with the ability to be just like Jesus. There are a lot of frustrated and discouraged Christians today who have tried. They’re reading their Bibles, but they’re still addicted. They’re praying every day, but they can’t shake that sinful attitude or behavior. They’re even trying to share their faith with others, but they don’t see anyone coming to Christ.
Why are so many Christians living in defeat when Jesus promised them victory? Paul gives us a hint: “If Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, yet the spirit is alive because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10).
You see, we’ve got a capacity problem: We live in mortal physical bodies that are dead because of sin. Therefore we’re no more able to be like Jesus than I’m able to play basketball like Michael. It doesn’t matter how hard we try, how many New Year’s resolutions we make, or how many promises or vows we utter, because we just don’t have the capacity within us to do it. Sure, many of us have the ability to be “good people,” and many of us will have some good days or weeks in doing many of the things God calls us to do. But in reality, we’re still only corpses, because sin has killed our ability to be what God wants us to be.
That sounds like an impossible situation, doesn’t it? Even though God says He wants to conform us to the image of His Son, none of us has the capacity to do it.
But our God loves working with the impossible, and He’s made a way for you to become more and more like Jesus every day you walk with Him.
For me to play basketball like Michael Jordan would require something that’s humanly impossible: Michael would have to take up residence inside me and empower my mind and body to do what I couldn’t otherwise do. With the spirit of Michael living in my body, I could shoot jumpers, throw down spectacular dunks, and hit my teammates with eye-popping passes. In biblical language, it would mean that I’ve become conformed to the image of Michael Jordan.
Of course, no human being can do that. But God can! Not only that, He has!
Too many of us take a backward approach when it comes to Christlikeness. We try to “fix” ourselves spiritually by “doing” the things we believe will make us better Christians. But that means we’re trying to fix the problem with what is the problem in the first place: ourselves. It’s like having your house destroyed by fire, then trying to rebuild it using only the ashes and charred remains. It’s a case of something completely dead trying to raise itself back to life. I’m no medical expert, but I’m confident there has never been a case of someone actually dead who willed himself or herself back to life. Once they died, they stayed that way, no matter how much that person might have wanted to go on living.
The virus of sin has so infected the body that you cannot help you. The body is dead. That’s why Paul says, “The good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want” (Romans 7:19). And he cries out,“Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24).
Paul is like us when we cry out,“I want to do right, but I can’t. I want to get off drugs, or alcohol, but I can’t. I want to stop sleeping around, but I can’t. I want to stop looking at the pornographic Web sites, but I can’t. I try. I make promises. I go to church. I go to Bible study. I really want to get out of this…but I can’t.”
It’s true—you can’t. Because the thing you’re using to try and get out of it is dead.
It’s a hopeless situation. Hopeless, that is, until we read Paul’s description of the greatest miracle of all time and what it means to us: “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:11).
Most Christians today see their faith in Jesus as a way to have forgiveness of sin and a place in God’s eternal kingdom. But that’s just the beginning. Paul is telling us that when we know Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior, we have dwelling within us the very same Holy Spirit who raised Him from the dead two thousand years ago—and He will give us life also.
What a wonderful privilege it is to know that God Himself, in the form of the Holy Spirit, lives inside us. When you know Jesus and have His Holy Spirit living inside you, you’re a candidate for a miracle, the miracle called resurrection. Although you were once spiritually dead and rotting, now you’re made alive. You are, in the words of Jesus Himself, “born again” (John 3:3).
If you were to ask most believers what they want more than anything when it comes to their walk with God, you might hear something like this: “I want to be a better person.” While there’s nothing necessarily wrong with wanting to be a better person, that’s not why God sent Jesus to earth to live and die, then rise from the dead. He did those things so we could be completely new people. He doesn’t want to simply improve what is dead; He wants to transform us and raise us from the dead. This is the heart of Christlikeness—the Spirit-inspired ability to increasingly imitate the character and conduct of Christ in and through our own bodies.
There truly is only one way to have victory, and this is it: To respond to God by making conformity to the image of Jesus Christ not just your number one priority in life, but your life’s passion. When you do that, you’re in position to experience that miracle called resurrection.
But the question remains: How exactly do we do this? How does it work? What, if anything, can we do to conform ourselves more and more fully to the image of Jesus?
Read on, and you’ll find out!