I knew it was a mistake as soon as the words left my mouth. Sitting in my office was a young man who had been cheated out of $200 by someone else in the church. Both men attended our church, and one guy really did owe the other $200. But the guilty party wasn’t in the office, the other guy was—and he was full of anger and frustration because of his loss. That’s when I made my hasty suggestion:
“You could forgive him his debt,” I suggested. “Jesus told us to do just that.”
“Well I’m not Jesus!” he nearly shouted back at me.
End of discussion, end of ministry time, end of opportunity to take the yoke Jesus offers. It was my mistake. Not for suggesting a perfectly Biblical remedy to his anger and frustration, but for expressing the solution in such a way that he would consider it impossible.
It’s impossible to be like Jesus, isn’t it? Jesus was perfect. He led a sinless life. He was God-come-to-earth and his life sets the bar impossibly high for any of us.
I believe that the central problem in nurturing followers of Jesus in North America is our view of Jesus as the Impossible Mentor.
It’s a paradox: nearly everyone is willing to acknowledge Jesus as a worthy role model, but almost no one seriously believes it is possible to live up to his example. Our esteem for Jesus’ life of obedience to the Father and our desire to be “just like Jesus” does battle with the deep-seated notion that it is impossible to be like him. Who would choose a mentor who is impossible to imitate?
Some passages in the Scripture inspire and fill us with confidence. Some light the fires of hope in our hearts. Other passages seem too idealistic, too fantastic to find their way into even our dreams, much less our daily lives: “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers” (Romans 8: 29). Is this possible? Does God really look at each one of us and see a destiny in which we look like Jesus?
Whatever our theological foundations regarding this passage, we should all recognize that it is about God’s intention for each of one us to become “conformed to the likeness of his Son.” Simply put, God desires to have more children like Jesus. Jesus is God’s only begotten Son, but we become his sons and daughters by adoption. The destiny of those adopted into the family of God is that we, too, should bear the family likeness. That is: we will look just like Jesus.
In a conversation with a dozen young Christians this week, I asked them if they felt it were possible to live a life without sin for even one day. No takers. So I rephrased the question and asked if it is possible to go for an hour without sinning. Only one of them thought it was possible to stay within the will of God for a single hour.
These questions are not academic. They go to the heart of our life “in Christ.” If our intuition tells us that following His example is impossible, for one day or even an hour, how can we have the confidence to pursue his vision for us? The bottom line is that God has a greater vision for what is possible in our lives than we do. Perhaps the reason the Apostle Paul instructs us later in Romans to “be transformed by the renewing of your minds” is so we can see the possibilities of a life lived in harmony with Jesus. A practical, day-to-day, moment-by-moment harmony capable of generating the rest and peace he promises.
Let me encourage you to ponder the foundations of your commitment to be a disciple of Jesus. Here are a few suggestions for meditation and prayer:
- Is it possible to learn from him?
- If Jesus is my mentor, have I committed myself to failure with no possibility of success?
- What kind of Master would invite me to be his apprentice if he thought there were no possibility to follow in his footsteps?
The answers spoken from our heart will determine whether discipleship is possible.
This article is an excerpt from Ray's new book: The Impossible Mentor: Finding Courage to Follow Jesus.