This past Sunday AM I had the privilege of preaching on Jesus' interactions with fig trees, temple turnover, and mountain-moving. He curses a fig tree, turns-over temple worship, and then the next Peter points out (in front of the the whole class) that the fig tree is fully withered (Mark 11:11-25). Jesus' point is that: Mere religious ritual neither effective to please a perfect God nor effective for personal change. Like the charlatan fig tree: In-and-of-itself religious ritual is fruitless and its end is death-to-the-roots. Yet how many times have we urged those in a rut: "Come to church with me" or "start giving/being useful to others." Churchgoing and charity-giving seem good enough for God but it's impotent and, should any person continue to take refuge in such close counterfeits, the end is nothing short of death.
Before imputation: Necessity of real and complete change. We need to trust Jesus so we might become an entirely "new creation" (II Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15). In becoming "a new creation", a.k.a. "born again" (John 3:3, 7), a.k.a. trading in the a hard heart for a new and softer one (Ezekiel 11:19-20), we get right with God, obtain ability do the Law God talks about and "be the change" that everyone talks about but no one can ever do on their own. As human beings we prefer renovations like a little more church and a little more charity because we wish to believe we are basically good and have a lot to offer - but God says: Put down your pride and accept the offer of a total rebuild.
Christians: You are a new creation, You are born again, Your heart is tender and empowered to do good. Do you see what just happened there? Something called "imputation." You may feel less than 'new' - I understand, believe me. You may feel like the only thing 'born again' in you is a re-birth of spite towards your boss who robs you of both credit and, thus, career progress. "Tender heart?!" Your heart feels primarily hard (or at least numb) toward God, toward your spouse, or anyone else for that matter. But that is not you.
What is imputation? To impute is to ascribe qualities to someone that are intrinsically absent. Imputation calls bad things by a good name. In Paul's letter to the Philippians, he recounts quite the rigorous and righteous life he tried to lead and does so for God!! (Philippians 3:4-6). But even his best work falls short (Phil. 3:7-8) and so instead of relying on his own right-living he relies on Christ's right-living imputed upon him by faith (Phil. 3:9). Like Paul, you who have trusted Jesus have been ascribed his rights and titles that are absent otherwise. You weren't born with them, they are not intrinsic: Son, child, heir, beloved.
How can God use the name-calling of imputation to empower & change you? A friend of mine was recently recounting a story of when he was in middle school and, whilst staring at the exam in front of him, he felt he had misunderstood a question. Jittery, tearing at his hair, waving pencil, gnawing at his fingernails. When the teacher approached this juggernaut of nerves, he calmly put his hand on his shoulder, answered his question and purposefully added with a look in the eye: "I know you are going to do just fine." My friend recalled: "Immediately a rush of calm confidence surged through me." Treating him other than he was. Such is the force of imputation.
That name-calling has some level of an effective, imputative force, has not been lost on the world-at-large. In fact, it has been assigned the title nominative determinism ("name-driven outcome"). 20th century's most renown psychologist Carl Jung recognized something to this in his own colleagues: "Herr Freud (whose name means 'joy' in German) practices the pleasure principle. Herr Adler (whose name means 'eagle'), the will to power, Herr Jung (Young) the idea of rebirth." In an April 2013 post to the Blog Science Friday, Adam Alter further chronicles some pretty astounding examples where name-calling shaped one's future:
The current Lord chief justice of England and Wales is Justice Igor Judge; his colleague, Lord Justice Laws, is a judge in the Court of Appeals. In the realm of athletic pursuits, Anna Smashnova is a professional Israeli tennis player, Layne Beachley is a seven-time world champion surfer, Derek Kickett was an Australian Rules footballer, Stephen Rowbotham was an Olympic rower for Britain, and Usain Bolt is the fastest man in the world...Some names come before less auspicious destinies: Christopher Coke is a notorious Jamaican drug dealer.
What else could I grow up to do?
There is a danger here in how one presses this forward. Often what makes for bad theology is how an otherwise true concept is adopted, used or even over-emphasized. I'm not talking about the power of positive-thinking made famous by Robert Schuller nor am I speaking of a kind of mechanistic magic often called "positive confession" ("if you speak a certain truth, especially about health or wealth, so it shall be" - see channel 24 on WestStar TV for some good examples).
The difference between such human effort toward positive-thinking or leveraging Scripture for what's tantamount to magic and what the Bible teaches: God Himself. His effort, His leveraging this lump of flesh for nobler purposes by the quickening of His Holy Spirit. He has wrought a real change which brings about new names (imputation), which, in turn, frees us toward further change. Here's how Paul puts it in Titus 3:3-7:
For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, deceived, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.On the one hand, God wrought real change with new names, On the other hand, each individual never denies that he/she is included in the "former we" of verse 3. Each of us intrinsically is foolish, disobedient, deceived, enslaved, full of malice and envy. As we, like Paul, keep one hand on what we would still be on our own while the other hand is set to the plough - moving forward as we look through the lens of real change with new names, we are freed to live other than what we sometimes feel we are. For God now sees us other than what we feel we are. New, re-born, tender-hearted, able, child, heir, beloved, gifted.
Attempts to Empower Others but Beating a Dead Horse. I'm not sure if the idiom "beating a dead horse" is familiar to you. It originated in British parliament but was inspired by the Ancient Greek playwright Sophocles. In his play Antigone, the blind seer Tiresias is led onstage to says: "Don't stab the slain who have already been stabbed" (my paraphrase). His advice: "All men are liable to err; but when an error hath been made, that man is no longer witless or unblest who heals the ill into which he hath fallen, and remains not stubborn." In other words, if you've been stabbing at that which has already been stabbed or you're beating a dead horse, don't be stubborn - try something different! The subject is gruesome (so much stabbing!), but it is otherwise really old and really good advice. I have a desire, which perhaps you share, to see people change and become more like Jesus. For my church family, my spouse, my children, my friends, my neighbors. I feel what Paul says in Galatians 4:19: "I am in anguish until Christ is formed in you!" Some people are just harder to exhort and spur on than others (and believe me, I'm sure I am one of those people for some of my brothers and sisters in Christ). I've tried to exhort through cheerleading ("you can do this"), through instruction ("here's what God says about"), through suggestion ("have you tried ____"), through warning ("if you keep on this route, it won't bring the satisfaction for which you're looking but only pain"), and through the classic oughta's and shoulda's that usually can't spur on more than one or two steps forward (see Col. 2:20-23). Yet they remain in that still-same rut. Lately, I've tried to heed Tiresias' advice: Don't be stubborn, try something different!
God can use your name-calling to empower others to His glory and for their good.
Instead of "beating the dead horse" through other strategies for change, consider supplementing prayer (1 John 5:16) with treating your fellow Christian as he or she is, according to God's Word.
- "You are gifted" (I Corinthians 7:7; Ephesians 4:7)
- "You will overcome" (1 John 5:4).
- "I'm so glad you are not who you used to be" (II Cor. 5:17; 1 Cor. 2:16).
- "I can't wait to see how God will use your patience, endurance, hard obedience" (Romans 8:18).
- "You are salt and light to your co-workers, neighbors, family, spouse" (Matthew 5:13-14).
- "God has put a calling on your life" (Romans 1:6).
- "You belong to something bigger than yourself/your circumstance" (Romans 1:6).
- "You are a pillar amongst God's people here" (Revelation 3:12).
- "You are perfect in God's sight" (1 John 1:9).
This doesn't mean you never talk with them about the reality of something hard. Faithful still are the wounds of a friend when absolutely necessary (Proverbs 27:6). Though I would suggest this approach be used selectively and as the exception (see Ephesians 4:29). Nor ought you fear that they will only see the good, causing ego inflation, and thus become blind to the need for real change. God changes people through primarily through grace not by law and condemnation expressed through "my role is to keep them humble/grounded."
I've spoken about beating horses so it seems appropriate I end with a horse story that I pray leaves a lasting imputing impression.* Our family tries to record and re-watch the Kentucky Derby Horse Race every year (it's brutal to watch live as the lead-up to the race is 2 hours while the race is approximately 2 minutes - Bob Costas can produce some inspiring journalism, but come on!). The 2009 Derby, however, stands out to me. That year a smaller horse named Mine That Bird entered the race at 50-1 odds and had fared poorly in its previous two races. The owner and trainer both visibly displayed utter shock after the race. The horse's owner: "[Winning] wasn't something that was on our radar...it was a shocker."
At the first quarter-mile stage, Mine That Bird was not only running dead last but, at that point, NBC's announcer initially missed even seeing him only to then mention him as a mere footnote. Not only did Mine That Bird go on to win that Kentucky Derby, he did so by 6 and 3/4 lengths!! What happened?! What precipitated such an impossible shift after the first quarter-mile?
The only person in Churchill Downs who appeared unshocked by the results was the horse's jockey, Calvin Borel. When asked in the immediate post-race interview what changed during the race to empower the horse to emerge victorious, Borel said simply: "I rode him like a good horse."
You love a fellow Christian who likely feels the weight of the 50-1 odds just as much as you see it in them. As you pray for them, try also a season of imputing upon them the reality God which has already wrought in them & a name which He has already called them. Encourage them like he or she is.
*For the record, I am not pro-horsebeating - whether dead or alive.