There are many dangers in the Christian life, yet the subtle ones are often the more serious. In particular, it is tempting in our daily Christian living, to pursue sanctification in such a way that it actually promotes nothing more than behavior modification. The Christian life, however, is first and foremost about a relationship with the Christ. As we seek to grow, then, we need to focus not on our behavior but on our savior. Focus on Christ, not on Christlikeness.
The difference may seem subtle, but it’s huge. To focus on Christlikeness means our attention is given primarily to what we do. We are going to be constantly examining our actions, attitudes, thoughts, and emotions. We are going to compare ourselves to Jesus, identifying where we fall short, and striving to improve. We will focus on what we need to change. This can all be good, because, after all, we are called to be conformed to the image of Jesus (Rom. 8:29; 13:14), and self-evaluation is healthy. The danger, however, arises in that all our focus is on ourselves and our behavior. Yet, spiritual growth is not simply about behavior, it’s about heart change.
Furthermore, sustained behavioral change is exceedingly hard. We need the proper motivation, proper help, and proper orientation to sustain real and lasting change. This only comes as we focus our minds and hearts on Jesus. Focusing on Christlikeness tends to create one of two responses in us: (1) arrogance, or (2) despair. It may create, on the one hand, arrogance, because we have succeeded in conforming our habits to Christ’s pattern. We accomplished change. It tempts us to boast in our righteousness and to be calloused with our brothers and sisters who struggle. It’s not that we have really accomplished a works-righteousness, but we can certainly be tempted to think we have. On the other hand, a focus on Christlikeness may tempt some towards despair. The realization that we are incompetent to make all the necessary changes in our lives can lead us to hopelessness and disappointment. We try to conform ourselves to Christ’s image, but we just keep failing. Eventually we may conclude, “What’s the point?” We need more than our efforts to drive us, we need Jesus himself.
A focus on Christ allows us to find the strength, encouragement, and hope we need to press into sanctification. The Christian life is about a relationship with the Christ. The power to change comes from living in that relationship. The more time I spend with Jesus the more I am going to look like Jesus. Jesus tells us plainly that it is only through being in intimate relationship with him that we will produce spiritual fruit. In John 15 we read:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. (v. 1-5)
The branch can’t bear fruit without “abiding” in the vine. We can’t bear fruit without “abiding” in Jesus. We need to daily spend time with Him, turn our hearts and minds towards Him. It is not simply through mimicking godly behavior that we grow, it’s through personal and intimate relating to Jesus. Relationship is the real cause of our growth, because the power to change, the power to kill sin, the power to obey God comes from this relationship.
Focus on Christ. Focus on who He is, how He loves, what He has done. Spend time with Jesus in prayer, in reading Scripture, in worship, and in confession. Let your mind and heart be captivated by this person and see that you will and can grow as you spend time with Jesus. Relate to Jesus, don’t simply attempt to mimic Jesus. Focus on Christ, not on Christlikeness.