Grace to grow like Jesus

by Lori James
This article was originally published in the September 1999 edition of Christian Leader magazine. For reprint permission please contact the Editor at 620-947-5543.

JESUS GREW IN WISDOM AND STATURE (LUKE 2:52), a common desire among many Christians. But how do we do that? The “What would Jesus Do” (WWJD) movement has become quite popular, but how can we come to know what Jesus would do in any given circumstance?

Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts. Much like teenagers that desire to be adults with all the rights and privileges that come with legally coming of age, we Christians desire to be all grown up spiritually. But wisdom and stature do not come through osmosis – by sleeping with the Bible under our pillow every night – anymore than it comes from wearing articles of clothing or jewelry depicting our identification with Christ.

Just as Jesus chose to endure the growing pains of being human on several levels – physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual – in identifying with humanity, we too must make choices to endure through the process of human development if we are to grow in the character and wisdom of Christ.

We can gain insight in how to grow spiritually by looking at the implications of Jesus' process of development for our lives in terms of our own development as human beings created in the image of God.

Where wisdom comes from
Wisdom appears to come from the experiences of living life – of growing and developing as human beings and humbly allowing our loving God to teach us and develop our character through our life experiences.

Can godly wisdom exist without character development? I doubt it. Both the Old and New Testament writers had much to say about wisdom, as well as those who have attained or desire to attain godly wisdom. But we can be at quite different places in both our faith and character development, and they do not always coincide with the other developmental aspects of our lives.

Earthly father and heavenly Father
Jesus was God incarnate. As a human being he probably had to go through many of the same growing pains – and more – that all humans go through as they grow and develop.

Yet Jesus had an additional challenge. He had a very unique relationship with God the Father as his only begotten son. Jesus not only had the challenge of dealing with his human parents, Joseph and Mary, and honoring them, but he had to ultimately listen to and choose to obey his Father in heaven. I can only imagine that Jesus often felt the pull of having to honor both earthly and heavenly authority, much in the same way that we do.

When Jesus as a boy was left behind at the temple in Jerusalem (Luke 2:41-52), we see evidence of his desire to nurture the relationship with his heavenly Father as well as his own spiritual development. But why would Jesus need to develop spiritually, if he’s God? Didn’t he know everything he needed to know? Why would he need to sit in the temple courts? Yet, Jesus appeared genuinely surprised at the response of Joseph and Mary when they found him three days later. “Didn’t you know I’d be in my Father’s house?” he asked. Jesus did not seek to dishonor them or even cause them any grief, but was engrossed in his own spiritual development as well as the normal human development of being an inquisitive young boy eager to learn new things.

Going against the flow
In choosing to become God incarnate, Jesus made the choice to go through the process of growth and development as a human being – a process that is often difficult, painful and frustrating, and one that includes character development as well as spiritual formation.

As far as we know from Scripture, Jesus learned the trade of a carpenter from his earthly father, Joseph. I imagine that those years of growing up as the son of a carpenter were full of all the normal elements of a Jewish family in that place and time.

It appears that the struggle in human development begins to show up for Jesus at the age of 30 – a time when many of his contemporaries would have been not only well established in their trade, but married and raising a family of children. Yet Jesus was making other choices. These were the choices now made out of obedience to his heavenly Father, as opposed to honoring his earthly father by continuing his work in the family business or carving out a life for himself in the Jewish community.

When Jesus chose to lay down the carpenter’s tools that his earthly father had so carefully trained him to use, sweep up the shop floor for the last time, and head for the river to see John the Baptist, life as he’d known it would radically change. He would go against the flow of his culture and all the ways that it had been a part of shaping him for the rest of his earthly life.

Jesus' baptism by John in the Jordan River signaled a much more dramatic turning point than his Bar Mitzvah several years earlier. The Bar Mitzvah – a rite of passage for every Jewish boy – marked his passage into manhood as a son of the Law. His baptism in the Jordan River now marked his passage into his ministry as the Son of God as the power of the Holy Spirit descended upon him.

Leading to the cross
The Gospels reveal that the next step in human development for Jesus was a radical shaping of his identity during the 40 days and nights he spent in the wilderness and the temptations that he faced there.

This was not only a severe test of his personhood in terms of both his physical development and character development, but of his spiritual integrity and emotional development as he went head-to-head with Satan. Temptation after temptation was hurled at him. Yet, even when most fatigued, he withstood Satan’s worst by the power of the Holy Spirit. In suffering and the temptation came the intensity of emotions that required a stamina that only God could provide. It was a foretaste of what was to come as he would endure the cross a few years later.

Yet, in the desert wilderness a depth of character was added to Jesus that would enable him to complete the task he was chosen to do by his heavenly Father as he ministered to a hurting world over the next three years of his life. Certainly to even have the knowledge of what his ultimate mission was would be more than enough to overwhelm the average person, no matter how spiritually mature or deeply developed their character.

The New International Version of the Bible outlines the years from Jesus' baptism to his death in this way: the first year was the year of his inauguration, the second year was the year of his popularity, and the third year was the year of his opposition. In order to endure the temptations of the flesh – let alone those of Satan – during those three years before his death and resurrection as the atoning sacrifice of the world, Jesus not only needed the power of the Holy Spirit, but a deep spiritual formation as well as character development.

Was Jesus normal?
Often, we think of human development as having to follow a prescribed set of stages or norms in order to be considered “normal.” With that in mind, was Jesus' development normal?

Yes and no. Until the point he chose to be baptized, Jesus development was in line with his culture. After his baptism, however, I see nothing normal in his development relevant to the culture of his day.

Does that mean Jesus, God incarnate, was abnormal or flawed in terms of his development as a human being? Absolutely not, for we know that Jesus was without sin.

Was the culture that set the norms flawed? Was it simply unable to enlarge the scope of what God had in mind for man beyond the parameters set by the Pharisees and their interpretation of the Law? This seems a more adequate answer.

In the eyes of the Pharisees, Jesus was a wild-eyed radical who claimed to be both the Son of Man and the Son of God. They saw Jesus as a man who was a danger to their society as he took a sword and sliced through their pious veneers to expose their hearts to men. After all, Jesus not only turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple, he overturned the Jewish concept of the Kingdom of God by restoring the spirit of the Law over the pharisaical captivity of the letter of the Law.

What it takes to walk as Jesus did
So what does it really take to know what Jesus would do – to attain the wisdom of Christ?

Obedience. Perhaps one can begin with a willingness to allow God to shape and mold one’s character through radical obedience to the spirit of the Law rather than the letter of the Law.

I believe that one of the clearest implications from Jesus' life for us as Christians is to attend to the process of our own human development. That process may require time, testing and tempering so that we can be tools in the hands of God, led by the power of the Holy Spirit to those places and people that perhaps we’d rather not go. We so often want to rush, rather than embrace the process, particularly if it is difficult, frustrating or painful. In other words, as human beings we so often want to have already arrived and attend to the business at hand rather than to suffer through the journey that quite often prepares us for the tasks at hand that God has in mind for us to do.

Suffering. Human suffering was a normal part of Jesus' development as God incarnate. In fact it is in his sufferings that Christ is most identified with humanity.

The apostle Paul, in his letter to the church at Philippi wrote, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead” (Phil. 3:10). Paul realized the deep connection between experiencing the power of Christ and a willingness to endure suffering, both integral components in knowing Christ and having an intimate personal relationship with Him.

Paul also writes in his letter to the church at Rome a call to rejoice in suffering. “There’s more to come: We continue to shout our praise even when we’re hemmed in with troubles, because we know how troubles can develop passionate patience in us, and how that patience in turn forges the tempered steel of virtue, keeping us alert for whatever God will do next. In alert expectancy such as this, we’re never left feeling shortchanged. Quite the contrary – we can’t round up enough containers to hold everything God generously pours into our lives through the Holy Spirit!” (Rom 5:3-5, The Message).

Most of us look to suffering as something to be avoided, or try to explain it away as the repercussions of some act of disobedience to God. We don’t realize that, from God’s viewpoint, suffering is a normal part of our human and spiritual development. Paul embraced suffering as part of knowing Christ.

Attaining the wisdom of Christ may require going against the flow of what would be considered to be normal human development according to our culture. We may endure opposition and accusations. But we must come to realize that wisdom of God attained in human beings that walk in intimate relationship with Him comes through a lifetime of experience.