On Becoming More Christlike

What does it mean to become more Christlike? I will confess that the quest to be Christlike has sometimes bothered me, not because I don’t think it is a worthy goal (at my house, we are currently memorizing Moroni 10:32–33), but because I am naturally plagued by mortal doubts as to its practical feasibility. I understand that becoming like Christ is the whole point of the gospel. But it is not an unproblematic proposition, when you think about it. 

For example, is it even ontologically possible to become fully as Christ is? Christ is God and has been, if I’m reading my scriptures and Church teachings correctly, from all eternity. That is something I will never, worlds without end, be able to say of myself, unless the cosmos is keeping an enormous secret from me. I know that the information is very incomplete on this point, but I do in fact believe, for a variety of reasons, that Jesus and I (and all y’all) come from different places on the ontological chain of being. Again, even in his premortal and mortal estates, he was divine, and I was and am not. That difference, I surmise, is significant in a very basic way. I gladly and wonderingly acknowledge that I, too, am a child of God, and so are you. I have read D&C 132:20, and I believe. But I’m, still convinced—though I cannot prove it—that there is nevertheless a significant and perduring difference between myself and the Being I worship and in whose nature and glory I hope one day to fully share. Perhaps a further indication of the difference is that you and I may share in it, but it will still be all Christ’s, and Christ will be God’s. The miracle is that we will be made partakers of it at all. But I do believe in the promise of that miracle, which relieves my skeptical clavicles somewhat of this doctrinal hang-up. But the ontological chasm between me and Christ has practical consequences for my doubts here and now as well:

“What would Jesus do?” I’ve almost given up trying to answer this question, because too often the answer is something like: “Well, he would discern the thoughts of his interlocutors and respond with a parable of such rich symbolic nuance that centuries of thoughtful readers would not exhaust it’s meaning.” Or, “He would heal the poor sufferer in front of him.” Or, “He would say, ‘Your sins are forgiven you. Go your way and sin no more.’” Or, “He would boldly proclaim against the hypocrisy before him, caring nothing if it might cost him deep social opprobrium or even his life.”  What would Jesus do? I’m the last person on earth who wants to do or would even be capable of doing what Jesus would do. Maybe I could make some clay out of my spit mixed with dirt. That’s about it; I won’t be healing anyone’s blindness with it. Oh, and I could be kind. Yes. I can try to be kind.

But just when I think I might be on solid, Christlike ground with kindness, it turns out not to be so easy as that, either. I’ve seen calls for Christlike kindness and forbearance towards critics of the Church met with derision and open cynicism. Some would-be defenders of the faith are fond of replying to calls for openness, patience, and kindness by observing that in addition to healing and forgiving, Jesus also cleansed the temple by overturning the tables of the money changers. He called the scribes and pharisees whited sepulchers. He said he came not to bring peace, but a sword (Matthew 10) and to turn a man against his father and a woman against her mother, etc. He was no namby-pamby singer of Kumbayah. We are in a war, as many of our martial or crusader-themed hymns attest and as various General Authorities remind us on a regular basis. With apostates and secular-humanizers we must brook no compromise. We must call evil what it is and defend the bulwark of truth against the tsunami of moral relativism and permissiveness that threatens to engulf society. Sometimes the wicked just take the truth to be hard. Sucks to be them, but that doesn’t mean we are unkind for speaking the truth.

I really struggle with this, in both directions, but have found the recent observations and example of Pope Francis to be really helpful here. Commenting on the pope’s approach, Michael Gerson notes that the pope is not talking about changing official Church teaching on moral issues, but he is dramatically challenging what has come to be expected of the ways that Church officials respond personally to sinners and such.

There is a good Catholic theological term for this: the “hierarchy of truths.” Not every true thing has equal weight or urgency.

But this does not adequately capture Francis’s deeper insight: the priority of the person. This personalism is among the most radical implications of Christian faith. In every way that matters to God, human beings are completely equal and completely loved. They can’t be reduced to ethical object lessons. Their dignity runs deeper than their failures. They matter more than any cause; they are the cause.

So Francis observed: “Tell me: when God looks at a gay person, does he endorse the existence of this person with love, or reject and condemn this person? We must always consider the person.”

This teaching — to always consider the person — was disorienting from the beginning. The outsiders get invited to the party. The prodigal is given the place of honor. The pious complain about their shocking treatment. The gatekeepers find the gate shut to them. It is subversive to all respectable religious order, which is precisely the point. With Francis, the argument gains a new hearing.

When I think about how this applies to how Mormons respond to those who attack them, or even to those whom they perceive to be a threat from within, it reinforces my conviction that it is never inappropriate to discuss principles, teachings, and ideas in a vigorous way; but when it comes to human beings, we tread on very sacred ground and ought to err on the side of not treading at all, if we can’t tread with full confidence that Christ would do as we are doing. In fact, even if Christ would say and do it, that might still not be good enough to allow that we should say or do it. That is the hierarchy of truths I see at work in these verses from 1 Peter 3 that all defenders of any Christian faith have read. Verse 15 is the one that everyone knows, but the ones that ought to govern are actually verses 17 and 18:

(15) But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, (16) keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander. (17) For it is better, if it is God’s will, to suffer for doing good than for doing evil. (18) For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. (NIV translation.)

In other words, try as we may, we are never going to bear the same moral authority as Christ, nor his same perquisites when it comes to meeting out their just deserts to hypocrites and moneychangers. We are to be prepared to explain why we believe and hope as we do. There is no call here—none—to proclaim against anyone else’s beliefs, doubts, or ignorance. Even while fighting in the cause of Christ, we are called upon to exercise kindness, gentleness, meekness, humility, charity, and love unfeigned when dealing with other people, including and especially when dealing with our enemies. This is a hard thing to do, and those who fail at it deserve compassion, too. But the standard, for all of us, remains.

“I, the Lord, will forgive whom I will forgive,” he said, “but of you it is required to forgive all men” (D&C 64:9–10). This command to forgive all people is explicit, categorical, and non-negotiable. It is connected to other injunctions and teachings that define what Christlike behavior looks like (Galatians 5:22–26; D&C 121:41–45), including the verses from 1 Peter just cited. And, once again, it points to a fundamental difference between me and the Lord. He may show mercy to whom he will; I don’t get to pick and choose. I can only be Christlike to a point, and then I must just be still and know that he is God and that he will do the Christlike thing for me that it is simply not my province or even in my capacity to do in his stead. He bowed his will to his God and deferred to his judgment. That, in the end, is the most important Christlike gesture that any of us can offer.

NOTE: This post is another in a series based on the monthly themes from “Come, Follow Me,” the new youth curriculum for the Church. Here are the previous posts for JanuaryFebruaryMarchAprilMayJuneJulyAugust, and September.

Comments

  1. “Even while fighting in the cause of Christ, we are called upon to exercise kindness, gentleness, meekness, humility, charity, and love unfeigned when dealing with other people, including and especially when dealing with our enemies. ”

    Amen, Morgan. I don’t live up to that standard always, but I try as hard as I can to do so.

    Also, I love and admire Pope Francis – and I love that many of our own apostles and prophets are saying very similar things much more frequently now than happened at other times in my life. I think Pope Francis and the members of our current First Presidency, especially, are kindred souls in many ways.

  2. Larry the Cable Guy says:

    Speaking of kindred souls, I thought the picture was from a groundbreaking ceremony, and was wondering why President Monson was wearing a yellow hat with his temple white suit. They’ve both got that grin.

  3. This is a really great and important reflection. Thank you for putting it to words — I found it really edifying!

  4. I’d suggest a few possibilities that make it “more possible” (but surely not commonplace) to become Christ like:
    Priesthood authority and power
    The Atonement
    The Oath and Covenant of the Priesthood

    While Christ may be the only begotten in the flesh, I feel as if your theology feels I with tension with the restoration by setting aside the Christ as ontologically different.

  5. Thomas Parkin says:

    “Christ is God and has been, if I’m reading my scriptures and Church teachings correctly, from all eternity.” You’re reading it wrong.

  6. This is a lovely post, but the second paragraph sounds like it was written by a Catholic or Evangelical. Isn’t a central facet the restored Gospel a belief that we are ontologically the same as our heavenly parents? Is the Lorenzo Snow couplet being phased out?

  7. I don’t think that Morgan is saying that we aren’t the same species as God and Jesus Christ.

  8. I make no claim to have any authority in matters of what the Church teaches or what members ought to believe. I—that is, me, Morgan—believe, based on an ongoing dialogue that I have with my scriptures and the teachings of Joseph Smith, that there might just be more of a difference between me and my creator than I used to suppose there was. I don’t _know_ this, and if one day it becomes clear that I’m wrong, I’ll be happy to know better. But right now, that’s how I see it.

    The God who became Jesus Christ was—unlike me and everyone else—perfect and divine both before and during his mortal sojourn. (Or can you show me where I’m wrong about that, Thomas Parkin?) I was no god before this world, and I’m certainly not one now. Jesus was. That makes him really, vastly different from me. I don’t know where he came from, but I suspect it wasn’t from the same place I came from. He can help me to become like him. But he can’t change the fact that I needed him and am eternally in his debt. I am happy to be so; grateful beyond words. I hope to show my gratitude by reaching for his grace and living to meet the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ. If I find that I am given all that the Father hath; if it said to my wife and I, “ye are gods,” I intend to sing praises to him through all eternity for what he has done for me. But If I have children in the eternities, I don’t expect that _any_ of them will come into my family perfect and divine like Christ came into his pre-eternally perfect Father’s family, perfect and divine. And I’m just not sure that the original difference between our natures—the difference that made him and him alone the savior and me and all of the rest of us the saved—will or could ever be effaced.

  9. Thomas Parkin says:

    There is even more than that, Mike. The old doctrine was that one could not be complete without a body. If it is true that Christ was fully God from all time, what happens to this doctrine? The old doctrine was that Christ became, even through His mortal life. If Christ’s perfection goes to back to all time, what do we make of this now?

    Sec 93 states that it was given so that we could not what we worship and how to worship. The second question is not explicitly answered, so that one might assume that it is answered in response to the first question – that is to say, in coming to knowing what Christ is we also come to know how to worship Him. If we fail to understand him, we’ll be Protestants, or worse. The answer to the first question is that Christ is a being that, to paraphrase, ‘ did not receive the fulness of the Father, at first, but grew from grace to grace until he received the fulness.’ The old doctrine was that Christ was becoming just as we are becoming, and that we are his fellows, not creatures off at some great ontological distance that he has taken a fancy to save. This seems to me the burden of The New Testament.

    As far as I can tell, this idea of an unchanging from all time God – not only the Father, where the theologian crew are also wrong, but Christ Himself – comes from verses, especially in the BoM, in which Christ is called things such as “the Eternal God” and “the very Eternal Father.” This is taken to be evidence that the Book of Mormon teaches God as, at minimum, something like a classic trinitarain would.

    But right off in the D&C we learn that we have to be careful with words like Eternal. In fact, I can’t think of a single place where “Eternal” means unchanging from all time, to all time. We will someday inherit Eternal Life, but does this mean that we our life was always Eternal? In other words, something can become eternal. In another place, it talks about the earth “in its eternal state.” But this doesn’t mean that the earth has always been in that state. Someone might play around with what words are being translated, but all similar words in the scriptures bear this out. In D&C 17, a key moment for looking into these words, we read that just because a thing is “endless” does not mean that it has no end. At first, it reads like a pretty bad trick – but at minimum one must take away that the use of words like eternal, and even endless, cannot be read easily. In another place, it says that those who abide certain covenants become gods, everlasting to everlasting. So, here again, we have beings that _become_ everlasting, eternal, without beginning of days or end of years, etc.

    Another idea under fire is that there is no real difference between an inherent perfection and a gained or achieved perfection. I may not have started my day blue, but after someone throws a can of blue paint on me, I can be called blue and am no less blue than the guy who had the can of paint thrown at him yesterday. Eternal, and related words in the scriptures, are adjectives like this. I take it to mean that a being has come to be so tied up with things that _do have no beginning and end_ (like, say, the nature of mercy) that it is entirely correct to call them Eternal. They change and in time become unchanging, like Jesus – who is so much more like us than unlike us.

  10. I’m a big fan of the Imitatio Christi.

    Mormon ontology is complicated. JS was pretty clear that spirits are not created or made, eternal and without beginning. In such a case you can go with Ostler and say the difference was a matter of choice. BY clearly taught that spirits/minds were created and came into being. He took a cosmology that really isn’t favored anymore, and had pretty creative resolutions to how we become like Christ. Lorenz Snow represents more of a sentimental position than a theology, though I could be mistaken there.

  11. Thomas Parkin says:

    Also, other worlds will need other Christs. Can you imagine on some other world they are teaching that Jesus died for sins on some other planet? While, of all the countless worlds, the only one that ever got the Savior was this one? All the worlds that have passed away had to look forward to this one, and all worlds yet to come have to look back at this one? I call rubbish on that – if for no other reason that it would be extremely unjust to the inhabitants of those worlds. Rather, there are Lords many and Gods many but _to us!_ there is one God the father and one Jesus Christ.

  12. I personally see a growth and progress narrative in the New Testament for Jesus of Nazareth that is hard to ignore. I can understand seeing that as Jesus also having a veiled experience, to some degree, just as we do and discovering his godhood line upon line and grace for grace, but I don’t see a story of no growth or progress for “God” – which I see as more of a title of condition than of a name for any particular entity.

    Having said that, I do believe in the concept of becoming Christlike, in a literal sense, largely because I can’t reconcile the actual words in the Bible without that concept – the whole Bible, not just the New Testament, but certainly more obviously in the New Testament.

    Ultimately, Morgan, I agree 100% with the central points I see in your post, even as I see that particular aspect differently than you do – and, frankly, I’d rather we disagree on the theological aspects and agree on the application of them in this life than vice-versa. In other words, in the context of this post, I see our similarities as far more important than our differences – even as I recognize how much that differs from the reaction of many others.

  13. Thanks, Ray, I fully agree that the theological stuff isn’t as important as how we respond to the basic injunctions of the gospel. And for what it is worth, I do believe in divine progression. If Christ’s mortal life isn’t an example of a God undergoing some pretty significant change and progression—growing, indeed, Thomas, from grace to grace—I don’t know what it is. But what ever else that means, it doesn’t negate the point that he was divine long, long, long before me. ‘Nuff said, I hope.

  14. Thomas Parkin says:

    Yes, let’s all be nice. How does everyone feel about ObamaCare?

  15. Morgan,
    It’s somewhat overlooked, as we like to refer to Christ as the perfect man. And indeed if someone were to say he were the perfect example or an example of a perfect life lived I wouldn’t disagree. I certainly don’t think it’s possible for anyone to get any better. Except… it wasn’t “complete”.

    As far as being perfect in the flesh, he didn’t refer to himself that way. In the NT he says we need to be like our Father in Heaven is perfect. In the BoM after his resurrection he says we need to be perfect like he and our Father in Heaven is. JST addresses this verse, but does not clarify by adding in Christ’s mortal perfection. Both verses together would imply that perfection (whatever you consider it to be) is something that we can look and work toward (as commanded) but will not ever be possible until this corruptible flesh puts on incorruption.

    But Christ was the only begotten, so he inherited some divine aspects from the Father from the beginning.

  16. Fascinating thoughts. The nature of “divine” is complicated. Even paradoxical in Mormonism.

  17. Thanks, Morgan. I’m a Latter-day Saint who also believes that Christ is God and has been from all eternity.

    Faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, Hope in the Lord Jesus Christ, and Charity in the Lord Jesus Christ — these help us to sanctify ourselves and prepare (or qualify?) us for the celestial kingdom of our God. Faith, Hope, and Charity help us to become like Christ.

  18. Antonio Parr says:

    This is such a thoughtful and thought-provoking post that any off-the-cuff, blog-like response won’t do it justice. I will refer back to this much longer than it will be a featured link on BCC, and am grateful that you wrote it.

    (Preliminary, visceral response: your world view leaves open the door for a sense of wonder and awe for Christ, something that is often missing in LDS worship. The cultural notion that the Father and Son are guys “just like us, only glorified” leaves many Saints with no God to worship other than the selves that they believe they will someday become. We would do well to recapture the wonder of the Psalmist for the Being who formed the Pleiades and Orion and incorporate that wonder and associated praise in our public and private worship.)

  19. With apostates and secular-humanizers we must brook no compromise. We must call evil what it is and defend the bulwark of truth against the tsunami of moral relativism and permissiveness that threatens to engulf society. Sometimes the wicked just take the truth to be hard. Sucks to be them, but that doesn’t mean we are unkind for speaking the truth.

    Brook no compromise? This is kind of over-the-top isn’t it? Do you really believe Christ this binomial and fearful in his thinking? Do you see apostates and secular-humanizers as modern temple money changers? Wasn’t the civil rights movement largely a product of secular-humanism thinking? Shall we roll back to a time blacks didn’t have temple and priesthood blessings available to them so we can be more Christlike? Or is someone going try to to spin the civil rights movement into some kind of 1950s Christian platform issue for change? Sift the good from the bad if you like but stop throwing the baby out with the bathwater using defensive childish black and white thinking.

  20. Howard, my language there is an effort to fairly represent the strong position that I hear some would-be defenders of the Church saying. I am not of that mind-frame myself for some of the same reasons you cite. Do I believe that the faith of the saints should be defended? Yes, but not if it can’t be done on the basis of humility, charity, patience, and persuasion with love unfeigned, and with a willingness to acknowledge that sometimes we have been the ones in error.

  21. So sorry Morgan, I read that paragraph several times but apparently missed your intent. I misunderstood this to be a segue; We are in a war, as many of our martial or crusader-themed hymns attest and as various General Authorities remind us on a regular basis. With apostates and secular-humanizers we must… when apparently it was not!

  22. Thomas Parkin says:

    Antonio,

    One thing that seeing God as He is grants us is that we are allowed to see all things in their wonder and diversity without having to claim that everything is awesome because it is God. Understanding God as man does not take wonder out of the equation. Rather, we are enabled to see everything, including God, with curiosity, amazement, even awe. The universe, whole, but more importantly each individual thing in it can then be seen and loved, without religious mystification. I agree that LDS worship is often without a sense of awe and wonder, but that has nothing to do with our conception of God, which is awesome, and everything to do with the way we favor the known to the unknown (I do not say unknowable). In other words, I acknowledge your symptom but, as you well know, shudder at your cure.

  23. Thomas Parkin says:

    A couple weeks ago, I was in Deseret Book, in Salt Lake. There at the entrance are several lovely paintings of Christ. I’m not sure of the artist, but s/he is one of several practicing what I recall being described as something like ‘sunset in Arcadia': a peaceful Jesus, serene expression and posture, against a peaceful (and fantastical) landscape. This has now become the standard LDS image of Christ, slowly leaving behind the masculine Del Palmer Jesus (my ex-wife called it the “Charleton Heston Jesus”). Perhaps it is because life is so stressful, manifold, confusing, that we yearn so much for this image.

    But I think we have misunderstood the source of God’s equanimity. I so much prefer Carl Bloch’s paintings, taken as a whole. How much more variety, passion and life there is in them. The equanimity of his Jesus derives from the fullness of his humanity. He is many things: at times distressed and angry, at times exhausted, and quite explicitly not passive.

    That we can recognize the passions of God as human passions is why I stand all amazed. What a wonderful thing that, amazing, awesome, that at the end, we recognize His face. Just like I might recognize yours.

  24. Thomas Parkin says:

    It seems to me that becoming like Christ is a matter of augmentation, not subtraction. We are rightly kind and forbearing not because we have lost our ability to be angry, or even terrible, but because we have grown those qualities that situate our anger (or jealousy, or sexual passion, or whatever else is seen as partly or wholly negative) in a more godly context. God can be terrible, and will be.

  25. Antonio Parr says:

    Further thoughts: (1) One way to become like Christ is to learn as much as we can by studying his words and deeds set forth in the four Gospels. A once-every-four-years approach to these biographies of Christ is an insufficient approach to learning these “stories of Jesus” as if they are own (which, in a very important way, they are). (2) The other way to become like Christ is to love as deeply and as selflessly and as consistently as we can; to focus on the two great commands to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, might, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are all fortunate to belong to a Church that provides so many service opportunities, because these opportunities allow us to become fellow servants with Christ.

  26. Antonio Parr says:

    [Sorry for the repeat, but the prior post was in need of some significant editing!]

    Further thoughts: (1) One way to become like Christ is to learn as much as we can about Him and His personality by studying His words and deeds as set forth in the four Gospels. A once-every-four-years approach to these biographies of Christ is an insufficient approach to learning these “stories of Jesus” as if they are our own (which, in a very important way, they are). (2) The other way to become like Christ is to love as deeply and as selflessly and as consistently as we can; to focus on the two great commands to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, might, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We are all fortunate to belong to a Church that provides so many service opportunities, because these opportunities allow us to become fellow servants with Christ.

  27. Antonio Parr says:

    This, from the incomparable Frederick Buechner:

    WHEN JESUS SAID to love your neighbor, a lawyer who was present asked him to clarify what he meant by neighbor. He wanted a legal definition he could refer to in case the question of loving one ever happened to come up. He presumably wanted something on the order of: “A neighbor (hereinafter referred to as the party of the first part) is to be construed as meaning a person of Jewish descent whose legal residence is within a radius of no more than three statute miles from one’s own legal residence unless there is another person of Jewish descent (hereinafter to be referred to as the party of the second part) living closer to the party of the first part than one is oneself, in which case the party of the second part is to be construed as neighbor to the party of the first part and one is oneself relieved of all responsibility of any sort or kind whatsoever.” Instead Jesus told the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), the point of which seems to be that your neighbor is to be construed as meaning anybody who needs you. The lawyer’s response is left unrecorded.

    (Something of what it means to become more Christ-like is found in the good Rev. Buechner’s observations regarding the Good Samaritan . . . )

  28. Thanks for the post, Morgan.

  29. Thomas Parkin says:

    Morgan,

    I was thinking about this earlier, and recalled I came after another _part_ of another post of yours on related ground. I hope you don’t take it to be personal, because it really isn’t. If it is personal, it is coming from my person, not directed outward individually. This is territory that I feel it is important for me to stand on. If it comes out as … vigorous … it is because I feel that the religion, the cosmology, that I came to and found beautiful, is slipping away. And that makes me feel sad and greatly increases the feeling of loneliness I experience in the church.

  30. I’m not offended in the least, Thomas. I hope you feel respected here, even if disagreements are occasionally on view. I’m honest when I say that I think theological discussions are almost entirely beside the point. That I occasionally still indulge is just geek behavior on my part. Our ethical beliefs and behaviors are of much greater moment than our theistic ones, even to God, I warrant. The heart of the gospel is in how it is lived by us in community and in faith, and I hope you will always feel embraced on that score.

  31. One of the problems of becomibg like Christ is that it isn’t even known what Christ really did in mortality. How much of his life was recorded? in the The Book of Mormon 2 Nephi it says that the Holy Ghost will tell you all things what ye shall do. So, to me if we follow the Holy Ghost then we’ll know what Christ did or would do

    One other thing is to become like him means to me to have his attributes, just going to church doesn’t mean we are becoming like Christ at all. But I think it is a concerted effort to be more loving, more assertive, and like the Hymn says, “Hore Holiness give Me”

  32. How does the Christ of 3rd Nephi — the “5th Gospel” — fit here? Wholesale preemptive slaughter then preaching of love and forgiveness.

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