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 January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, and September.