Practicing the Better: Jesus–Incarnation, #2

Jesus came to show us how God intends for us to live in the world.  Far from eliminating or minimizing any other reason we might give for the incarnation, this one gathers, organizes, and unites the rest.  As John put it, Jesus came to make his home among us (John 1:14).

At the start, this helps me better understand why he spent 90% (roughly thirty years) of his life in Nazareth. By the time he commenced his ministry, he was steeped in ordinary holiness.  Whatever else practicing the good meant, it meant doing it in the routines and regular circumstances of everyday living. Jesus knew the sacrament of the present moment.  He lived among us here-and-now.  Jesus began his ministry knowing that light, life, and love are manifested in the common moments, places, people, and things.

He did everything with a clear sense of his identity.  We see this in Jesus’ “I am….” statements in the Gospel of John. [1] With respect to this series about practicing the better, his sense of identity (and ours too, for that matter) meant that his life energy came from the inside, not the outside.  As we see in the gospels, Jesus was not defeated by temptations, swayed by expectations, or overcome by opposition.  His core identity was his foundation, his compass, and his strength.

Decades ago, Evelyn Underhill wrote eloquently about the importance of identity, and how so many chart their course by outward influences, “We mostly spend [our] lives conjugating three verbs: to Want, to Have, and to Do… forgetting that none of these verbs have any ultimate significance, except so far as they are transcended by and included in, the fundamental verb, to Be.” [2]

Without a fundamental identity, we are lured and led by the fallen world, usually thinking too little or too much of ourselves, with the ensuing discouragement or pride that characterizes the loss of perspective.  And from that thin ice, we pursue (to borrow from Solomon) one vain (unfulfilling) thing after another, being driven rather than directed and feeling that we are all circumference and no center. We become the hypocrites Jesus told us not to be, wearing masks and living by image more than by identity.

In his incarnation, Jesus is saying, “Live from the center, live in the imago dei with your identity as a beloved child of God defining and directing your life.” Our performance always flows from our personhood.  That’s why the fruit of the Spirit soon came to serve as the essence of Christlikeness, both in the forming of our character and conduct: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

In practicing the better, we can always pull off the highway of life for a road check to see if we are living by a core identity.  Take each of the nine words above and run them through two diagnostic tests: (1) “I am__________” and (2) I demonstrate_____________. ” Simply put, practicing the better with respect to identity means that our inner and outer lives are congruent–they are one Life. [3]

[1] “I am…the bread of life (6:35, 48)…the light of the world (8:12, 9:5)…the gate (10:7, 9)…the good shepherd (10:11, 14)…the resurrection and the life (11:25)…the way, the truth, and the life (14:6)…and the vine” (15:1, 5).

[2] Evelyn Underhill, ‘The Spiritual Life’ (Harper & Row, n.d.), 24.

[3] Evelyn Underhill writes at length about this in ‘The Spiritual Life’  and Parker Palmer writes powerfully about the same thing in his book, ‘A Hidden Wholeness’ (Josey-Bass, 2004).

About Steve Harper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 31 books. Also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church
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