Read Ephesians 4:1-6.
Here’s a confession. I’ve always been drawn to those parts of the Bible that spell out how I should live as a Christian. Ephesians 4–6 is so practical. I grew up in a church that emphasized personal piety and spiritual formation.
But obsessing about my spiritual development can be counter-productive if it makes me more focused on myself. In the end, I feel more convicted of my failings, more aware of my inadequacies, more critical of myself for falling short of God’s expectations. I end up critical of others too: “They’re no better, but at least I’m trying.”
It’s not easy to escape the cycle of the self. I can’t, until I engage with something beyond me.
Jesus’ goal wasn’t self-fulfilment, self-realization, or personal spiritual formation. He was less focused on developing his life, more focused on giving it. His radical idea was living not for the self, but for the many (Mark 10:45).
The Christian life is not a call to be a better self. It’s a call to participate in restored community. It’s so counter-cultural, but it makes sense: personal development isn’t the goal; it’s the by-product of relationship. (Just ask anyone who got married.)
This self-development view of Christianity is so pervasive that it even gets smuggled into our Bible translations. The application in Ephesians starts like this:
Ephesians 4 1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. (NIV)
Note: a life. A responsive reader concludes, “Ok, I must live my life worthy of the calling I have received.”
Unfortunately, that’s a mistranslation. There is nothing about a life. Word-for-word, it reads:
- worthily (ἀξίως)
- walk around (a metaphor for living life) (περιπατῆσαι)
- of the call (τῆς κλήσεως)
- of which you [plural] were called (ἧς ἐκλήθητε).
Note the plural. To unpack it, it’s saying, “Conduct yourselves (as a community) in a manner that reflects the majestic character of the God who called you into kingdom life under his anointed.”
You still want to include the individual focus? Read on:
4 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.
Every phrase is focused on our communal life:
- humble: in relation to others
- gentle: how you treat others
- patient: tolerance of others
- bearing with one another in love: clear enough?
It’s not about becoming a better self. It’s about maintaining unity with others, because God in Christ has ended our hostilities and glued humanity back together again:
4 3 Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.
The goal is not becoming a better person; it’s coming together as one body, in one Spirit, with one hope; humanity united in one Lord in one faith, through one baptism; united in one God who is the Father of us all and permeates us all:
4 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Nothing here says, “I must be a better me.” The focus is entirely, “We must live together as the human community reunited under King Jesus.”
Is there anything about personal development in Ephesians 4–6? There is, but always with the relational focus. As I learn to live humbly with others, to confront gently, to engage patiently, to stick with each other through our foibles, I become a richer person anyway. Let’s get it the right way around: personal spiritual formation is the inevitable by-product of communal spiritual formation.
God’s idea of spiritual formation is to form us together into a unified humanity in the reign of his Son, a community that grows into the full measure of God’s anointed:
4 13 … until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Freud made a living by giving wealthy people a chance to talk about their favourite subject, but Jesus puts fractured humanity back together.