On a recent Sunday night, I sat on the floor at church, with my 3-year-old climbing in and out of my lap. As an introduction to a teaching series on fear, we had broken into small groups to answer the question: "What things are people your age most afraid of?"
I spoke of the maternal fears I share with all my 30-something mom friends: injury, illness, death, sadness for our children. The response of the other two group members surprised me, if only for their candor. Both 20-somethings in full-time Christian ministry, they were afraid of "getting it wrong" in the next decade—of wasting the years, making wrong decisions, and having to backpedal and start over. One guy put it this way: "I don't want to set myself up for a midlife crisis, where I say, 'What have I done with my life so far?'"
It is a fear I know well, having spent my 20s feeling much the same way. The plethora of choices—vocational, relational, and geographical—and the silence of my culture about its expectations often left me feeling paralyzed. In the words of songwriter David Wilcox, "I was dead with deciding—afraid to choose. I was mourning the loss of the choices I'd lose." Several publications at the time, including a book entitled Quarterlife Crisis, made it clear that I was not alone.
On the other side of that decade, I find myself among a crowd with a different fear—or perhaps the same fear with a different face. That same Sunday night, another friend, in his late 30s, talked about the frightening realization that all his hopes and goals for life would not be met. This particular friend has 2-year-old twins, one of whom has serious medical problems; his sweet little life has required his parents' energies in ways they never expected. Whether because of the limitations of time or circumstance, many things we want to do in our lives, and with our lives for God's kingdom, are often beyond our grasp. Life doesn't unfold the way we expect.
While I hear 20-somethings asking, "What if my life doesn't go anywhere?" I hear my peers sighing, "My life isn't going where I thought it would go." Somewhere along the line, we feel, things have gone off track.
In just the past month, I have heard several Christians articulate surprise at the turns their lives have taken: "I never thought adultery would happen to me," "I never could have imagined myself as a widow," "I don't want to be the mother of a deceased daughter." Each deviation from our expectations of "normalcy" can leave us confused and recalibrating. How do we cope with the suspense of life in such an unpredictable world? How do we deal with the fear that our lives will be disappointing—to us or to God?
'Joined to The Lord'
The good news from the Scriptures is this: No follower of Jesus is an isolated entity, living out a solitary, potentially tragic plot line. The life story of a disciple is inextricably linked with the life story of Jesus. Each of us is connected to Jesus as a branch is connected to the vine, a body part is connected to the head, or a wife is connected to her husband (John 15; Eph. 4:15-16; Eph. 5:31-32). In fact, the truth gets even more shocking: As the Father is in Jesus, and he is in the Father, so are we "in" Christ, and he in us (John 17:20-26). In other words, in the same way that the Father and the Son are connected to one another, so we are connected with the Son by the work of his Spirit. We are "joined to the Lord" (1 Cor. 6:17, ESV).
The possibility is staggering: that I, a creature, might have my life linked—actually, organically, eternally linked—to the Son of God himself. Like a freight car coupled with an engine, where Jesus goes, I go. What happens to him, happens to me. I follow him and share his life, his character, his suffering, his future, his inheritance, even his reign with the Father.
While this reality, known as the doctrine of "union with Christ," has received a lot of attention throughout Christian history, it is often ignored in the modern church. But it is incredibly good news for those of us who wrestle with the uncertainty and disappointment of life on earth. Because we are "in Christ," because his life is ours, our fundamental life story has already been written.
As one who has "put on" Christ in baptism (Gal. 3:27, ESV), my life has a predictable trajectory. I will live, like Jesus, through suffering and sacrifice, rejoicing and rejection, obedience and fellowship, service and sadness, death and resurrection. And my life will end, like his, in glory. This is how Jesus experienced our fallen world. This is how I will experience it too. My life "path" has already been mapped out by Jesus, who calls himself the "way" (John 14:6). This road goes through suffering and death to life and glory. The script is already written.
In fact, the New Testament often speaks about the details of my life in Christ in the past tense. It is a done deal. I (that is, my old self) was crucified with Christ (Rom. 6:3-6). God raised me up with him and seated me with him in heaven (Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1). Because of these realities, I can be just as sure of what will happen in my future. The reality of Christ in me is my "hope of glory" (Col. 1:27). Because Jesus is my life, I know how my life will end. "When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory" (Col. 3:4, emphasis added).
If I Am United with Christ …
All of this takes the pressure off my experience of life now. It does so in a few ways:
If I am united with Christ, my focus can be on staying connected to Jesus. I don't have to obsess about the particulars of the decisions before me. Do I take this job? Move to this city? Marry this person? Have another child? Yes, I will discern these things best in relationship with Jesus. And yes, God, as a loving Father, certainly cares about them. But these are not ultimately the defining questions of my life. Think about Jesus' image of the vine and the branches. Look at an individual branch. What matters most? Which direction it grows? Whether it twines to the left or the right? Of course not. What matters most to its health and well-being is simply whether it is still connected to the vine, and whether the vine is alive and thriving (which Jesus is). As far as life direction goes, the most important questions sound more like this: Am I feeding myself on Jesus? Am I hearing his words and putting them into practice? Am I loving him with all my heart? Am I living in his body, the church? These questions are usually easier to consider, and should be less angst-ridden.
If I am united with Christ, then my life will take on not only the direction of Jesus' life, but its quality. We spend a lot of time thinking about the "plot" of our lives. God is apparently much more interested in character development. The reality of my union with Jesus speaks to both. Because Jesus is living in me by his Spirit, my character gradually conforms to his character (Rom. 8:29; 2 Cor. 3:18; Gal. 4:19; Col. 3:10). In other words, holiness happens from the inside out. It's not about me, struggling away out here in my world, trying to be more like Jesus. Instead, it's Jesus, living in my heart (Eph. 3:17), making his home in me (John 14:23), who is remodeling his own house. This was, in fact, the primary point of Jesus' incarnation for our redemption. As Martin Luther put it, "The Logos [Jesus, the Word] puts on our form and pattern, our image and likeness, so that it may clothe us with its image, its pattern, and its likeness." It is freeing to take our eyes off the unknowable variables of our future, and focus instead on cooperating with the Spirit of God as he works to transform our hearts into the image of Jesus. That transformation is one thing we can be certain God has in store for our lives.
If I am united with Christ, I get to enjoy his victory. Now. I think of Sarah Hughes, figure skating her way to an unexpected gold medal in the 2002 Olympics. As a 16-year-old, coming into the final event in fourth place, she didn't have much to lose. While the top three contenders competed, we held our breath for each jump, each landing, each combination. Every movement had the power to guarantee either victory or defeat. But Hughes was fun to watch, because she was clearly having fun. "I didn't really go out and skate for a gold medal," she told an interviewer that evening, "I went out and had a great time." She skated as though it were a prize to simply be at the Olympics. She skated with an exuberant, reckless abandon. That freedom enabled her to give the best performance of her life.
Our life as disciples, united with Christ, should be a lot like that. Jesus has already won the medal for us. The prize is ours. We get to enjoy the event, to marvel at the privilege of being included in the games. As A. J. Gordon writes in his classic book In Christ, "He who is in Christ fights from victory in his very attempt to fight for victory."
If I am united with Christ, my life—even my pain—is sweetened by fellowship with the Trinity. Whenever my husband and I hug each other in the kitchen, my 3-year-old daughter is inevitably there within two seconds. She squeezes through our legs until she's right in between us, at which point she announces: "Family hug!" She sees our love for one another, and she wants in.
Because of our union with Jesus we can join the Trinity's family embrace: "On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them …. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them" (John 14:20-23).
The Christian life is not simply a matter of "pain now, gain later." We are given—right now—incredible fellowship with God. Eternal life is knowing him (John 17:3). We have been enveloped in God's family hug, and we live all of life within the warmth and security of that embrace.
If I am united with Christ, suffering is not a deviation or a dead end. For some reason, and I know this is insanity, I expect my life to proceed smoothly. When it is interrupted by pain, I feel surprised and angry. But if I am in Christ, I can expect suffering to be a normal part of my discipleship. It is not a detour from Plan A, but an expected component of life with Jesus. In fact, it is an opportunity to participate in Jesus' life, to share in his sufferings (for he suffers with us), and to have his resurrection made known in my body (2 Cor. 4:10-11). That can radically change my experience of suffering. Gordon writes,
Both suffering and death, while they are the common and inevitable heritage of the race, may in the believer's case be so linked into union with the cross and passion of his Lord, that they shall in a certain sense be transformed from inflictions into sacrifices.
Our suffering is not a pointless impediment to our productivity or fruitfulness. It is something we share with Jesus, for the good of our souls and of his kingdom.
If I am united with Christ, I am freed from my fears. My 5-year-old son is a space buff. Consequently, we have done a lot of reading with him about the U.S. space program. His favorite mission is Apollo 11, the first to land on the moon. My husband recently found himself wishing he could have been on that incredible mission. Then he realized how little he would have actually enjoyed it, because of the sheer terror of not knowing whether he'd get back to earth safely. He imagined it—being confined inside a tiny metal box, hundreds of thousands of miles away from his home planet, while any one of a million things could have gone wrong and killed him instantly—and concluded that his fear would have overshadowed any real appreciation of the adventure. The story of Apollo 11 seems nothing but glorious now, but that is only because we know how it ended. I suspect that Buzz Aldrin, Michael Collins, and the late Neil Armstrong would have given anything to relive their mission with the knowledge that they would come home safely.
Jesus wants us to know the ending of our story. Otherwise, the terror of the unknown would distract us from living life to the fullest. Because we are united to Christ, when we look at him, we see the end of our story. We do get to come home safely. That changes our experience of this "mission" that is our lives. We can live them joyfully, as adventure stories and not tragedies in the making.
May we rest in the security of our union with Christ. We are tethered—to a strong character, to a settled plot—and will not disappear into deep space. Let us embrace our unpredictable seasons of life as those who are confident in the quality of the plot, committed to character development, and enjoying our relationship with the protagonist. Christ in us is "the hope of glory." And hope does not disappoint us (Rom. 5:5).
Sarah Lebhar Hall is an adjunct professor of biblical studies at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and Trinity School for Ministry.
Go to ChristianBibleStudies.com for "Fear-free Living," a Bible study based on this article.
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