Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new
Creation; the old has gone, the new has come.
(2 Corinthians 5:17)
Since I was a child, I have had a passionate fascination with bears. It all started when I was around five-years-old and my family took a vacation to the Great Smoky Mountains. It was on this memorable trip that I saw my first bear and it was love at first sight.
Throughout my childhood and adolescence I took every opportunity I could to go and see a bear, whether it be in a carnival, a traveling circus, or in a zoo. I also spent hours studying about bears in encyclopedias and books. I guess no one can really explain why a young person develops these sorts of interests. For many, the fascination passes as adulthood arrives with its myriad responsibilities and other interest. For me, however, I still love bears.
With this information as a backdrop, you can imagine how excited I became back in the early 90’s when I learned that the Miami Zoo had obtained a rare, Tibetan Bear. I was living in Miami at the time and read about the bear in the newspaper. The next day I drove out to the zoo to take a look at the Tibetan Bear.
The zoo in Miami is of the modern type. Animals are not kept in cages, but instead roam with relative freedom, separate from spectators by large ditches, canals, or non-descript fencing. I arrived at the zoo and inquired as to the whereabouts of the Tibetan Bear. I strolled over to the area where the bear was being kept and I was in awe.
A relatively smallish bear, the Tibetan Bear has long hair, brownish red, and a face with much character. The bear was near the small canal that ran between the walkway where I stood and the enclosure where it lived. After observing the animal for several minutes, I noticed something quite odd about its behavior. The bear paced endlessly in the same pattern. It would take eight steps in one direction, slowly pivot on one of its front feet, turn, and take eight steps in the opposite direction. The creature kept this up for the entire time I was there, a total of almost thirty minutes.
Inquiring about this strange behavior, the zookeeper told me the bear was about six-years-old and had lived its entire life in a cage. The eight steps was the exact distance from one side of the cage to the other. The bear had implanted a deep pattern of behavior based on its former environment. It had never been able to take more than eight steps in one direction and now, even though it had the freedom to roam as far as it wanted, it still only took eight steps. According to the zookeeper, a trainer worked with the bear each day in an attempt to help it “unlearn” the old pattern of restrictive behavior. The zookeeper said that most animals that had lived in cages for most of their lives had similar patterns of behavior.
On my way home I reflected on this and had one of those moments of personal epiphany. I realized that I, like the bear and a majority of the Christians that I knew, had a similar problem. Through Christ’s mission on earth, we have had our bars removed as well. The cage of sin and self has been removed and we captives have been set free. As the scripture from 2 Corinthians that opened this article states, “we are new creations.” The old has gone and the new has come. This is part of the good news of the gospel and the result of the healing work Christ’s victory has obtained. Each of us, when we accepted Jesus as Lord, was given a new identity “in Christ.”
So why is it we continue, like the bear, to walk as if we were still behind bars? Why do we continue to behave in the same destructive ways that we did before? Why is it that so few of us seem to walk in the newness of life that Christ promised and Paul spoke of so often?
I think there are many reasons for this unfortunate reality. Part of the reason is just the sheer force of habit. Whenever we repeat a behavior over and over, we tend to eventually do it automatically. In a real sense, we become machine-like. Our world pushes a button and we respond in a predictable way. Another reason is our faulty thinking. Let’s get one fact down deep. Our behavior starts with our thinking or, as said often, the thought is the ancestor of the action. Until we change our thinking, we won’t effectively change our behavior.
Paul realized how important our thinking was to our behavior. That’s why he said we needed to “renew our minds.” All lasting change starts with a mental makeover.
One other reason why we continue to walk in our old ways, even though scripture screams we are new creations, stems from the fact that either we don’t realize that we are new creations or we don’t believe it. Perhaps this needs a bit of clarification.
The Church as a whole has been expert at preaching the gospel of the blood and forgiveness of sin. Christ died as a ransom for many and, even though we don’t deserve it, we can now come into God’s presence as if we were spotless. As great a message as this is, it only half the story. Yes, Christ won our forgiveness but he also did something else. He won our victory over our sin and our sinful nature. Go back and review Romans 5-8 to get a true picture of all this.
By his resurrection and his ascension Christ has made possible, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, our sanctification, meaning, we are now operating under a new set of circumstances, with the Holy Spirit working inside of us. Many Christians are unaware of this reality for two primary reasons: first, the vast majority of believers are biblically illiterate. Recent studies by George Barna more than bear this out; and second, pastors typically preach more about the blood than they do the resurrection, the ascension, and our subsequent empowerment.
Other Christians are aware of the fact that they are new creations in Christ, but just don’t believe it. This is a tragedy because just the act of believing what scripture says about us goes a long way toward helping us to manifest this new reality in our lives. Look at it like this: we receive salvation by accepting Christ’s atonement by faith; why don’t we also accept the second half of the gospel by faith? Why don’t we, using our faith in all that Christ has accomplished, accept the gift of our own progressive movement toward receiving the “fullness of Christ?”
In closing, let me recommend a couple of books for you. The two titles are, Victory Over Darkness and God’s Power at Work in You. Both of these great books are by Neil Anderson, noted author and teacher. By and large, much of Anderson’s teaching is a bit too conservative for my taste. However, I can say without reservation that he has done perhaps the best job of spelling out the reality of our new identity in Christ that I have ever encountered. Further, he does an excellent job in detailing things that we can do to appropriate that identity and make it a day to day reality. Another title by Anderson, Bondage Breaker, is also very good.