This is the picture Sunday School teachers show when they teach Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice, and opens the door, I will come in, and we will eat together.”
This is the picture Sunday School teachers show when they want to urge little children to ask Jesus into their hearts.
Some years later, when I began thinking about Christian language and how we use it, how we form idioms that make very little sense to people who aren’t raised in a Christian tradition, and I began wondering about this phrase.
I imagine “asking Jesus into your heart” requires a little explanation. Essentially, it signals that you want God—in the form of Jesus—to be a part of your life, that you believe he is God, that he died for your sin, and you want him to know live in you.
I grew up speaking “Christianese,” the language of evangelical Christian churches. It sounds so much like English that I don’t always recognize when I switch into this native dialect with its unique idioms. At any rate, this idiom is pretty standard in evangelical circles.
Unfortunately, our idioms frequently replace Scripture and often establish their own theologies, based on language instead of on Scripture. Based on this phrase, we thinking of Jesus coming into our lives, living in us, walking with us where we walk, and strengthening us as we go about our daily tasks. He's in us. He's on our side. How cool is that?
But that's only half the story. Jesus is in us, but we are also in Christ. And we are to live through Christ, going where he goes, following where he leads. He strengthens us as we follow him. He is in us, and we are in him, and we are on his side.
Basically, instead of having him follow us around as we live our lives, we follow him around and live the life he has planned for us.
It's not the same thing. Sometimes it looks the same, but it's not really the same. Remember, Jesus tells his disciples, that we need to lose our lives. (Luke 9:23-25)
I memorized those verses too, but the Sunday School teachers never had any cool graphics to explain that passage.
I remember the first time I came across this idea, of living in Christ instead of him merely living in us. Pastor Mike led a Bible study in our home, and we were studying 1 John. These were the days when our church was quite small, and Pastor Mike always led a home group. He lost his host home, and we had a big living room so he asked if he could move the study to our house. I didn't realize it when I said yes, but this opportunity probably changed the direction of my spiritual life.
So anyway, Pastor Mike went through the book of 1 John verse by verse, asking the group to think about the meaning and application of the words, challenging us to think about the ideas intended by the writer. 1 John only has five chapters, and those chapters are pretty short but it took us a couple of months to get through them. I studied on my own too, keeping a journal of my ideas.
And I came across a verse that challenged my way of thinking, this Jesus in your heart type of thing. In 1 John 4:12-16, John writes, "No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is made complete in us. We know what we live in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. . . . If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. . . . God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God and God in him."
Okay. Here's both parts of the story. God lives in us. We live in him. I don't think I had ever heard that we live in him, and the idea stunned me.
It also gave me a new way to view my life. If I am IN God, I am never alone. If I am IN God, I do not live independently. If I am IN God, and the other Christians around me are IN God, then none of us operate independently, but we should work together for the same goals, for the same purposes. We are all IN God.
I felt like I had just come up with some new theology, some new way of seeing and understanding God, and that scared me just a little bit. I'd been in church my entire life, and I'd never heard this idea. Could I be wrong? And yet the language was clear.
In The Call to Conversion, Jim Wallis discusses the same dilemma that I discovered as I read 1 John. He wrote, "Modern conversion brings Jesus into our lives rather than bringing us into his. We are told that Jesus is here to help us do better what we are already doing. Jesus doesn't change our lives, he improves them."
In other worse, we can be better, do better, live better WITH Jesus than without him. There's nothing about losing our lives in this type of thinking.
Still, we can't base an entire way of thinking on one passage. In Acts 17:28, Paul says, "It is in Christ that we live and move and have our being." Our life is best lived IN Christ.
This idea of IN God or IN Christ is sprinkled throughout the New Testament, and Brennan Manning tells us that Paul speaks 164 times about life in Christ. That's a lot. It is enough to begin reexamining the way we view God, the way we view Christianity, the way we view what it means to follow Christ. It is enough to begin to examine the way we live as Christians, to see if the way we live reflects Scripture or simply what we've heard.