Recently, a psychologist at New York University wondered if young adults were not saving money for the future because they felt like they were putting it away for a stranger. So Hal Ersner-Hershfield conducted an experiment, giving some college students a real mirror and others virtual reality goggles where, with the help of special effects like those used in movies, they could see a future version of themselves at age 68 or 70.
Those who saw the older version of themselves in the virtual “mirror” were willing to put more than twice as much money into their retirement accounts as the students who spent time looking at their younger selves in a real mirror. What’s more, those who glimpsed their future selves were more likely to complete their studies on time, whereas those who didn’t were more likely to blow off their studies. Those who saw their future selves were also more likely to act ethically in business scenarios.
Recognizing and investing in our future selves is certainly a fruitful practice. But it remains inadequate for those who believe in Christ.
When our identity is rooted in the knowledge that we are creatures who were made by God in dazzling glory and created with an original core of goodness and beauty, we can live inspired to become the masterpieces God intended. When we catch a vision for who we might become in the future, we can begin to live as that person now.
When we can imagine ourselves in both our temporal future and our eternal future, we can be inspired toward holiness in our day-to-day lives. In his classic sermon “The Weight of Glory,” C. S. Lewis observes, “There are no ordinary people.” He continues, “Remember that the dullest, most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree, helping each other to one or the other of these destinations.”
As the theologian N. T. Wright observes, when we think of an older, physically diminished person, we might say, “They are just a shadow of their former self,” but when someone belongs to Christ, we should say, “They are just a shadow of their future self.” If you can envision your future, glorious self, you can move toward becoming that person right now, bearing the beautiful image of God in your daily life.
Consenting to holiness
As we grow into the glorious masterpieces of God’s imagining, we aren’t manifesting our desired reality through positive thinking or embarking on a pull-ourselves-up-by-our-bootstraps self-improvement project. Rather, we are opening ourselves to be shaped by God’s creative, loving hands, inviting him to use whatever tools are necessary to slough away our dross. For it is only after we pass through purifying fire, after God chisels, sands, and burnishes us that we will begin to shimmer with an inner radiance that will cast warmth and light upon everyone around us. Though this creative process is something that God does as an artist—as Jesus said, “apart from [him] [we] can do nothing” (John 15:5)—we also play a role (Phil. 2:13).
Our role is to consent to the cleansing work of the Holy Spirit.
When I was a teenager, I kept a pornographic magazine hidden behind one of the logs stacked in our garage. When I first met Christ, I knew nothing about the Bible, and I hadn’t yet heard about the Holy Spirit. But as soon as the Spirit made a home within me, my first instinct was to grab the pornographic magazine I’d hidden behind the log, toss it into the fireplace of our living room, and burn it. I had an inward sense, born of the Spirit, that pornography would compromise my new relationship with God.
In due course, I also felt an inner urge to make things right with certain kids whom I had bullied in our neighborhood and at my high school. As humbling as it was, I felt that I needed to go to them and ask them to forgive me for the way I had treated them. Though imperfectly, I was saying yes to the work of the Holy Spirit in me.
Decades later, with God’s help, I still seek to respond to the Holy Spirit within me, whether by making a choice to stop objectifying an attractive woman, to initiate repair and reconciliation in a fractured relationship, or to respond to a conviction of sin in some other area of my life. We do not need to fear these inner urgings because the Holy Spirit never condemns us, but gently convicts us.
Condemnation drives us from God, but conviction draws us toward God.
For many of us, the temptation to sin might not come most often in obvious areas, such as sexual lust or the desire to dominate or bully someone, but in more subtle inclinations. For example, like many people, I am inclined to place too much security in my bank balance and what I have accumulated rather than trusting in God’s provision. By nature, I also have a tendency to base my self-worth on how I perform at work and in other spheres of life. Or I can become overly attached to someone and then start trying a little too hard to impress them.
In certain situations, I also feel an anxious desire to influence or control the outcome. Although I play a role in my transformation, I am ultimately powerless to change these tendencies in myself. On our own, we cannot experience freedom from our attachments and addictions to security, affection, esteem, power, and control. Our primal desires for these things are wired into our central nervous system, deeply rooted in our bodies. As Thomas Keating says, “our issues are in our tissues.” Experiencing real change is not just a matter of willpower or intellectual insight—we need God to do a cleansing and transformative work within us.
This is why I pray this simple welcoming prayer I have adapted from Mary Mrozowski, who was a lay leader from an interdenominational contemplative community. I pray this prayer each morning as part of a time of meditation. I may also pray it at various points in the day as I feel unhealthy frustration and desire for security, validation, or control:
I consent to the work of the Holy Spirit.
I let go of my desire for security and pleasure.
I let go of my desire for affection and esteem.
I let go of my desire for power and control.
I invite you to consider regularly praying this welcoming prayer if you want to become a person who does not make your money, your work, pleasure, food, what others think of you, or your influence and power your functional god.
Decluttering our souls
Becoming God’s masterpiece is primarily God’s work in us, and so our role is to consent to the work of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we respond and agree to the Holy Spirit’s work of removing sin from our lives; at other times we allow the Spirit to declutter us.
When my wife Sakiko and I clean our home, we toss out all our garbage (used Kleenex, socks with too many holes, blueberries turning white with mold, and so on). Each summer, we do a deeper cleaning, going through our closets and identifying clothing that we haven’t worn for a year to give it to the Salvation Army Thrift Store. We also browse our bookshelves, culling any we won’t read again, and donate them to a nearby library or used bookstore.
Recently, while we were cleaning out our garage, Sakiko found some wedding gifts in storage containers that we hadn’t used in nearly two decades—so we gave them to the Salvation Army. When we throw away our garbage and give away things we’re not using anymore, we get rid of the clutter in our house, and this opens more space for the things we need and value.
If we want to experience the deep transformation of the master artist, we need to make space in our minds and hearts to attend to God’s loving presence. This will include opening ourselves to the purifying work of the Holy Spirit in relation to possible sin in our lives and inviting Jesus to cleanse our bodies and spirits of any garbage or clutter that might distract us from his presence.
This essay was adapted from Now I Become Myself: How Deep Grace Heals Our Shame and Restores Our True Self by Ken Shigematsu. Copyright © 2023 by Zondervan. Used by permission of Zondervan.