Living into the Life of Jesus

Joseph Gorra Interviews Klaus Issler

Feb. 14, 2012 By Joseph Gorra

Your “Living into the Life of Jesus” (IVP, 2012) was recently released and, I must say, this is not just another quintessential book on evangelical spiritual formation, especially when you have philanthropists, scholars, pastors, philosophers, businessmen and nonprofit leaders all endorsing this book, witnessing to how their varied lives and experiences find an affinity with your vision. I think your book, especially as a spiritual formation book, is especially attentive to our “lived experiences” and how they are to be formed into Christ-likeness. Why is that important to you, especially as a professor and author?

ISSLER: In my view, good theology is always practical — it has important implications for living well on a daily basis. One purpose of the Incarnation was to give us an example for how to live well. I’ve become convinced that Jesus’ teachings are realistic and practical. That’s the approach I take in my book.

In general, one of the many things I respect about your work is how attentive you are to the teaching-learning process, theology and biblical studies, spiritual formation and even issues of philosophy. I think that shapes the distinctiveness of your authorship. Can you tell us how you appreciate these areas, especially their convergence for knowing how to “live into the life of Jesus”?

ISSLER:  I like getting the whole enchilada. I see my task to be a “trusted editor” who explores the sometimes dusty technical tomes from these various fields of knowledge that offer key nuggets and insights about the formation process.  Then I enjoy the challenge of taking these seemingly disparate pieces of information and weaving them together into a unity to provide readers a more holistic picture — in what I hope can now appear as a seamless presentation.  

Sometimes professing Christians have an idealized view of spirituality and what it means to be Jesus’ disciples. By that, I mean there is sometimes a tendency to view “life in God” as a sort of other-worldly reality that has little real, effectual vision for how to get the job done in our everyday lives. In that regard intentional spiritual formation is, as others have observed, like another add-on to an already busy, religious life. How do we deal with this?

ISSLER: “Life in God” as another add-on item — for all that effort we expend on this — yields only great frustration, guilt and no deep change. I’m finding that, rather than worrying so much about my external actions, I’m paying more attention to my inner life — the heart of the matter — to my reactions to others, to what sense of peace or pressure I’m experiencing, to whether or not I’m consciously aware of inviting God to be involved in my daily activities. Though this change of focus may not yield immediate formation results, it will do so in the long run. Faithful Christian living is not a 100-yard dash, but a marathon, in which good, solid plodding, step by step, more like the tortoise than the hare, brings one to complete the course, and do it well.

There are three parts to your book. The first part deals with “A Process for Christian Character Formation.” First, let’s talk about what does it mean to have a Christian character and how is that different from some sort of Christianized version of “behavior modification”?

ISSLER:  Character is basically what we do without thinking. One portrayal of Christian character Jesus offered was the good tree bearing good fruit. So, rather than responding with arrogance or contempt, we respond with grace and compassion, as Jesus did. And we have a role to participate in our formation.  This formation into Jesus requires both divine and human participation. “Behavior modification” got a few things right on some aspects of this process, but there is so much more involved, such as differing goals and motivations, and, of course, the essential role of the Holy Spirit as the key agent of sanctification.  

One of the many gems of your book is the discernment you offer concerning “formation gaps.” What are they and why do they matter for understanding our character formation?

ISSLER:  Jesus informs us that, although we may have deep insight to easily see the “speck” in someone else’s eye, we are basically clueless about the “log” in our own eye. The first step in any formation change to become more like Jesus is knowing specifically where are the gaps in our life compared to his life, which includes both sin and potential for more maturity. Based on Jesus’ teaching and life example I describe five basic formation gaps, identifying potential areas for us to grow in:

  • Disconnected Gap - not regularly abiding in Jesus
  • Distress Gap - an initial moment of troubling emotional stress
  • Dismissive Gap - resistance to truths that seem impossible
  • Discrepancy Gap - professed values that are not character deep
  • Distracted Gap - a lifestyle slowly drifting off course  

My book addresses the challenging critique by Christian pollster, George Gallup, Jr., “We need to work toward closing the gap between belief and practice — we need to turn professed faith into lived-out faith. What is called for is not new committees, new strategies, or position papers; we need nothing less than changed hearts.” George Gallup, Jr. and D. Michael Lindsey, The Gallup Guide: Reality Check for 21st Century Churches (Loveland, CO: Group Publishing, 2002) p 14.

How should we think about Christian formation practices and their adaptation to our everyday lives?

ISSLER: That we engage in practices for our formation — both individually and corporately — is based on a few key points. First, Scripture is fairly clear that our intentionality and participation is normally necessary for our formation into Christ-likeness. Notice all the imperatives: “bear with one another, forgive each other” (Col 3:13). Second, deep change in our character cannot be done directly, at will, in a moment of time. The nature of core belief formation is that it is done indirectly, through relevant practices we engage in, on a routine basis. There is a learning curve, as with any life competence. Just as people acquire deep characteristics over time through practice to become a concert pianist, a fluent foreign language speaker, a master craftsperson, or an all-star baseball player, similarly we acquire Jesus-like characteristics through relevant practices. For a season, a friend of mine engaged in the practice of “driving in the right, slower lane” to help him be more patient in his driving. When I do a liquid fast, I include milk and juices. Only water is too boring for me. Fit the practice to your life situation. Some cannot do food fasts due for medical reasons. We can apply the “fast” concept to other areas, such as, when possible, postpone doing email till after lunch.

In part two, you address “Essential Divine Resources of Formation Grace.” You say that divine love, the Holy Spirit and scripture are indispensable here. Let’s first talk about how divine love is a resource here. Why does it matter, and perhaps even more, how has it formed you?

ISSLER: Just like flowers in a cared for garden, we bloom and flourish best when we bask in God’s unconditional love — the ideal supportive and affirming context. In a safe and accepting environment, we’re freer to be vulnerable and admit our problems, and ask for help. But when we perceive the atmosphere to be one of judgment and condemnation, we tend to clam up and defend ourselves, and blame others. There is little opportunity for honesty, or good counsel or formation.  My distorted views of God have slowly been changing, with the help of various mature Christian mentors, and healthy friendship and small groups. Grace and love helps us become whole.

What do you love about learning to live into the life of Jesus?

ISSLER: Rather, I love the results of the formation journey, especially noticing when I tend to respond in a more Jesus-like manner. I love the new levels of inner freedom I experience, the new levels of peace, of wiser decision-making, of sensing God’s presence. These noticeable milestones on the formation way encourage me onward, to keep at it. But the process of the formation journey itself, I accept as the means to the end. It can be challenging, painful, and slow as molasses.

You also say that the Holy Spirit is a “divine mentor in Jesus’ life and ours.” But even for some self-identified Christians, the Spirit is not often believed as a mentor in our everyday practices. How is the Spirit’s work a resource in this regard, and how has He empowered your own journey?

ISSLER: The Evangelical Trinity tends to be “Father, Son, and Holy Scriptures.” For much of my adult life, the Holy Spirit was a doctrine I could teach, but was not on the radar screen of my daily living experience. Paraphrasing Paul, we experience the miracle of the Spirit’s ministry in our conversion, but we tend to go it alone in our daily Christian walk (Gal. 3:1-3). Without the Spirit’s mentoring and empowering ministry, Jesus could not have accomplished his mission (see Ch 5 of the book). A significant awakening encounter with the Holy Spirit at age 47 began my conscious awareness and increasing dependence on the Spirit’s work. Scripture is clear that the Spirit is the agent of sanctification. I want to be a more cooperative and aware learner, rather than clueless and stubborn student, who tends to quench the Spirit’s good work as I formerly did — now much less.  I can’t imagine that I would be experiencing the current freedom and peace if I had not been a bit more willing and aware over these last 10 years. I still suffer from spiritual cholesterol — but I hope it keeps being reduced more and more as I invite the Spirit’s ministry in my life.

Klaus, you are one of the smartest people I know, and yet you are not content to ‘live in your head,’ but are focused on receiving the life of the Spirit into how you feel, will, imagine, and practice. Why does that matter to you? How do you keep disciplined here?

ISSLER: The challenge of the academic is to blend both head and heart. The journey into my heart, paralleled the journey to consciously depend more on the Holy Spirit. On the retreat at age 47, I became aware of my pride and arrogance, of my neglect of relying on the Holy Spirit, and of my cluelessness of being an emotional being. I’ve been on a journey to identify my emotional states. When I was unaware of being anxious, I didn’t know I needed the promise of God’s peace (Phil 4:6-7). I even began to “defrost” in my behavior, slowly becoming a “hugger,” rather than just a “hand-shaker.”  A key practice that is helping me keep open to the affective side of my life — which I began only seven years ago — is to start each day with a few minutes of worship music. Another practice, though I’m not as regular, is to take a brief walk in nature. I’ve learned that music and nature are important avenues to nurture for my heart.

As evangelicals, we have a rich heritage of attempting to be “people of the Book.” We want to be biblically formed Christians. But one of the challenges we seem to face is whether we only take scripture as a source of our religious beliefs and practices vs. knowing, believing and living as if really is an essential source of knowledge and wisdom about all of reality. For you, why does this matter, especially to the endeavor of forming Christian character?

ISSLER:  By seeing various experts speak on the news who seldom refer to Scripture in a serious way, we’ve been unintentionally and incrementally socialized to devalue the Bible as knowledge, regarding it basically as irrelevant to daily living. We can quote it and teach doctrines but it’s mostly a cognitive-type of activity. I’m slowly awakening from my own character captivity to secular worldview values, and slowly become a Bible-hearted practitioner. Jesus was the only human, though he is the Second Person of the Trinity, to practice what he preached. Jesus believed that God’s word is essential to living well, and that it’s a matter of the heart, not just the head.  I want Jesus to be my main teacher — he is more credible than the experts on the news.

In part three, you further develop the resources of part one in light of part two, by addressing what it can look like to daily follow Jesus in our “formation gaps.” First, you consider what this means about our relationships. What are some exemplary practices from Jesus that we can adopt?

ISSLER:  Although Jesus taught that our main demonstration of his Kingdom was through how Christians love each other, there is a growing perception that Jesus’ followers are judgmental and arrogant.  Whether these perceptions are reality-based or not, there is always room for growth. I know I need help in this area as a recovering loner — growing up as a man in a Western culture that values radical individualism and task, and downplays relationships.  In the book I focus on three particular practices evident in Jesus’ life: forgiving others, resolving conflicts through peacemaking and mediation, and developing close friendships.   

In my estimation, the last chapter of this book is itself worth the value of the book. Here, you address the importance of recognizing how Jesus’ exemplary life and practices can meaningfully integrate with how we steward work, money and wealth. Why should we care about this sort of integration and what do you advise for our life in this area?

ISSLER:  Jesus talked a lot about money — according to one author — about 15 percent of his recorded words address money issues.  Jesus also teaches the important truth that we are managers not owners of God’s resources on loan to us. At the end of our life here, we will all stand before Jesus himself to give an account about how we used, invested and shared these resources for Kingdom purposes. Jesus himself worked for about 18 years in the construction business. Half of Jesus’ parables involve a business-related context. Jesus himself knows about the opportunities and challenges of the workday world.
     I think Paul’s admonition in 1 Timothy 6:17-19 captures well the gist of Jesus’ teaching for today — if we understand “rich” as one who at times throws away food:  “Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.”

For many years now, you have journeyed as Jesus’ disciple in this world. What continues to amaze you about Jesus and His ministry in this world?

ISSLER:  That Jesus — the Second Person of the Trinity — was willing to take on human nature — forever — is stunning. That our Lord was willing to be born as a vulnerable infant,  grow up through childhood, through young adulthood, and adulthood — living in his humanity, even battling Satan in his humanity, relying on the Holy Spirit, and showing us that we can live a flourishing life that pleases God. And then to suffer a horrible death out of love for us. That is love; that is heroic.
    Jesus reigns now as the King of Kings. He empowers us through the Holy Spirit to follow his lead in restoring his Kingdom on earth. Jesus desires our best and nourishes our formation journey onward, not wanting us to remain as we are in our woundedness and brokenness. Jesus prays for each of us; he is with us in our grieving and mourning and in our gaps, as our sympathetic High Priest. Jesus never asks us to do something that he hasn’t already done in a similar fashion himself. Jesus leads by example. He now leads in us and through us to bring about the restoration of Kingdom love, joy, shalom and justice on earth.


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