At Life Model Works, we ask a lot of “how” questions. Often in churches, we are told what the Bible teaches, but too often we are not taught how to pull it off in real life. How do we love the people around us like Jesus loves them? How do we love the difficult people in our lives, who often feel like enemies? How do we perfect our love by not being motivated by fear? Or more generally, how do we learn to live as members of God’s family on this messy earth?
The skills we promote in the Life Model are designed to produce lives of joy, love, and peace. But even when we are doing the practices, there are often bumps in the road. One of the obstacles to learning to live in God’s family is getting caught up in fear. When we operate with a fear motivation, we will often create what we call an “avatar self” to simulate a person who will be accepted and approved by the community.
Part of what is so adorable about young infants is that they naturally act like themselves. When they are happy, their faces beam with smiles and giggles. When they are sad, their crying and tears flow out of them unhindered. When they are angry, their eyebrows furl and their faces broadcast, “I’m mad right now!”. They live in their faces and freely express their emotions. As the infant grows, he or she learns that they get more attention and receive joy by acting certain ways. “If I cry, I will get what I want. If I smile, people will give me hugs.” At an early age, avatars come online, and these manufactured selves continue into adulthood, unnoticed and seemingly useful.
Avatars protect us or make us look good. We welcome an avatar to make us more productive. Sometimes we spend so much time in an avatar-self that we lose touch with our true selves and think the avatar is who we really are. Churches often encourage us to live in religious avatars to be accepted into the community instead of encouraging us to live from the heart Jesus gave us. We often prefer our avatars because they receive more joy than our true self would receive. Jesus always acted like himself, and many people did not like who Jesus was.
A problem with living in an avatar is that our discipleship does not work on avatars. As we might expect, Jesus has no interest in transforming an avatar. He wants to transform our true selves. The practices we train people in to build joy, peace, and love simply do not transform us if we are residing in an avatar.
We create and live in these simulations instead of simply being ourselves and letting the chips fall where they may. Living from the heart Jesus gave us is the path to living in our true and best selves. Also, living in a community where we see each other through Jesus’ eyes and offer healthy correction when we forget who we are trains us to live in our true selves.
Paul warns Timothy about deceptive teachers in their church who depart from the truth. “Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses…” (2 Timothy 2:25-26). Timothy needs to correct these teachers so that they will remember who they really are. They had lost touch with their true hearts and needed a reminder. A characteristic of transformative churches is that they are families where we look for and bring out each other’s true selves.
As God’s children, we are a people who constantly look for what God is building in others.