By Steve Morgan
The magnificent (accidental) theologian Michael Jackson once said:
I’m starting with the man in the mirror
I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself and make a change
Sometimes pop-culture icons make for (almost) good theologians. In this case, Michael Jackson sounds like a puritan with a tinge of 80’s flair. Jackson sings a song eerily similar to the Christian discipline of self-examination. Emotional intelligence, self-awareness, and proper understanding of God are all instrumental to the discipline. Heehee
There are a number of ways we can bend the words of the King of Pop to fit our needs. The chorus sounds much like the words of Jesus in Mark 1. “Repent and believe for the kingdom of God is at hand.” Self-examination is presupposed by the word “repent.” To “repent” means to turn from one thing and towards another. Turning, in this sense, often needs a mirror to analyze where we are and where we are going.
Jesus’ imperative to repent and believe is paramount to the Christian faith. One of the very first steps in the life of the believer is self-examination. The first realization of sin is the beginning of salvation. Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. But beyond the inward glances presupposed by the word “repent” is the activity of repentance! We must turn from our sins and lean on Christ for our righteousness. We must walk the road of righteousness (aka The Way, which is what the first century church called “Christianity”).
N.T. Wright identifies an important idea in the words of Jesus. Wright argues that Jesus commands the people to abandon their own political agendas and adhere to the agenda of the kingdom of God. In a post-first century world, we would call this leaving the kingdom of darkness for the kingdom of light. In Pumpkin Center/Ponchatoula speak (hometown shoutout), this means hitching your trailer to God’s truck and watching in awe as he pulls you out of the ditch known as the kingdom of darkness and drags your foolish self to his suburb in the sky, the kingdom of light. Shamone
Sanctification: Mortification and Vivification
Second, similar to the call of the gospel, Paul instructs us to examine ourselves in 2 Corinthians 13. He commands the believers in Corinth to examine their hearts and ensure that they are right before God and in Jesus Christ. These exhortations center on testing for the truth of salvation. Likewise, Michael Jackson reflects Paul of Tarsus by exhorting the man in the mirror to change his ways.
The King of Pop’s chorus easily applies to the sanctification process. Within Baptist life we have typically only focused on mortification instead of vivification, which are the two steps under the umbrella of sanctification. Mortification is the killing of sin of the flesh, whereas vivification is the holifying (my word, not Jesus’) of the spirit by the Spirit.
Paul explains this well in Ephesians 4 where he gives this two-part example of mortification of sin and the vivification of the spirit. The thief no longer steals (mortification) and instead seeks to give (vivification). The liar, slanderer, and gossip no longer spreads misinformation about others, but instead lifts up others with charitable speech in love. When Michael calls for starting with the man in the mirror and asking him to make a change, he is echoing Paul’s exhortation! He is effectively saying, “Look at yourself, identify your sin, kill that sin, and do righteousness instead.”
Making the World a Better Place
We’ve got one more bend in the river of contextual abuses. To change the world we must change ourselves. Agree. Totally, wholeheartedly agree. Changing ourselves means repenting and believing daily. Of course, St. Michael the Jackson meant we change ourselves and that a change in ourselves means a change in the world in a socio-political sense. Jackson doesn’t mean a change in citizenship, but a change in the person who will hopefully change the world for the better. In the Christian worldview, changing ourselves (repenting and believing) means a change in the world because the world lost one of its parishioners. The believer shifts from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light and becomes a sojourner in a foreign land. Likewise, the believer now proclaims the euangelion (good news) of God. And because the believer preaches the euangelion, he or she brings more change to the world, escorting people out of the proverbial ditch of darkness and telling them about the Godly 4×4 that can pull them out of their sin and transgressions.
Joking and silly speech aside, Michael Jackson certainly intended to convey a catchy call to self-examination for the purposes of improving the world, but we recognize that Mike’s chorus is accidental theology and can be easily applied to Christian discipline. And while Jackson came close to a righteous call to repentance, his original intent is still something we can use in Christian circles, in general, and Baptist circles, in particular (no Calvinist joke intended). We must look inwardly and challenge our own actions and attitudes when we deal with one another. A perfect example is the Calvinist debate in the SBC. We need to stop beating each other up and speaking derogatorily about our brothers and sisters in Christ because we differ on a few soteriological points. The issue 99% of the time in debates over Calvinism isn’t the content, but the attitude. Fundamentalism is no longer a set of beliefs, it is now an attitude and we abide in it all too often.
So I exhort you to heed the (altered) words of Michael Jackson: If you want to make the (SBC) world a better place, take a look at yourself and make a change! Heehee.
Steve Morgan is a graduate student at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Morgan also serves as the Digital Communication and Marketing Coordinator at NOBTS.