A while back I came across several Kindle books which were free to download (for a limited time), so I snatched them up. I figured I'd have something on back up when I ran out of books to read. The other night, I was tired enough to get in bed but not tired enough to sleep, so I decided to skim through one of the books. I picked Good News For Those Trying Harder by Alan Kraft.
I'm really, really thankful I downloaded this book. This is not the first time I've snatched up a book "just because" (maybe because the cover looked nice or the blurb on the back sounded interesting), set it aside indefinitely, and then, for one reason or another, picked it up at just the right time.
Because Lord knows I needed to hear the message Alan had written in that book. God is really awesome like that. God knew I would need to be reminded of these things, and this was the perfect week. My heart was primed for the message.
Alan talks about the moment when we connect with the Lord, "when you realized with a heavy heart the depth of your sin and at the same moment the sufficiency of His grace to meet you in that place?" He calls it the glorious music of the gospel.
Then he tells of what eventually comes to pass.
Very soon after our conversion, the life-giving melodies of brokenness and faith unintentionally get drowned out by a growing and incessant drumbeat that sounds so spiritual: "Just try harder. Just try harder. Just try harder." The cadence of this drumbeat begins to drive our spiritual lives. "You were broken, but now you are getting better. If you do these things Christians are supposed to do, you will continue to grow spiritually- becoming more and more holy, sinning less and less. God will be more and more pleased with you because of how Christlike you are becoming."
Without even realizing it, the melody of brokenness gets replaced by the march of self-effort; the melody of faith gets overtaken by the relentless drumbeat of performance. "Just try harder. Just try harder." We stop hearing the music of the gospel and begin pursuing a spiritual growth path that is actually removed from the gospel.
It's no wonder the apostle Paul admonished the Galatians, "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel, which is really no gospel at all! .... Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning in the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?"
It is clear that Paul is not saying that our human effort is a good thing. No, he is astonished, dismayed, and disappointed that the Galatians were seeking righteousness by their own (good!) works rather than looking to Christ, and trusting in Him!
Alan makes a great point, "Many Christians think the bulk of our sin problem was taken care of at our conversions. After all, at that moment our sin was forgiven- past, present, and future. We now struggle at times with doing sinful things but not like we used to before we received Christ. But is that true? Has our propensity to sin truly decreased? It all depends on how deeply you look."
I think this is why Christ so often, in the gospels, pointed out the inward sin. People were (and still can be) focused on the outward sin and mistakenly believe that if the outward looks good, the inward is fine. Jesus always got right to the heart of things. You've committed adultery if you've even looked at someone with lust in your heart, even if you've never acted upon it. The Lord knew that we like to put on nice little facades that look holy and righteous. We're good at cleaning the outside of the cup, while the inside is filthy. Are we white washed tombs?
Sin is the deeply rooted tendency in all of us to live with self as the center of our lives rather than God. ... Any time we love anything- including ourselves- more than God, that's sin. John Stott writes, "The essence of sin is man substituting himself for God." Sin goes way beyond just doing something bad. It is the unyielding and tenacious desire in us to want to be the center of the universe. We want to be noticed, to be affirmed, to be valued, to be worshipped, to be in control, to be comfortable, to be successful. These are not just casual interests- they very often they drive our lives.The Lord has been bringing several things before me these last few months and finally I (by the grace of God) pieced it all together. I'm pretty slow. It took me a long, long while to get why He was showing me these things, reminding me of events of my past, and repeating verses to me over and over.
He kept giving me flashbacks of my past, specifically when I first trusted the Lord and surrendered my life to Him. He kept reminding me of that freedom, peace, and joy that overwhelmed my soul. A friend of mine reminded my brother and I, "Do not despise humble beginnings." I didn't get what that meant. I mean, sort of.. but not really. These last few days, those words have been stamped on my forehead (figuratively, of course), as the Lord has shown me that I have been trying to finish in the flesh what began in the Spirit (my humble beginnings).
"When we define spiritual growth as us becoming more like Christ, as us becoming less and less sinful, what we are actually pursuing is a spiritual growth path in which we need Jesus less and less. I need Him less today than yesterday, because the power of sin is not as strong in my life. Is that what spiritual maturity looks like?" Alan states.
Ouch, right? I mean, that hit me like a ton of bricks. I would probably never actually verbalize that, but isn't that what I'm basically saying when I put my trust in my own "righteous works"? Who is the One who makes me holy? It certainly isn't me! Have I forgotten that?
Of course there are times when I realize how very much I need Jesus, but once I'm through that rough spot, I feel pretty good. I overcame! Thank You Lord! Now I'm stronger and better and more holy. Whoop whoop!
Flesh is such a stubborn thing. It likes to run the show. Flesh either likes to look really good- show everyone that it can "follow the rules" all by itself without any help OR it wants to just throw up its hands and say, "FORGET IT! Rules are stupid!" and rebel by doing the complete opposite. The thing is, the flesh is rebelling even when it's trying to look good and do good!! My flesh swings back and forth. It knows what holiness looks like outwardly. My flesh hates surrender (yours does too!), so it would rather put on a mask of holiness rather than completely submit to Christ and trust in Him. That way I can feel good about my walk with the Lord and feel like I'm in compliance, rather than seeing the truth- that I'm in rebellion and sin because I'm trusting in myself and am not surrendered to the Lord.
After a while, I get really exhausted though, because, let's face it, it's hard work keeping up the charade of holiness! Then I begin entertaining thoughts of throwing in the towel and returning to the things that will give me temporary comfort. My flesh reminds me that back when I was smoking marijuana, I could just slip into a daze where nothing could phase me. That sounds tempting, even though I remember that it eventually wears off, and I'm still left carrying the pain, shame, and guilt. Maybe I'll just eat or watch a television show and zone out for a while, that's more acceptable, right?
That's the deal with the flesh- it's on a pendulum, swinging back and forth from Trying Harder to Giving Up, with a lot of guilt and pain in between.
The flesh does not like the gospel message because it takes self out of the equation. The gospel doesn't require anything of me but surrender and trust.
Satan loves the swing of our flesh- he doesn't mind holy looking flesh, because he knows it's just flesh. It's all the same to him, really. He'd rather have us trying harder to be more "Christ-like", than to see us fully surrender to Christ. He'd rather have us believe that our Christ-surrender was a one time thing that we did at the beginning, rather than a moment by moment, thing. He'd rather repentance take on the same view, rather than our hearts be turned toward a constant attitude of repentance and submission. He'd rather the music of the gospel be background muzak rather than the melody of our lives.
Before I close this out, I want to share a way in which the Lord showed me the gospel. We recently adopted a dog from a no-kill shelter. He had been in the shelter for four years, since he was seven months old. He's pretty much known nothing but the shelter in his lifetime. The day we went to the shelter to bring him home, they brought him out, put on the new harness I bought him, and clipped on the new leash I purchased. He was overcome with excitement. He stood with his nose to the door eagerly anticipating his release.
But it was clear he did not think he was going to a new home. He thought he had scored a strip to the large fenced agility course on the other end of the property! When the door swung open, he rushed outside, straining against the leash. He was headed in that direction, because he knew, once he got there, he would be let off the leash and experience the only sort of freedom he knew.
Little did he know that so much more was in store for him! It caused me to think upon what my view of freedom is and how the Lord offers so much more!
Yesterday, a storm moved in, and the sky groaned and grumbled. Zig, our dog, is apparently afraid of the thunder, because he just about broke his neck (and the door) trying to get inside. He longed for safety, and he clearly felt being inside, practically on top of me (he wouldn't even let me sit a foot away from him), was the safest place for him to be.
As I bathed him, gently scrubbing his fur with my nails and a bit of dish soap, I thought about how I am like Zig. God takes us when we are lonely and unwanted. We just want a little pick-me-up. We're like the prodigal son who returns to his father just asking to be a hired servant, or like Zig who was thrilled at just the thought of a little freedom in the agility course. But God- friends... God has so much better for us.
As I watched the Zig's coat of dirt wash down the drain, I thought about how the Lord washes us clean- once and for all. I thought about how the Lord adopts us, He takes us in, He shelters us from the storm. And why? Not because of what we have to offer or anything we have done. Zig doesn't really have much to offer. I didn't choose him because he's a great hunting dog or because he's a ferocious guard dog. I chose him because I wanted him. God adopts us because He chooses to. Isn't that comforting? He sees us in our filthy, gross state and has pity on us. He takes us in. He cleans us up, and He offers us the riches of His kingdom... and all because of Christ.