I have a concern/fear/worry that most professing Christians don't understand the significance of the gospel for their lives nor do they appreciate all that Jesus has accomplished on their behalf. That concern is mainly driven by the fact that the "they" in the last sentence has been me for most of my Christian life.
Which is not to say that I've got all of this figured out. But I have been given a season of weakness where I have had to come to grips with the fact that I have nothing to offer to God. In truth I never had anything to offer to God and neither do any of us, it's just that I thought I did.
It seems to me now that almost all of us have embraced a mode of Christian living where we come into the faith via the gospel then set it aside as we seek to grow in Christ. It seems to me that our mode of Christian living is usually the pursuit of self-improvement or getting better.
Here's a paraphrase of a couple of conversations I had recently with a dear friend that illustrates this. The name has been changed here, but I'll say up front that "Bill" is a true Christian who loves the gospel but who stuggles with guilt and feelings of condemnation over his failures to be all that God wants them to be. I've known him long enough to know this is a long term problem, and I've also known myself and other Christians long enough to know that this is a common struggle. Let me also say that I have a close enough relationship with "Bill" that I felt comfortable being more direct than usual in these conversations and I'll also mention that "Bill" has given me permission to share all of this.
Bill: Do you have a regular quiet time?
Me: Yeah, I guess so. But don't worry, even if you tell God you can handle life on your own, He doesn't believe you. He's still handling your life even if you don't know it or acknowledge it.
Bill: OK, but I need to do a better job of having my quiet times.
Me: OK, so what happens if you don't do a better job of having your quiet times?
Charlie: Well I'll just be a better Christian if I do. I won't be as close to God if I don't. I look at __________ (insert name of local super-saint here) and they are always having a quiet time and are such a good Christian, and ____________(insert name of other local super-saint here) and they are so wise and I want to be more like them.
Me: OK, so is God going to love you less if you don't have a consistent quiet time?
Bill: Well no, but don't you think God wants us to have quiet times?
Me: Well sure, but it sounds to me like you just want to be like ________ and __________ and want to earn a promotion from God.
Bill: Yeah, they are such good Christians. And doesn't God want me to be a better Christian?
Me: How much better do you have to get at having quiet times and how much better of a Christian do you have to be before God will be satisfied with you?
Me: If you fail to have a quiet time, how does that detract from the sufficiency of Christ's atoning work for you?
Bill: It doesn't, but doesn't God want us to spend time with Him?
Me: Sure, but if you don't, does He love you less?
Bill: Well, He's more pleased.
Me: So let me get this straight, God's ongoing pleasure with you is dependent on you having a quiet time and being a better Christian, not on what Christ did for you on the cross.
Bill: Umm . . .
Me: So how long have you been dissatisfied with your spiritual growth and feeling bad about your lack of quiet times?
Bill: Almost of my Chistian life. I was taught as a very young Christian that a good Chistian will have a daily quiet time and I have never been very good at that. I'll do it for awhile and slack off.
Me: And what changes has this produced? How haw all of this worrying and fretting helped you? How have all of your new plans and initiatives to be better at having quiet times worked out?
Bill: Well, they didn't work out, but at least I felt bad about it, at least I felt bad about not having my quiet times.
(Nervous laughter from both of us . . . )
Me: So you continue on, feeling bad about not having enough quiet times, and trying to do better, but you never get better and you keep feeling bad about it.
Me: OK. let me throw something else at you to think about. It sounds like you are making an idol of ________ and ________. You admire them and so you want to become the kind of person you can admire.
Bill: Hmm . . . ok, maybe.
Me: I think it's just a case that you are following the typical kinds of teaching and training we get in the church, I know that's how I was trained and how I lived for most of my Christian life. I wanted to be a "good Christian," like others I admired. But this pretty much makes an idol of yourself and leaves God out.
Bill: OK, I can see that.
Me: Again, I think this is probably just a case of following sincere but misguided training. On the other hand, this may truly be a case of deep sin. And if it is a case of sin it is the sin of making an idol of yourself, you wanting to be a "good Christian," which means you become the kind of person you can look up to rather than looking to Christ. You want to admire yourself rather than trust Christ.
Bill: Hmmm . . .
Me: Yeah, I'm not trying to make you feel bad here, I think we are all like this. But the upshot of all of this is that we admire and value our own spiritual performance more than we value Jesus' work on the cross.
Bill: Ooh . . .
Me: OK, at the risk of rubbing it in let me ask you something else - is there anything in the Bible you really want to read or anything you want to know about God that you can find out by reading the Bible?
Bill: Well, I can't think of anything, I just want to read through the whole thing.
Me: So here's how it is - the Bible is not the kind of book you really want to read, and it really doesn't have anything in it that appeals to you and that you really want to know. You just think you need to read it so that you can get a promotion from God and become the kind of person you can look up to.
Bill: Umm . . . well, if you put it that way.
Me: Again, I'm not trying to make you feel bad, most of us are that way. But I'm just trying to illustrate the way we professing Christians tend to think. Think of it this way - when you wake up in the morning do you wake up as a person who is deficient spiritually, and who is a bad Christian who needs to get better? Or, do you wake up as a sinner for whom Christ died, whose sins are forgiven, who is loved by God with an everlasting love and a love which nothing can separate you from?
Bill: I guess the first.
Me: And here's another way of thinking about this. You would probably feel more at ease in your soul if you could be this mythical "good Christian" that you've got in your imagination than you would in knowing that Christ has forgiven your sins.
Bill: I guess so.
Me: But, suppose you woke up in the morning as a forgiven sinner, who didn't have the pressure of having the pressure of spiritual performance haunting you, and as one who was surrounded by the grace of God.
Bill: OK . . .
Me: And suppose your attention was on God and all He has done for you in Christ rather than on yourself and suppose your eyes were opened to all the blessings God has poured out on you and the goodness that surrounds you.
Bill: Alright . . .
Me: If that was what you woke up to every day, the knowledge that you are a forgiven sinner surrounded by the grace of God, do you think you might then want to read His word and spend time with Him?
Bill: I think so.
I'll stop it here and mention that we've had many other conversations in this regard and in pretty much all of our conversations I focus on Christ and His benefits. In the conversations I'm paraphrasing here I was more blount and direct than ever and I want to assure you I don't go around accusing people of being idolaters and things like that. Trust me when I say that "Bill" is one of the most sincere and faithful Christians I know. These were just situations where I felt we were at enough of a comfort level that I could say these things in a non-threatening way and I can say these kinds of things because I have spent my whole Christian life practicing these things myself. I was hoping to kind of shock "Bill" out of that performance orientation that was causing so much distress.
And having said that, may I encourage you dear reader, to take these things to heart. I know that I have endured far too much self-inflicted misery in my Christian life because I have been on that performance treadmill and I have also spent most of my life looking within for evidences of God's favor, rather than looking to the cross. I dare say that my experience and "Bill's" is common. I almost never meet a satisfied or content Christian.
Most folks I know whould say that, given our inherent sinfulness, we should never be satisfied in ourselves or we won't pursue holiness. But my response to this is that I don't think we know how to be satisfied in Christ. We place a greater value on overcoming sin than in being forgiven of sin. By God's grace may we turn that value system around.