by Bob Allen:
He’s not a real guy, but he’s all too real at the same time.
Dave, a Christian, pursues a holy life, reads his Bible, prays, goes to church, and lives the best he knows how. He’s not a “punch-list” believer who does things because he knows he should. Dave genuinely desires holiness, but the strength of his desire for growth doesn’t negate his propensity to struggle. He wrestles with depending on God. He grows angry at his private failures from which he has repented over and over. In his heart, he feels he should be much farther along in his faith. Dave has bought in to the message of the world to be “bigger, faster, stronger” and equated it to his desire to be “truer, purer, holier.” He is trapped by a lie that perpetuates a cycle of angst, dysfunction, and despondency in our culture; his mushrooming shortcomings force him to the end of this rope.
The never-slackening pace of self-improvement know-how bullies Dave, and others like him—both believer and unbeliever, into a pattern of pursuit; pursuit of achievement, fulfillment, time, money, significance, power, impact, and the like. People strive, often for good things, because our culture links output with value; in order to be a productive member society, one must do x, y, and z. The pressures and promises of progress churn excited energy into torrents of activity intended to realize ethereal goals or increase senses of worth.
On the surface, the mindset fosters one’s growth, but the undercurrent threatens one’s peace. The culture around us compels this cycle of increase, pushing and normalizing the malicious “more”. There will always be more weight to lose, more money to make, more yield for the investment of our time, money, and energy. Sliding in and beckoning with promises of a greater sense of accomplishment and self-worth, “more” becomes the only acceptable outcome. But a lack of movement only serves to exacerbate the problem for many. When the gains stall, people grow in their discontentment and that malaise spreads to every sphere of life. Far too many people in our world lay their claim and their trust on what they have achieved, what they can achieve, what they will achieve. They mark their scorecard with progress and setbacks, hoping that the former outnumbers the latter, and then if, or when, progress doesn’t outweigh the setbacks, despair lurks in the wings waiting to drag people into hopeless surrender. I wish this problem existed only in the secular world, but it has bled over into the church, intensifying the struggle for many.
Christians know they are a work in progress. Coming to the cross on God’s terms demonstrates the recognition of the inadequacy of one’s own power or ability for salvation. In humility, faith, and trust, Christians approach God with an understanding that apart from his intervention they stand condemned. This type of surrender demonstrates how we’ve been both kneecapped and made to stand by the gospel and it flows from a regenerated heart set on becoming Christ-like. We know we are neither who we should be nor whom God intended for us to be and so his rescue is all the sweeter.
But the newfound responsibility to change and to become who God wants us to be presents a unique challenge. Paul reminds the Colossians to leave behind who they used to be and instead take up their new identity, “put off the old self with its practices and…put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Col. 3:9-10) It sounds so easy, but knowing what to do and doing it are too often in conflict. To break the cycle of frustration pouring out of striving and failing, Christians—people like Dave, people like you and I, must relearn the most important truth: our status in God’s eyes stems from what Christ has done on our behalf, not what we accomplish for ourselves.
In order to hear that truth though, we have to disconnect from the stream of self-help encouragement the world offers. No amount of effort or striving advances our cause with God. Understand, this is no excuse for a lackadaisical attitude toward our growth, merely that our efforts to grow are powered by something outside of ourselves. Like seeds waiting germinate, we need the sunlight of God’s grace and the watering of the Holy Spirit to sprout. Without them, we will lay perpetually dormant, but through basking in the glorious grace of God and drinking in the life-giving streams of the Holy Spirit, we sprout, we put out leaves, we flower, we grow, we produce fruit. We are utterly incapable of photosynthetic spiritual activity without the Source of light and life.
But in order to relearn this important truth, to really embrace it, we have to hear it.
We have to cease our striving. We have to bring an end to our endless efforts.
In a world that links our value to our successes and failures, we must turn away from the world’s wisdom and judgment, looking instead to the cross where Jesus forgave those who crucified him, where he demonstrated that every life matters. We must listen to what the gospel whispers into our ears.
“You are loved.”
When we are slogging toward the goal, encumbered and exhausted, and we realize we cannot simply shrug off our desperation, we must look to the One who persevered through impossible circumstances for us, to the cross where Jesus suffered, and bled, and died to bring us hope. We must listen to what the gospel whispers into our ears.
“Christ is enough.”
Tripping over our own feet, unable to get out of our own way, taking two steps backward for every two steps forward, we must press on and pursue maturity by recognizing and embracing that our successes and failures neither save nor condemn us, but witness to a holy God who has called his people out of darkness and into his marvelous light. We must listen to what the gospel whispers into our ears.
“You are holy.”
We must silence the world around us and listen to the only words that bring life.
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures. (1 Co. 15:1-4)