If you’ve read some of my other posts, you’ve likely noticed that I can be pretty intense about certain topics I care deeply about, and I come against certain things pretty harshly. I can’t help but notice issues in the Church and things we need to correct as Christians, and I like to write about these things. Although it’s essential to have realizations about things you’re doing wrong, if you only focus on those things, you’ll eventually just end up feeling discouraged and condemned.
I am a massive perfectionist when it comes to spiritual matters. In everything else, I’m pretty laid back and don’t expect too much from myself. But when it comes to living a holy life and being a “good Christian,” I am so hard on myself.
I think many Christians focus too much on the grace doctrine and lower the standards to make themselves feel more comfortable, so those people need to hear more about holiness. But then there are people like me and other perfectionists who already get the whole holy living thing and need to hear about grace more.
The word grace has been twisted by a lot of people. But biblically speaking, grace isn’t something we need to be wary of. It’s what enables us to live holy lives because it takes off the pressure to be perfect.
I know from experience that if you just spend all your time trying really hard to be perfect, you’ll end up way worse off than you were before. We’re not supposed to just try really hard to be good all the time, because our efforts fail.
You don’t become perfect as soon as you get saved. We have finite understanding, and there’s no way God could show us absolutely everything all at once. That’s why we need to accept God’s grace for us as we grow. Because we will mess up and we will get things wrong, and if we feel condemned every time we do, we’ll constantly be on an emotional rollercoaster. God cares about our hearts more than anything.
Refusing to accept God’s grace can feel holy at the time, but in reality it’s just prideful. When you refuse to admit that you can’t do anything on your own and that you need God’s grace, you’re showing that you don’t really understand the cross and are essentially saying that you want to live under the law.
If I’m honest, lately I’ve totally lost sight of the cross. I’ve been so focused on the holy living aspect of being a Christian that I’ve forgotten what enables us to live holy lives in the first place. We must never, ever forget that none of this is about us being good people.
My sophomore year I took this terrible theology class. My professor made the comment that wearing jewelry with crosses on it is like wearing jewelry with electric chairs on it, because you’re essentially celebrating instruments of execution. I knew then that he didn’t have a sufficient understanding of the gospel. Because for Christians, the cross is the symbol of victory. It’s the image of everything Christ did for us and what His death actually means. Looking at the cross isn’t morbid, because it didn’t all end at the cross. If you forget the resurrection, then yes, the cross is just a symbol of execution. But the resurrection is what makes the cross a symbol of victory.
We have to understand what the cross really did for us. If we don’t, we’ll be a bunch of confused Christians who are uptight and far from free. When’s the last time you really rested in the fact that Jesus died to forgive all of your sins and that you became perfect in God’s sight as soon as you accepted His grace and repented of your sins? I very rarely properly understand that fact. It’s hard to grasp.
We’re forgetful creatures, and it’s so easy to just read God’s commands for us and try to obey them without properly understanding why we’re even doing so. But if you forget the why, you can end up becoming legalistic.
Legalism is a really easy thing to slip in to, especially if you’re the perfectionist type. At first it feels so righteous, because you think that you care about the things that God cares about. But when you look at the gospel, God cares about mercy and grace and love. Of course He cares about holiness too, but if you take holiness and isolate it from those other essential things, you just get legalism.
Legalism is all about what to do and what not to do, and there’s no freedom in it. Yes, by all means, live a holy life. If we claim to be followers of Christ, we’re required to do so. But if you put pressure on yourself to be perfect and act as if you shouldn’t need God’s grace, you won’t be free at all.
If you meet a Christian who claims to live a perfectly holy life and never sin, I would be very concerned about that person. There are Christians who claim that it’s possible to live a completely sinless life and be perfect after you’re saved, but those people are essentially saying they don’t need Christ because they think they can be Him. Those people don’t understand what sin really is, as anything that falls short of God’s perfect standards is sin.
Any of us can fall at any moment. If you think you can reach a point of spiritual maturity in which you are above every temptation and can become perfect, you clearly haven’t been around mature Christians enough.
Humility is so, so important. I love the passage in Luke 18 that compares the prayer of the Pharisee to the prayer of the tax collector:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” |Luke 18:9-14|
It’s interesting how God prefers a more sinful man with humility to a supposedly more righteous man who is arrogant. Throughout the Bible, you see so many verses about humbling oneself. In the list of things God hates, haughty eyes are the first thing on the list (Proverbs 6:16-17). God hates arrogance.
In our attempts to be perfect, we fail to see that this can often look a lot like arrogance and pride if we’re not careful, and we end up forgetting that we need to consciously humble ourselves before God on a regular basis.
Refusing to accept God’s grace isn’t always about arrogance. It can also be because we feel unworthy. It’s all too easy to fall into a pit of condemnation, especially for people who have gone through a lot of trauma in their lives and haven’t had the necessary love and encouragement from those closest to them.
Oftentimes we can compare God’s view of us to the way those around us view us. We can project the attitudes of humans onto God, and we can assume that He hates us and is angry with us when in reality He’s reaching out to us and trying to show us His love and forgiveness.
Sometimes we can forget to accept God’s grace simply because we’re so focused on acting holy that we fail to fix our eyes on Him. We can feel so great a responsibility to represent Christ in our behavior that we ironically end up making it more about us than Him. But if we get it in our heads that being a Christian is just about becoming “good people” so we can show everyone how right Christianity is, we’ll become really frustrated and won’t bear fruit.
A passage that is really important to me is John 15, particularly verses 4 and 5:
Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in Me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.
I got a necklace made with the word “abide” on it as a reminder that I can do nothing on my own. I’m not going to pretend that I’ve actually paid attention to that reminder very often, because I’m a forgetful person and I suck at remembering biblical truths. But it’s a very important passage to remember, because it destroys the notion that we can be “good” people on our own.
So many times I’ve tried to transform myself without Christ and without the power of the Holy Spirit. I don’t even know why most of the time. I think it’s probably a mixture of fear, pride, and feeling unworthy. I think the biggest issue is that I can’t accept the fact that I’m God’s child. I often feel like it’s audacious to claim to be a child of God. I try to work for my salvation, and it doesn’t turn out too well.
The parable of the prodigal son is so important to remember when you can’t accept the fact that God has called you His child:
“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.” |Luke 15:18-24|
I am one of those people who always thinks that I am unworthy to be called a daughter and asks God if I can be His servant instead. Because of my insecurity about my identity in Him, I end up sinning even more because I think that His love and grace are conditional. This is such a dangerous mindset, and when it comes to it, I think it’s the mindset most judgmental, legalistic Christians have. If you can’t accept God’s love and grace for yourself, you’re not going to be able to share it with those around you.
If you’re one of those perfectionistic, austere Christians who spends 90% of the time beating yourself up and thinking you’re not good enough, I recommend reading Galatians. Although it was written to legalistic Christians who relied on Jewish law, I think it still applies to modern-day gentiles who are perfectionistic and try to earn God’s grace. A passage that has really stayed in my head is Galatians 3:1-6:
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you His Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been trying to finish by means of the flesh, and it’s so foolish and exhausting. I’ve been scared of going to Christ for help and allowing the Holy Spirit to work in me. Part of that has been because I’m naturally rebellious and wanted to have control of my own life, but it’s also been because I struggled to accept that I really do belong to God and that He hasn’t left me.
So I just wanted to remind you that in your pursuit of holiness, you need to accept God’s grace. We can’t be holy without it. We must never forget that this is all a gift. If we think being a Christian is about being good people in our own effort, we’re essentially saying we don’t need the cross and that Jesus’ blood isn’t enough.
God’s grace covers so much that we’re not even aware of. That careless thing you said, that bad thought you had, that thing you know God told you to do that you didn’t do, that wrong belief you had for years and only recently realized was incorrect. Not to mention the bigger sins we fight against.
When we understand the mercy God has shown us, we can more readily extend grace and compassion to those around us. Because God’s grace isn’t about merit or how deserving we are. It’s kind of illogical in worldly terms, because it’s completely unearned.
There is such a thing as an abuse of grace, but there is no such thing as too much grace. Let’s understand grace as He meant it to be understood and not add to or take away from His word.