Blame it on my English-German-Norwegian ancestry; hardworking, reserved, and stoic traits run through my veins making me prone to think that if I just work hard enough and long enough, that eventually I can accomplish anything I set my mind to. While those are wonderful attributes to have, and in certain instances have proved true, when it comes to working out my salvation… woefully misguided.
When you add other significant characteristics: eldest child, introvert, and people pleaser to the mix, you end up with a pretty buttoned up personality. If life was difficult at times, and of course it was, you did your best and kept quiet about it… no whining or complaining allowed.
In addition, early church training taught me the value of setting goals to receive desired results. My Sunday School teachers kept track of attendance, offerings, and Bible memorization to ensure we stayed motivated and focused on the prize… recognition in the form of copper, silver, and gold pins that we got to wear on Sundays. The most valuable pin, and one I dearly coveted, was gold with a blue enameled cross. The joy I felt in being recognized for my accomplishments was delicious and contagious!
Back then, the rules seemed pretty simple, at least to my young mind. As long as you said the sinners prayer and did all the other stuff you were supposed to do, you could pretty much expect to go to heaven. My check list included going to church regularly, reading my Bible, and being “good.” My teachers meant well, but to a rule-following hard worker the spiritual disciplines they presented looked to me like a clear-cut formula for achieving righteousness.
That’s where matters stayed until I became a young adult. By then I knew that my salvation was not by my efforts. Everything that needed to be accomplished to reunite me with my Heavenly Father had been done by His son.
For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection wiped my slate clean. So… why was I still working so hard?
Why indeed? Now the “to do” list included prayer, tithing, witnessing, and church leadership. And since more is better that obviously meant shoveling more activities onto each category I felt I performed well. Prayer and witnessing were my weak points, so I focused my efforts on my church roles. Over the course of the next couple of decades my ministry resume fleshed out nicely. Every time I took on another role, or volunteered to lead or participate in another project, I felt a momentary flash of pride and recognition that what I was doing was meaningful and spiritual. That it mattered… that I mattered.
The problem is, though, that a brief glow of accomplishment doesn’t do much good over the long haul. All the striving to prove myself worthy did was make me feel exhausted. Trying to keep up a stiff upper lip when you’re running on empty emotionally and spiritually doesn’t work forever.
Eventually my works based faith failed. In retrospect, that’s the best thing that could have ever happened because it caused me to give up thinking that I could save myself. It wasn’t a conscious thought. It wasn’t something that I was even aware I was doing. But somewhere deep down in the depths of my being I believed that, ultimately, it was up to me to prove myself… to God and me.
I became aware that something was wrong a long time before Jesus revealed the source of the problem. My inner life did not reflect love, joy, peace, patience, or any of the rest of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23) and I found that keeping up the pretense, to yourself or to the people closest to you, that all is well with your soul is difficult to do all the time.
Soul surgery is messy, but Jesus didn’t come to make things look pretty.
Jesus came to remove and destroy the spiritual disease that brings death.
Jesus died to set me free.
I writhed under the weight of the realization that I couldn’t do this thing called Christianity “right.” I didn’t doubt Jesus or God the Father or the Holy Spirit. I doubted myself because the harder I tried, the more I failed. The more I failed, the worse I felt. The worse I felt, well, the harder I tried… and so on… Eventually I gave up. In a prayer born of frustration and anger and defeat I cried out to God, “I can’t do this anymore!”
In that moment of total abandonment of any pretense of having strength…
In that wrung-out confession of desperation and want…
Jesus answered me, “You aren’t supposed to.”
The magnitude of that moment is always with me. As His truth sunk into the broken pieces of my battered soul a stillness came… a quiet descended… and the busy, always reaching to be more, part of me rested… in His work.