A Comfortable Level of Need

The thing we like most about grace is the way we don’t think we need it. We really, really like this lie. But I for one am weary of all the work it takes to keep believing it.

Turns out I’m actually a pretty bad person. I know that in theory, but lately I’ve been seeing it and feeling it, and as the church fathers would say, that pretty much blows. It’s frustrating.

I’ve figured out how to live at a comfortable level of need. Enough to do lip service to the Gospel’s proclamation of my inadequacy to please God, but never so much that if the Gospel failed me I’d be left without a leg to stand on. I figure out what I’m comfortable admitting to others, to God, and to myself, and I have fig leaves for the rest.

Looking around, this is fairly common amongst us-we love our myth of being unsinful sinners. It makes us feel good about how good we are, plus adds points for “humility”-it’s a win-win. The problem with this (other than that it makes us jerks) is that to the extent that we present ourselves as un-sinning sinners, we present Jesus as an un-saving savior. A savior who works for us precisely because we don’t need Him all that much;  not because He is mighty to save, but because our sin really isn’t all that big or bad. A Savior who really could’ve preached the Sermon on the Mount and then gone back to heaven, skipping that “nasty dying bit” on that other mountain if He wanted to.

We’re not dead in our sins, we’re just a little bad, we tell ourselves. Thus, we don’t need a savior to give us life; we need a teacher to give us rules. We can do the rest. The problem  is that a teacher can’t save anyone who is honest enough to admit they’re screwed up-not just have screwed up, but are screwed up. But since a good guide is all we think we have, admitting we’re screwed up is not going to happen. What good is a guide, if you don’t have it in you to follow?

There is no place in our stories for weakness. The narratives of our lives become epics of our own goodness, while our sins are minor characters in the play, briefly popping up now and then to throw a wrench in the plot, but quickly being dealt with, with us soaring on to new heights of love and good deeds. We tell these stories to others, and begin to believe them ourselves. The tragic thing is we become a community defined by private struggle and public face-saving, rather than communal struggle and public worship for the Savior who meets us in those struggles.

These narratives don’t reflect anyone’s experience. Worse, and more fundamental, they don’t reflect what Scripture tells us about ourselves. So why do we cling to these lies? I think we refuse to acknowledge our need of the Gospel because we don’t really believe the Gospel. We keep sewing up these suits of fig leaves because we really don’t trust our Father to dress us in robes of righteousness. In short, we aren’t honest about our sin because we can’t be, for fear of what would happen if we were that known.

And that’s the thing-we should be spurned when we are exposed, but we won’t be. Jesus was rejected in our place. We need to hear this over and over from each other. We need to be people constantly saying to each other: “I see your sin, and it’s big, but I see Jesus too, and He’s bigger.” We need to hear this from each other because it’s so hard to say to ourselves. We need to believe it for ourselves, so others can see it and start to take hold of it.

And it’s not just initial forgiveness that’s on tap here either-many of us have made our peace with the basics of our salvation, but still work like slaves around the table rather than eat like sons at the table.

As Christians we should be weighed on the scales of how well we perform at fighting sin and doing good, with God alternately holding back from us or pulling close based on how we behaved on a given day. But we won’t be-Jesus fought sin for us, and lived goodness out for us. Not “for us” in the sense that now we have a good example of what living right with God looks like, (though Jesus gives us that) but “for us” in the sense of “instead of us,” or “so we don’t have to.” And “so we don’t have to” isn’t cause for licentiousness, it’s good news-because we can’t do it anyway. If we could, they would have called what Moses gave us the Gospel, not the Law. It would have been enough. It isn’t. Jesus is.

In the old covenant, God required us to do what we couldn’t: live righteously with Him. In the new, Jesus lives that way and dies in our place, and all of a sudden there’s nothing left for us to do but believe. God doesn’t judge us in an ongoing way based on how well we do what Jesus would do; He judges us based on what Jesus has done.

So let’s be Gospel people, acknowledging together that our sin is great, but Jesus is greater. Let’s help each other let go of all the things we do to keep our halos propped up, in case the Gospel fails us; remind each other that those halos are pathetic and unimpressive, but that’s okay, because the Gospel will never fail us anyways. Let’s do this even for the sins that really scare us, in ourselves and in each other. Let’s talk about our God Who makes bad trees good, trusting Him that in time, with His care, the fruit will come. And that fruit nourishes the weary-even those who are weary from propping up their halos all day long.

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