The Tension of This Life
The Gospel of God’s grace to me in Jesus Christ is the very thing that wooed me to the cross, and yet it’s the very thing I’m prone to forget, and the very thing I need to be wooed back to over and again. It’s the kindness of the Lord that leads us to repentance. He loved me while I was still wallowing in my sin and shame, and though I spit in his face as His enemy, He died for me, saved me from myself, and then adopted me as His child. I learned the message of God’s love for me from my childhood, but I never knew it from the inside out until I was about 14. It’s one thing to say, “I know the Grand Canyon” after looking at pictures of it in a magazine; it’s another thing to say those words when you’re standing on the edge of its cliffs. It is the same with God’s grace. It is one thing to sing the words, “Jesus loves me” in Sunday school, but a very different thing when those words penetrate to the core of your being and transform every aspect of who you are. After Jesus radically changed my heart, all I wanted to do was know and experience God to deeper levels of intimacy and share this joy with others; and I do believe this is what we’re made for.
Somewhere along the way, however, I seemed to lose my way. Sin crept back into my life and I give in. It is in those times that I’m reminded of my weakness, my old self, my shame, and remorse. I begin to focus on my helplessness and start to believe that “this is all that I am” and “all I ever will be”. These thoughts of myself make it easier to fall deeper into sin, and I give in again. Remorse and shame cloud the deepest parts of my heart, and when I look in the mirror I can’t bring myself to look into my own eyes because when I see myself, all I see is my ugly sin. In my sorrow, I have begun to allow my sin to define me and I despise myself. I sometimes contemplate on the beauty and goodness of Jesus and fantasize at the thought of him still loving me. Other Christians tell me that this is true, and I believe this in my head, but in the deepest part of my heart, I find it hard to believe.
I’ve heard it said that how you view God and how you believe God views you – deeply affects how you view other people. When I forget the Gospel of God’s grace and begin to look critically at myself, I often perceive God as doing the same thing toward me. Ironically, I also discover that this mindset leads me to look down upon others. Eventually, however, God rescues me from this cycle of despair and I’m reminded of God’s grace once again. I remember that “while I was his enemy, Christ died for me”, justified me, and has completely forgiven me. His grace hits me like a waterfall once again, and I’m overwhelmed with joy, relief, and peace. After being restored, I want to try all the harder to follow after God. My next temptation is to “get back on good terms with God” through spiritual disciplines and living in holiness. At this point, pride so often creeps into my life and I become jaded and hardened to the Gospel of God’s grace. On the days “when I’m doing pretty well”, I don’t feel like I need His grace as much. This pattern continues for a while until I succumb to sin, and I’m humbled all over again. From this point, however, if I’m not careful, it’s easy to fall back into the same cycle of despair all over again. What is needed in this moment is a right knowledge and experience of God’s grace in my life.
It’s easy to see from this how God uses our failures for our good to humble us and reveal our need for him. Nevertheless, I sometimes wish I didn’t have to keep falling into sin in order to be humbled all over again. Why can’t I just stay humble without needing my failures to keep me humble? But then, I think about the fact that Jesus was humble, and yet he never sinned. He didn’t rely on his failures to teach him humility, and yet he demonstrated perfect humility to the Father. Maybe there’s a deeper kind of humility that I’m missing or at least maybe another aspect to it? It seems that Jesus’ humility derives from his love for the Father. He always sought not to do his will, but the Father’s, for Jesus, said doing the Father’s will was his very food. I suppose that ultimately true humility does not derive from despising yourself, but delighting in God. It doesn’t come through gazing inwardly upon yourself but gazing outwardly upon the greatness of God. Once again, it all seems to go back to the love of God.
The End Goal
I’ve often found in the Christian life that we must go backward in order to go forward. We must return to our first love. We must plead with God every day in the same way we did on that first day he saved us- asking him to do the seemingly impossible thing of changing our hearts and relying on his grace as our last chance and only hope. But how do we learn to live out of God’s grace day by day? I wish I could say there was a step-by-step formula to follow that would enable us to live happily ever after for the rest of our Christian life here on earth. As one who struggles with perfectionism and idealistic tendencies, this formula is something I naturally long for. But a crucial step forward is to recognize the reality of things this side of Heaven and to learn how to live in the tension of sin and brokenness in this world. This tension involves falling, repenting, getting back up, falling again, repenting, etc. When living in this tension of sin, the absolutely crucial thing to keep in mind is that the end goal is to know Christ- not to be perfect. Holiness, indeed, brings us closer to God, for as our Lord says, “Blessed are those who are pure in heart, for they will see God,” but holiness is not the end itself. Holiness is only a means to the greatest end- to experience more of Jesus. For as Jesus himself said, “Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” When we keep this end in sight I think it will keep us balanced on the narrow path of the Christian life, setting us free to live out of his grace. And ironically, it’s only when we’re living out of His grace that we find the strength to obey.
The Dance of God
The Gospel is the rhythm and music through which we live our life. We are both characters in God’s story, as well as carriers of it. In order to be effective carriers of it to others, however, we must understand our place in God’s story. We must learn the dance of the Gospel. When we look at the story of the Bible, we see the rhythm, the pattern of how God works in the world- that in the beginning, God created all of creation, as well as man in his own image, and all of it was very good. Creation, man and God all existed in perfect harmony and relationship to one another, with God as the ruler, author and sustainer of this goodness. Every good thing that man enjoyed- food, pleasure, sex, friendship, intimacy, play, adventure, discovery- all were gifts from God, to be enjoyed through God, and designed to point us back to the ultimate source of their goodness- God, himself. Every pleasure was designed to culminate in its fullness when enjoyed through God. The Hebrew language calls this perfect harmony of relationship between all things “Shalom”. But then, an absurdity happened in God’s creation. Man rejected this shalom by breaking God’s law and seeking to establish an order of his own- to be his own master, and to enjoy God’s gifts apart from God. This action, called “sin”, severed the relationship between man, God, and creation and introduced shame and death to mankind. Furthermore, this new order, created by man, ruined our ability to fully enjoy the good gifts given by God, creating strife within our relationships to one another as well as to creation. On this day, mankind died inside.
At this point in the story, however, we see a new side of God’s character, as he acts in a way we had not seen him do before- he responds to mankind’s rebellion with both justice and mercy. He acts in justice by banishing mankind from the Garden of paradise and pronounces curses upon them, and then he acts in mercy by accommodating to their shame- clothing their nakedness with animal skins. One may think that this early in the story, God would simply wipe out Adam and Eve, and start over with a new mankind, but he doesn’t. This shows us something crucial about God’s character in the story of the world. He is not a God who simply wipes out rebels and starts over. He is the God who seeks redemption, not through replacement, but through restoration. Furthermore, the way in which God redeems sheds light on the nature of his love. His love for mankind is not overcome by our rebellion against him so that He would be inclined to replace us, nor is his love so conditional on our obedience that He would become indifferent toward us. Instead, we see that God is committed to Adam and Eve on a personal level, as well as to mankind on the whole. He takes the first step toward restoration by clothing Adam and Eve, and this is God’s pattern throughout the rest of the world’s story. Redemption through restoration is the dance of God by which he is restoring shalom to the world.
The story of creation is a small meta-narrative within God’s grand story of the world. The fullness of his redemptive work, however, was accomplished through His son, Jesus Christ, on the cross. It is at the cross that we see, once again, God’s justice and mercy kiss. All of God’s just wrath that should have come upon Adam and Eve, as well as the rest of his people afterward, was placed on his own Son. Furthermore, all of the love and delight that God has for His Son was placed in us, so that we can become fully reconciled to God, through Jesus Christ. Jesus was then raised from the dead in order to overcome the curse of death that was upon us, and then God gave us his Spirit to seal our hearts and bind us to Himself forever. Because of God’s radical act of love at the cross, God now loves us just as much as he loves his own Son because we are united to Christ in God. If you ask yourself, “How many people love you regardless of anything you do,” what would you say? Most people love us because of something we’ve done or achieved, but this is not the way God loves us in Christ. He loves us simply for who we are, regardless of anything we’ve done, because Christ has done everything for us. His righteousness is counted as ours.
Through this act of redemption, we also see another great theme within God’s story. All the evil intention by Judas Iscariot, as well as the chief priests and elders who put Jesus to death, God used it for good, to bring about the salvation of many. God made evil commit suicide on itself at the cross, because through it, he destroyed the curse of sin and death that was upon us. God took the most atrocious evil ever committed by man and turned it into the most beautiful thing the world has ever seen. This is the dance of God!
Additionally, we see God’s sovereign hand at work in a most profound way. What appears to be random chaos, as Jesus is being arrested, falsely accused and led to the cross, God is secretly and sovereignly working through man’s evil will in order to bring about his glorious will. Here again, we see the beautiful dance of God. No amount of evil that man commits will ever be able to thwart God’s purposes. Furthermore, no amount of failure on our part will be able to separate us from the love of God, for the “Father know those who are his, and no one can snatch them out of the Father’s hands.”
Currently, we are living within the tension of God’s story. All of us have been broken by evil- evil committed against us, as well as evil we commit against others. We all have both repentable parts of our story- things we need to turn from, as well as repairable parts- things we need to be healed from. Both, however, are used by God to awaken us to our need for his saving grace. It’s only when we seek His grace to repent, and his grace to be healed, that we can be restored to who we’re meant to be. We’re made to know God and be known by Him. And through Jesus Christ, we have the ability to know God and be united to Him in a way that even Adam and Eve didn’t know before the Fall. Before the Fall, it was possible for Adam and Eve to sin against God, but in our future glorified state, it will be impossible for us to sin against God because we are united to Him through His Spirit sealed in our hearts. What man intended for evil through his sin, wrecking the shalom of God’s creation, God turned it into something even more beautiful than the original design. And even now, God is working through the shame, sin, and brokenness of each of our stories in order to make us into something even more beautiful than we were before. “For God works all things for the good of those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.”
What does this mean for us now? How do we live out of God’s grace? As I mentioned earlier, shortly after coming to Christ my greatest desire was to know God more and experience Him to deeper intimacy, and yet I found that sin continued to crouch at my door and drag me into despair and self-loathing away from God. Yet even now, I can see how the sin that causes me to despair, God is using to teach me to drink deeply from His mercy and grace to a level that I haven’t known before. And just like Adam and Eve, He is clothing my shame with his deep, deep love that knows no bounds.
Carrying God’s Story
I’d like to wrap things up at this point like the happy end of a story and say that everything will go smoothly from here on out, but this is simply not the case- not this side of Heaven at least. I know that great pain will continue into my future- pain caused by evil done against me, as well as pain that I cause through my own sin. The reality of the future can be glum until I remember the one thing that has remained with me in the past, is with me presently and will be with me forever- God’s grace. As John Newton wrote, “Through many dangers, toils, and snares I have already come. ‘Twas grace that led me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.” Sin is a stubborn foe, but not half as stubborn as God’s grace, and not nearly as willing to sacrifice to get its way. This is the dance of God
In order to be a carrier of God’s story, we must understand what Jesus has done for us and then follow after him as our model. He calls us to “love our enemies and do good to those who persecute us” because this is how our Father in heaven responds toward his enemies. We follow the dance of God by overcoming evil with good, by loving unconditionally as he loves, and forgiving as he forgives. In order to learn the dance of God, however, we must learn how to operate out of His grace. Performing out of fear of judgment or self-righteousness will cause us to trip over our feet and fall into error, but God’s grace enables us to work out of a place of freedom- and this is what we’re made for. Just as the Son freely gives himself to the Father’s will, and so the Father freely gives himself to the Son, so we were designed to follow after the dance of love within the Trinity of God. True love as God designed it, always operates from a place of freedom.
Spiritual disciplines can be useful for helping us with this dance of love in our lives, though they must retain their proper place. Spiritual disciplines such as memorizing Scripture, prayer and fasting can be a means of grace to nourish us or they can become a means to self-righteousness to our detriment. To keep ourselves from the latter error, we must stop charting our growth as Christians. Even our dry seasons of life and our failures are part of our story, used by God to awaken us more to Christ and draw us to Himself. No part of our story, good or bad, is a waste.
Confessing our sins to one another and learning to repent is also crucial to our spiritual health. Confession exposes our sin to the light so that it can die, and then humbles and prepares our hearts to receive God’s grace. Furthermore, the key to repentance is to avoid seeking an experience of repentance but to experience Christ. By seeking to draw near to Christ, we find that authentic repentance and faith will inevitably follow. As we draw nearer to Christ we will not find ourselves repenting less often, but more quickly. Meditating or lingering on the cross, the sufferings of Christ, as well as the dynamic self-giving love within the Trinity will also overwhelm us with God’s grace and help us to operate in freedom. Lingering on our own problems or the problems of others, however, will only serve to embitter us. Additionally, living in community with others is where much spiritual growth and development take place. Community can help us to develop self-awareness, and through a deep understanding of the Gospel, we will learn to receive feedback non-defensively and give feedback lovingly. Practicing regular habits of giving thanks to God and expressing gratitude toward others also helps us to be more aware of God’s grace. When we look for reasons to give thanks, we will often time find hidden beauty beneath the ordinary things in life, enabling us to see and savor God’s glory all around us. Last, but not least, however, I would say prayer is of utmost importance to incorporate into daily life. Prayer is the means by which God works through us in the world to brings us into deeper intimacy with Himself. I believe that as we learn to pray, we’ll find our desires aligning more and more with God’s will, and become more in tune to God’s acting in the world. Praying for others also helps us to take our eyes off ourselves and love our neighbors more fully.
These strategies and disciplines are all means to serve the ultimate goal of knowing Christ more. If at any time a spiritual discipline becomes a means to self-righteousness, it may be best to set aside the practice of that discipline for a time and refocus on living in God’s grace. Living in the musical rhythm of God’s grace is a rhythm of freedom and joy. Furthermore, it’s a dance that we’re always learning, and I believe will continue learning even into eternity.