I'm prompted to write today because of something that was written on Facebook that I think was intended to encourage fellow Christians to live lives of obedience to Christ. Sadly, it didn't come across to me that way. Maybe it's because of my years in Evangelicalism. Maybe it's my own tendencies to try to "earn" my way in life. This post is part of my trying to work that out in my own head.
I grew up in the heart of Evangelicalism - Southern Baptist churches. "Salvation by faith alone" was pounded into our heads from the time we could sit up in our Sunday School classes. We all memorized John 3:16 as soon as we could talk. Oh, and Bible Drills. These weren't just to to learn to look up verses. We also memorized verses - ripped right out of context (one of my pet peeves) - and learned to look them up quickly. "For by grace you have been saved", "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God", "while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." By the time I was a teenager, I had heard so many sermons and Bible studies on Romans that I had a pretty good handle on that fact that our eternal salvation (to heaven) and our abundant life on earth are due to Jesus' death on the cross and resurrection and not due to anything I have done or could do.
But . . . but . . . but . . . At the same time, we were also taught something that Michael Spencer called "wretched urgency": the need to DO things for God now! As a teenager, it was generally phrased as "being sold-out for God" or something along those lines. We were encouraged to make sure that everyone at school knew about our faith and then be prepared for persecution. (All my friends knew about my faith and none of them persecuted me. I must have done something wrong.) We were told that we could be the difference between our friends' eternal destination being heaven or hell. A number of my friends initially planned careers in the ministry because of this "wretched urgency". They didn't all stay there. Another example: Only Christian music is good; all other music is terrible. Listening to anything but Christian music will ruin your witness for Jesus.
This continued into adulthood and continues even now. We have books like Radical by David Platt. And the number of books for Christian women that tell us how to be The Proverbs 31 Woman would fill a library. And they are all books telling Christians to be more committed. More holy. Work harder.
We are told that we are saved by faith, but somehow, we still have to work hard to make God happy. In this worldview, we got saved, but God needs us to do more. And if we want the world to know that we are good Christians, by golly, we need to show them by how good we are!
And there's plenty of scripture to support good works. After all, God does want us to be holy. Jesus' teaching is filled with examples of teaching us how to act. Paul's letters contain many instructions to the churches on how the members can behave in a more godly fashion. The book of James teaches us that faith without works is dead. In fact, it is said that Martin Luther questioned whether the book of James should be in the canon because of it's emphasis on works. Indeed, James and Romans seem to be saying almost opposite things at times.
So, there I was in my mid-30s, overwhelmed with life, and overwhelmed with being a good Christian. Then I came across a verse that I had read a million times, but suddenly stood out to me. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do."
Jesus doesn't want us to be struggling under this guilt of "doing more" for God. God already knows what he wants us to do; we can relax and just live our lives and pray for guidance. And Jesus takes our burdens. How cool is that? It's hard to learn, but it's real. Somewhere along the way, I had missed this. I heard the work harder part, but missed the "rest for your soul" part. And my soul needed rest.
One of the other things that I'm learning is John 15:1-17: abiding in Christ. I don't completely understand it and I certainly haven't learned to practice it well, but I think it's the key to getting away from the "wretched urgency" mindset and finding peace. When I can really abide in Christ, then I can be confident that the "works" that I'm doing are enough. There's no guilt about whether I should participate in this or that ministry or activity. Jesus gives me the grace I need for each day. And when I'm at the judgement, all I can ask is that he says, "Well done, good and faithful servant."