I am not one of those people who can put together a jigsaw puzzle without using the picture on the box. I am completely frustrated if I can’t see how it is supposed to fit together. I will put the corner pieces on the wrong corners, and have huge chunks of the inside pieces running horizontally when they should be vertical and vice versa. Once I have the picture, however, everything makes sense and the pieces seem to easily go into place.
When grace found me, I wasn’t one of those desperately bad people who knew they were bad; I was one of those desperately “good” people who only knew that no matter how hard I tried I was never good enough. What relief, then, to hear that I never would be good enough and that it was not only okay for me to rest in the sufficiency of Christ’s goodness on my behalf, but it was my only hope! Unfortunately, because I did not initially have a clear picture of righteousness in relation to both God and man, the puzzle pieces in my head were still jumbled and facing in all the wrong directions.
Without realizing it, I replaced striving to be good enough to earn my own salvation with striving to be good enough to bring salvation to others. I replaced the words, “Thou Shalt,” with “Because of the grace shown to me.” Even though I understood that the cross removed from me the burden of pleasing God, I allowed myself to believe that the burden now fell on me to be pleasing to my neighbor. I felt obligated to become grace personified to everyone around me as a humble, grateful response for what had been done for me. I heard the quote from Martin Luther, “God does not need our good works, but our neighbor does,” and interpreted that to mean that my neighbor needed to benefit from the new and improved version of me. My neighbor needed to see my goodness and faithfulness. And so I tried.
And, of course, I failed. My love was inconstant, my compassions were shallow. My kindness was limited. My patience was short. I grew bitter when my actions were unappreciated and unrecognized. I was hostile and defensive when challenged. I was not lavish with God’s grace. In fact, I was stingy, tight-fisted, miserly and begrudging. I found myself feeling more discouraged and guilty than before I learned of grace.
Then I was shown the picture on the puzzle box. I learned the difference between my relationship to God and my relationship to humanity. I learned that there are two planes, the vertical and the horizontal, and the pieces began to fall into place.
The vertical is the relationship between God and me. On that plane, God requires nothing less than perfection from me; both in the way I relate to him and the way I relate to my neighbor. I must love him with all of my heart, soul, strength and mind; and I must love my neighbor as myself (Luke 10:27). This is God’s requirement, and I am utterly incapable of meeting it. So God provided his own satisfaction by sending his Son to meet the requirements for me. My right standing before God was irrevocably settled at the cross. God is perfectly pleased with me because of Christ. When he looks at me he sees the spotless record of his Son. He no longer remembers my lists of failures, my selfishness, my stinginess, my desire for self-glory. He has cast all of my sins into the depths of the sea (Micah 7:19). He has removed my sins from me as far as the east is from the west (Psalm 103:12). I am wholly acceptable in his sight and, as a believer, nothing I do or don’t do will change that fact. This vertical relationship between God and myself is settled. It is where I find rest.
The relationship I have with my neighbor, however, is on the horizontal plane. It is the plane on which I live my day to day life in the light of grace, knowing that all of God’s expectations for me have already been met. I will relate as the needy, flawed person that I am. I will run and strive beside my neighbors. Life will be messy and full of failure and disappointment, and occasionally full of unexpected love and joy. It is where I will be rejected, and I will reject. It is where I will sometimes get things right, but just as likely get them wrong. It is where, when I am at my very best, I will forgive and be forgiven. There is no hope of perfection on this plane and very little rest. It is a battleground where I will both wound and be wounded, and the only hope I can bring to this fray is not my goodness and faithfulness but the news of the existence of the vertical plane and the goodness and faithfulness of Another on our behalf.
It is only when I have a clear grasp of the security I have been given on the vertical plane that I can find the freedom to live authentically on the horizontal plane. It is not my pitiful attempts at being good which my neighbor will find attractive; it is my empathy, my ability to identify with his or her struggles. It is in sharing our mutual pain and sorrows, dreams and disappointments that our hearts will be bound together. Because the burden to pay forward, be worthy of or earn the free gift of grace has been removed, I am sometimes given precious moments where I can naturally share the only source of peace and rest I have ever found; the only thing my neighbor truly needs. And in between those moments I can simply live on this horizontal plane as a frail and faulty but beloved child of God.