As far back as I can remember, even as a small child, I have desperately tried to understand what God’s expectations or requirements are regarding my behavior.
I did not grow up in a church that had a rich understanding of grace. I was spoon fed a strict diet of law served on a bed of threats. I was told that I both could and should be perfect, because God provides all the help, through the Holy Spirit, that I need in order to do so. Therefore, if I do not reach that goal, it is only because I selfishly choose not to.
The only hope offered to me was that God might cut me some slack if he saw that I was trying really hard. This left me with the sense that I was always a big disappointment to God, but that, because he was merciful, he would be nice to me anyway, under certain conditions, up to a certain point.
I was never clear, however, what the exact conditions were or when I might reach that point. How hard did I need to try? How much goodness did I have to demonstrate before God would sadly accept my offering, pitiful as it was; or, more importantly, when would I pass his “point”?
Fast forward to when I finally heard the gospel, in my early thirties. Jesus paid it all? Say what now? ALL?
I was terrified to believe that, just in case I was mistaken and was damned for all eternity as a result. Eventually, however, after much study, I finally let myself fall into God’s grace. I was so relieved!
Most of the time.
Sometimes, however, my old, fearful Adam would hear people say that I was now freed by the gospel to show the same kind of love to my neighbor that I had been given; and even though that sounded right, I felt my chest constrict.
Intellectually, I now knew that my salvation wasn’t dependent on showing love to my neighbor, but the impression I caught was that I would definitely show that kind of love to others if I was saved.
That sent me right back to square one: If I was saved, then, how much of “the same kind of love” that God had given me was I supposed to show? What if I wasn’t able to show that kind of love, was I even saved?
I already knew, to my fig-leaf-hiding shame, that my love was definitely not the same kind of love God showed me. Mine was still usually the smile-grit-your-teeth-and-do-your-duty, or, the people-please-so-they'll-like-you kind of love.
“What is so wrong with me that even the gospel hasn’t freed me to be a better person? Now that the pressure to earn my salvation is off, why aren’t I being transformed?” I wondered as I gazed at my navel. “Where is my growth, the outward evidence of my salvation?”
Here is what I’ve come to suspect, that my growth is none of my business.
Jesus, in John chapter 15, tells us that he is the vine and we are the branches. He says that, if we abide in God’s love, we will bear much fruit.
What if that is not a conditional challenge, but a simple promise? What if “abiding" just means trusting that Jesus’ sacrifice for me is enough? What if, as I rest in that truth, God produces fruit in me, without my conscious effort? What if it’s not about my surrender and struggle, but just about resting in the belief that Jesus is enough?
What if, in his mercy, God blinds me to my "progress," to keep me humble, allowing me only an occasional glimpse of blessings he bestows on others through me?
What if I reflect God’s love to people around me with almost no thought or recognition of it because when it happens, it is so natural within the experience that it is barely noticeable and nothing for which it would even occur to me to take credit.
What if the light I shine before men, which Jesus mentions in Matthew 5:16, is the good news of Christ and what he has done, and the good works people see me do, and for which they give God the glory, are invisible to me.
Could this explain why the “righteous” in Matthew 25:31-40 had no remembrance of having done any of the good things for which the King commanded them, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you or thirsty and give you drink?”
On the other hand, then, what if my painful awareness of the sinfulness and imperfection still within me is but a tender mercy, intended by God as a reminder of my constant need of a savior? What if that awareness is meant to continually drive me to Christ, in whose presence I will always find more love, forgiveness, and assurance?
What if, therefore, instead of continuing to fret about myself and how I’m doing or not doing, what I'm exhibiting or not exhibiting, I get hooked up to an infusion of grace from the Vine and settle in, trustingly, while God secretly works in me both to will and to do his good pleasure?
What if it’s that simple?
Wouldn't that be something!