I love to have everything set up perfectly before beginning a project. Whether it is painting, writing, studying, or even reading a good book, I like to feel equipped and prepared, I like to have my house clean and my space and mind to be clutter free. I want the perfect ambiance, the perfect music playing, the perfect room scent occupying my space; and I like to feel accomplished in something before I sit down to tackle a bigger task or embrace something enjoyable. And this is how my walk with God often looks as well.
There are many things that could influence my time with him, both physical and spiritual. I need my coffee at my right hand, my perfect pen in reach, my journal, book, and Bible neatly stacked, waiting to be opened, and I need to feel like I am ready to be in right relationship with the one who created me. I need to feel like I have had a “good” day, with no yelling at my kids, with no lazy refusals at doing all the dishes, with no bitter glares at the person driving too slowly in front of me on the way to the market. And this is what it boils down to…this is what it all boils down to: I need to feel worthy. I need to believe in my heart that I am wanted, that I am desirable, and without baggage. I need to feel good enough.
And so, I sit at my kitchen table, with my favorite mug in one hand, and my favorite pen in the other, and I stack my books, Bible, and journal so neatly at my center. And I stare…I stare and fidget with the alignment of the stack because I realize that I don’t really know where to begin. I stare because I am nervous to waste this all-too-precious time by reading something that will not hit my core, evoking me to change and bringing me to new depths in my relationship with God and others. I get so wrapped up in my fear of wasting this time and letting both myself and God down, that I forget the truth of the matter: I will not let him down. He is the one calling me to this time, and yet I waste it on my perception of what it is supposed to look like, rather than just accepting the truth that I am accepted.
And I sit with my brow furrowed and my mind believing the lies of God’s disappointment and frustration towards me. When will we ever experience the freedom to just sit with God? It has been given to us. Jesus tells his audience that who the Son sets free is free indeed [John 8:36]; yet we confine ourselves to the yoke of slavery shaped like perfectionism.
But what about grace? Can it ever just be enough? God has made it clear in his Word that, indeed, grace is enough. But in light of our shortcomings, and the world’s notice of failures, we so easily get whisked away with the feeling that God must be looking at us disapprovingly. Some respond by simply walking away from God, or walking away from trying at all to please him. Others, like myself, walk too far in the other direction. We walk in desperation to earn the approval, doing as much good as we can, and avoiding all bad, for the sake of false-assurance that he won’t forget us.
But what if it is our falling short that can lead us deeper into God’s embrace? As I have been placed in positions that are uncomfortable and times that are trying, I have noticed my exhaustion in trying to attain the “good child” persona. Let me repeat that: I am exhausted. And, what God has taught me in my failure to myself and my own expectations is that something very beautiful happens there. The failure is painful. Nobody wants to let themselves down, but at the end, I am reminded of the need I have for God and his grace. It is in perfectionism and attaining my own expectations on myself that I lose sight of my need for grace that flows incessantly.
When I was a kid, my friends and I would throw our bodies loose into oncoming waves. We would get thrashed, not knowing which way was up and which way was down. My knees and face would get scraped with sand as my body toppled over itself, and then, when I would begin to believe I drowned myself, I would reach the shoreline. That first breath was like heaven; suddenly fresh air filled my nostrils and lungs, and the sun above never seemed so bright. Those waves are much like the trials of life. Before we are able to get off our knees, another lie hits from behind, and then another hard circumstance, and another let-down, until we are unable to regain our strength; so we give up, and finally let our bodies loosely go with what has been thrown at us. When we feel we’ve reached the end of our ropes, and stop trying to save ourselves from the raging seas, that all-too-necessary fresh air called grace captures us, and delivers us from the tumbling waters. And the brightness of the sun captures us, and refreshes us, and renews us; so we regain our strength, and walk.
I was sinking deep in sin, far from the peaceful shore, Very deeply stained within, sinking to rise no more, But the Master of the sea heard my despairing cry, From the waters lifted me, now safe am I. –James Rowe
So where do good deeds fit into all this talk of abandoning the “good” life? For the sake of accepting grace, does that mean we are to live as if we never heard the good news of Christ at all? No! We are not told to take the grace we receive for granted, but rather live gratefully under the gift we have received! The good things we do and desire to do are to be outpourings of a redeemed and grateful heart. Barbara Hughes, author of Disciplines of a Godly Woman, tells her readers that, “Good deeds are the redeemed heart’s response of gratitude for the gift of God’s grace.” It seems impossible to be freed of the need to earn the love, grace, tenderness, mercy, and favor that define the goodness of God. The wonderful and heartbreaking news is, however, that no matter how hard we work, God’s love will not increase towards us. God’s love will never be severed from us, and his love will never grow deeper. Our experience of his love will, however, grow deeper, as we attempt to sail across the oceans of his grace. As we begin to understand his never-ending favor upon us, we will begin to see an outpouring and desire to do good things. We will seek to please God for the sheer enjoyment of displaying gratitude and pleasing our Father rather than to attain an already received reward. We are trained from our youth to do good and earn reward. Do bad, and earn discipline. But, according to Jesus, the well of grace will never run dry, and “…whoever drinks from the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again…” (John 14:14).
In my own life, I have noticed when I am seeking a pat on the back for my good deeds. Sure, I can buy that homeless person a sandwich, and feel good about myself, and feed into the belief that God loves me more when I do good. However, when my actions are rooted in the belief that I am absolutely accepted and unconditionally loved by God, the good works I do are an outpouring of thanksgiving. There is a beautiful picture of this in Luke 7:36-50. Jesus is invited into a religious man’s home for a celebration. A woman, described as a “sinful woman,” enters the home and weeps over Jesus in adoration, offering her precious ointment to anoint him. The Pharisee judges her actions and Jesus’ acceptance of the gift. Jesus knew the Pharisee’s response and told him a tale of two men in debt, one much deeper than the other. He goes on to teach Simon (the Pharisee) that this woman’s sins “…which are many, are forgiven—for she has loved much. But he who is forgiven little loves little” (verse 47). She understood her deep need of grace, and no amount of good works could “fix” her. She understood the weight of God’s full acceptance and love, and she lavished in it. How often we confuse God for a person with limited love, conditional grace, and a furrowed look of disappointment towards us? We often come to Jesus with this response—how is it that You, a God so Holy, could look upon me, a [you fill in the blank], with favor?
When I lay my three-year-old down to sleep, as his little hands grab my face and ask for a lullaby, pictures of the day flash through my mind. I am reminded of all the times I failed myself, my boy, and my God; times I lost my temper and patience, and times where I didn’t want to watch Dora the Explorer for the eighth time in a row. As I lay him down in his bed, I pray forgiveness and repentance, and I simply have to believe in the mercy that is new with every sunrise. I am often tempted to make promises of big change and attempts to deliver myself from my weaknesses…I attempt to make promises of changes that only God can do in me. And then, I wake up the next morning, and fail myself; again, I lose my patience; again, my fuse is too short; again, I crawl into the cave of shame and hide from God, because I want to be perfect before entering his presence.
And this is completely contradictory to the message of grace we receive and preach. Paul tells the Corinthians in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that, “…if anyone is in Christ, a new creation…” and we are told in Hebrews that we can “…draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:22). The nights where my head rests on my pillow and my heart rests in God are the nights that I accept my shortcomings, and my inability to change them without the grace promised me through Jesus’ death and resurrection. I do not need to make up for the areas I have failed before feeling the acceptance and love of God. His approval can never be earned, it’s already been given to me through his Son, Jesus, and, like falling rain, can never be taken back.
The presence of my sin reminds me of my great need for grace, and good works are the outpouring of a grateful heart; being a good child is not a means of earning the favor of God. In fact, the good deeds we do are given to us by the power of God: “for we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand…” (Ephesians 2:10). The goodness we long to display is a response to the redemption we have received. We will love much, for we have been forgiven much (Luke 7:47), we will walk in the freedom that has been given to us, because “whom the son sets free is free indeed,” and we will begin to understand that the presence of good deeds can never overcompensate enough for the presence of our sin. No deed is good enough to outweigh the daily shortcomings we suffice to. And no perfect life can ever match the deep love of God. As we learn to believe that no sin can snatch us out of God’s hand, we must also claim the truth that no good behavior could ever strengthen his embrace.