Sometimes, I get so tired of being a Christian. Literally, I get exhausted to the point of needing multiple power naps a day.
This week I finally decided to sit down and ask myself, “Why the heck do I feel this way?” If the Christian life is supposed to bring freedom and abundant joy, then why do I constantly feel worn out and enslaved?
I finally got the answer.
For so long, I believed that being a Christian meant that it was my duty to “sin less.” I don’t know if anyone else has tried that, but for me, “sinning less” is absolutely draining. It usually lasts about 5 whole seconds from the moment I wake up, and then it’s all downhill from there. Heck, I’m pretty sure I even sin in my sleep.
But here’s what I learned (and this may sound radical so bear with me). Jesus never ever asked me to “sin less.” He asked me not to sin at all. Jesus never demanded progress, He demanded perfection. After Jesus taught the famous beatitudes, He said in Matthew 5:20, “But I warn you — unless your righteousness is better than the righteousness of the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”
Oh, snap. If my salvation is dependent on my level of perfection and my good works, then I am in big trouble. (Houston, we have a serious problem.) I can tell you right now that, even as a missionary who’s walked with the Lord for just over 8 years, I do NOT measure up. I will fail the test of righteousness every single time, and that’s a promise. So if Jesus demands perfection, (and if I am an imperfect person) then how is the Gospel “good news?”
Here’s where I got my answer.
In Matthew 5, Jesus was preaching to the Jewish people. He knew His audience from the inside out. He knew their thoughts, their hidden agendas, their traditions, and their mindset. Jesus knew exactly what He was teaching, and it must have sounded insane to those with listening ears. The Pharisees were some of the most legalistic, religious, and obedient people alive in that day and age. Jesus knew that no one could be as righteous as them in terms of lifestyle. They set the tone for perfection. The Jewish Pharisees were only concerned with the external appearance of their actions, but Jesus wasn’t stupid. It is written in 1 Samuel 16:7, “But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see the things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.’”
Jesus was making a point. He saw what was hidden in their hearts.
Their obedience to the law wasn’t good enough. They still fell short because their hearts were impure; every good thing they did was tainted with nasty sin. But before I get prideful and start judging those guys for being so ridiculous, Paul makes it very clear in the book of Romans that we all fall short of the glory of God too. In Galatians 2:21, Paul says, “I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die.”
Halle-flippin-lujah. There’s hope!
Then it hit me (like an overly pumped up soccer ball to the face). I realized why I had been so tired. I was trying to live in perfect obedience to a law that I was never required to keep. The law condemns me every time I try to live up to it. All it does is reveal how sinful I am. I was trying to work harder, seem wiser, look purer, be better… and sin less.
When Jesus died on the cross, He said, “It is finished,” and Jesus always means what He says! If He says is it finished, then it’s actually finished! It’s done. I like to think of it this way: Imagine me walking up to Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and finger-painting smiley faces all over it. Then imagine me looking him straight in the eye and saying, “Check this out Leo! Doesn’t your painting look so much better now? Talk about a masterpiece! Those smiley faces are flawless!” I could’ve just as easily slapped him in the face. (And I do the same thing to God every day when I try to add to the finished work of the cross.)
Does that mean that my salvation is a “get out of jail free card?” No, God is (and will always be) a representation of perfect justice. Someone had to pay the price for my disobedience and my unrighteousness; a debt was still owed. Jesus took the punishment that I deserved by living a perfect life that I couldn’t live. He fulfilled the law that I could never fulfill (Romans 3:23). He nailed my sins to the cross (Colossians 2:14) and died a terrible and shameful death in my place (2 Corinthians 5:21). He loved me enough to meet my unreachable requirements of perfection, knowing ahead of time that it would cost Him everything. This is the Gospel. This is good news. This is love.
Let me share one last thing that convicted me this week about the character of God. The man on the cross next to Jesus in Luke 23: he didn’t have a holy resumé to hand over to Jesus, he didn’t try and convince Jesus that he was good enough to enter heaven, and Jesus never gave Him a penance requirement before he died. The man’s belief was enough. The man recognized his sin and his need for a Savior, he acknowledged Jesus as his only hope, and he called out to the Lord in faith. And Jesus saved him. That is grace.
Just like the criminal on the cross, I was justified (undeservingly), and now I am being sanctified. The good works that I do now are not what make me righteous before God. Instead, those good works are responses to the love and mercy and grace that I have received from Him. They aren’t the means of my salvation, they are the outflow of it. God loved me while I was a mess. He saved me when I had nothing to offer Him, and that’s what makes grace so amazing. C.S. Lewis said it this way, “The Christian does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.”
So now, instead of wasting my time trying to “sin less,” God calls me to believe that I am sinless. And instead of growing tired and worn out from failing to measure up, God calls me to rest in the fact that Jesus measured up for me. I’ll end with one of my favorite quotes from Dr. Steve Brown:
“The good news is that Christ frees us from the need to obnoxiously focus on our goodness, our commitment, and our correctness. Religion has made us obsessive almost beyond endurance. Jesus invited us to a dance… and we’ve turned it into a march of soldiers, always checking to see if we’re doing it right and are in step and in line with the other soldiers. We know a dance would be more fun, but we believe we must go through hell to get to heaven, so we keep marching.”