“It is not trying that is ever going to bring us home.
All this trying leads up to the vital moment at which you turn to God and say, “You must do this. I can’t.'”

-C.S. Lewis

I had an epiphany today.

It’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to wear me down, supposed to require more than everything I have.

I’m talking about motherhood, but you can apply it to anything in life, really. Anything that’s wearing you down. I’ve been worn down lately. Mostly by the thought that the things in front of me really aren’t all that difficult, so what is wrong with me that it’s sometimes so hard for me to get it together? Laundry and dishes aren’t that hard. My son is a gift and a delight, and we spend our days going to museums and music class and shopping. Sounds pretty easy. So why isn’t it? I know I’m finishing out a semester where I was even more on my own than usual, with my husband so worn down by his own demanding tasks that he couldn’t help as much as he or I would like. But is it really all that hard? Shouldn’t I be able to do it on my own anyway? Shouldn’t I be thriving? I’m a Christian. Shouldn’t I have this stuff down, especially since I live a life of luxury that most of the world can’t imagine, and I only have one child, a child who everyone reminds me is so happy and good-natured and wonderful and easy. And I am healthy, and I have all day every day with pretty much nothing else to do. So why can’t I manage to have dinner planned, or the laundry washed, folded, and put away? Why haven’t my floors been swept in weeks or the bathrooms cleaned in months, especially when my son is eating off the floors and playing in the bathroom? Why haven’t I figured out how to teach him to do the right thing, and done it patiently? Why do I do the wrong thing so often? Why did I say the wrong thing again? Why is my handwriting so messy, and why haven’t I exercised since last fall? Shouldn’t I have a handle on things? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Supposed to be hard, you say? Now I’ve been someone who has thought a lot about the fall of mankind and how it just broke everything- our communion with God, our relationships with each other, our bodies, the ozone layer, the animal kingdom, everything. Everything that now gets messy and ugly and violent and diseased. And I know that this all certainly is not how it was supposed to be. It was supposed to be perfect.

And there’s something in us that is driving us to pursue that perfection. Which we cannot attain, of course, but nevertheless, there’s something there in the back of our minds that naggingly whispers of perfection, that things should be perfect. That we should be perfect. And we scramble to control our lives in an effort to make things our version of “perfect.” Or we beat ourselves up over the ways we’re not.

Yes, it’s true that things are not the way they were supposed to be. Everything’s kind of a mess.

But here we are. We are in the mess. We are a mess.

What now?

Now things are hard. But they are not just hard because it’s a consequence of sin, or because life’s just not fair, or because we need to learn to do better. Things are hard because God is using the hard to remind us of something, the most important thing. The hard has a purpose. And it’s not just to “make us better people.” If we think that it is, we miss the point completely. I’ve been missing the point.

The point? Jesus died for us. The downright hard and the ever-elusive perfect is meant to wear us down to the point where we have nothing left of ourselves, only the cross of Christ. You’ve heard of addicts needing to hit rock bottom before they can truly find the will to change, or at least feel the desperate need for change, even if they don’t know how in the world they’re going to do it. That’s us. Addicted to sin, and worse, addicted to self-sufficiency. We need to hit rock bottom.

In comes the hard stuff- the impossibly difficult circumstances, and the tragedy, and the traits we loathe about ourselves but feel powerless to change. In it all comes by God’s great mercy- to get us to our rock bottom, so that we finally reach for his hand and let him pull us out.

How? Not by fixing all that’s wrong with us and with our circumstances, or convincing us to fix it. Oh, what a great temptation it is to believe that lie. I had started believing it again myself, until today. Because he does fix things. He can change a heart, a life. He can bring hope to impossibly hopeless circumstances. He is the Rescuer and Redeemer and Savior and Mighty One. And he asks us to join with him in the cause of redemption. He asks us for holiness, and he asks us to participate in restoring whatever corner of the broken world he’s called us to.

But that’s not what fixes things, really. It’s only the cross, at the core, that fixes anything. Only the fact that he died to take our place, to make things right, to carry out the justice that was due without it falling on us, the ones who deserved it. He paid our ransom. He saved our souls from death and declared us worthy, crediting as righteous those who believe that what he did was enough, even though we’re not anywhere close to righteous on our own. We can’t earn a lick of it.

The message that hope and salvation is found only in the cross of Christ, by grace alone and not by works, is not just for those who haven’t found him yet. I had forgotten. It’s not that he saves us once, and then once we’re “in”, we’d better start working hard and show everybody that we deserve it, prove to ourselves that we’re good enough, present a case to God to keep us around. No, no, that’s all wrong. We’re the ones who’ve got to cling to that cross with all we have. Those voices that tell us we’re not worthy on those many occasions when we fall short? They’re not meant to drive us to do better, to be perfect, to fix ourselves up so that we measure up to this name of Christian, “little Christs,” so that people will finally stop thinking we’re all hypocrites and really see Jesus in us. We want it so bad. That’s why some of us are trying so hard to look righteous. We want you to see him. But we forget that it’s not of ourselves. We forget the cross. Those voices are meant to bring us back to our knees at the foot of the cross.

It’s so hard to balance it all in tension- to do what is right, to pursue holiness, to be good examples, to be reflections of him to the world, and yet to remember that we can’t, not on our own anyway, and that all our good works are filthy rags that don’t earn us a thing, because it’s all about what he did for us and nothing else, and you’re not going to be impressed by our good deeds anyway. We know you expect us to back up all the claims we make about Jesus and his power by living up to it, practicing what we preach, demonstrating this power that we profess is at work in our lives. Yet we know you don’t want to see perfect, not really. People can’t relate to perfect. They want to see real, see the facades of human effort and self-righteousness come down so that they can see God. We really are trying. And failing most of the time. But please, can’t you see him in there somewhere, see him in us, see past all the ways we get it wrong?

As for us Christians who are getting it terribly wrong, here’s what we need to hear, here is my epiphany: Failing to be perfect is not where we’re getting it wrong. What we’re truly failing at is remembering that Christ alone is our sufficiency. It’s him alone who makes us enough. Working harder might seem like a good idea, like the only thing to do to make it right, but that’s all wrong. He’s going to keep letting us come face to face with our weaknesses, our inability to achieve perfection, until we remember we can never, ever earn it. That he paid everything to offer it freely to us.

That’s why our circumstances are hard. That’s why we can never seem to get it right. It’s all supposed to point us back to the cross, where he whispers to us that it’s all okay. Not superficially okay, like he’ll overlook your mistake this time, or that there was no mistake at all. No, okay as in he made it all okay. He’s the only one who could. He took care of it, if you’ll just believe him. Yes, we should be eager to give him our lives in return and be obedient to his ways, but only as an offering of thanksgiving for what he did for us, and because we’ve tasted and seen how good his ways are, and because we love him. And even then, all we’ll be able to do is let him do it in us anyway. Even then we can only do it with his power at work in us. Those of us who have been there know it’s true.

So don’t forget that you’ll never earn it. We can’t pay him back, and if we try, it’s essentially us trying to save ourselves, and that’s just so far from the gospel. It’s a rejection of the gospel. Don’t forget the gospel- the Good News! You probably will, in your quest to do better, to get it right (I know I’m going to need to read this all again, probably by tomorrow). But then remember. Remember the cross. Remember that HE made it right. Remember that it is finished. And remember that that is where your worth lies. NOT IN YOUR PERFORMANCE.

Once, a few years back, on a day when I was overwhelmed by the awareness of my inability to get it right and struggling to believe that my failures didn’t define my worth, I cried out to God. I asked him, what in the world is my worth in, if it isn’t in my performance? You know what he told me? “You are Created. And you are Redeemed.” That’s what he said. That’s where my value lies, he told me. And he’s been reminding me of it ever since. He created me. He thought I was worth creating. He redeemed me. He thought I was worth redeeming. It implies being loved. And he says you were worth it too. That’s it. End of story. There’s nothing else in all the world that can add to your worth. Or detract from it. The world will tell you otherwise. But the world lies.

So when life bears down and you just can’t seem to endure the hard or keep up or get it right or measure up to perfect, won’t you remember the cross and remember that your insufficiency whispers of Christ’s sufficiency, of his love for you, of HOPE, not despair? This is precisely the spot where we’re supposed to differ from the world: that our weaknesses lead us to hope, not to despair, because we know that Someone made it right, and we believe that it is enough. That’s the only real difference between us. No, you don’t measure up. But it doesn’t matter, thanks to Jesus. And it doesn’t say a thing about your worth. HE says what you’re worth. He says you’re worth everything. And all the hard? It’s all so that you’ll remember.

So remember.

“But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions…For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” Ephesians 2:4-5, 8-9

“This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” 1 John 4:10

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.  For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” John 3:16-18

“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” Romans 8:1

“Jesus said to them, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” Mark 2:17

“Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:8-10

“for the law made nothing perfect, and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.” Hebrews 7:19

“For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” Hebrews 10:14

“But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation– if you continue in your faith, established and firm, not moved from the hope held out in the gospel.” -Colossians 1:22-23

“Blessed are those who realize their need for God, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” -Matthew 5:3