In a previous post on holiness, I wrote about my long-time struggle with what I believed to be God’s unattainable standards. I had often felt as though he was setting me up for failure, but eventually I realized that his challenge to rise to his standards was actually setting me up for success. He believes in me, he sees what I can be, and he calls me to rise to the occasion.
Yet, I’ve recently become aware of the need for a caveat for those statements. For people who believe that God is good and that he can bring about good from difficulties, it is easy to assume that when we’re experiencing something difficult, it is because God wants to use it to “grow us” and “make us stronger”. And I’m not going to say that isn’t so, because he does refine us through trials, he does strengthen us through suffering, and he does take those whose hearts belong to him through a lifelong process of sanctification.
But as I’ve heard several struggling friends recently make discouraged remarks about how God probably wants to grow them through their current difficult circumstances, and when I’ve been having those thoughts myself, something hasn’t been sitting quite right with me. Because that can’t be all God is, just a drill sergeant always bent on whipping us into shape, can it? And I hear that unspoken question in those “God must be growing me” comments. I know God will use this for good, but this is really hard. I don’t know if I can handle this anymore. I’m not quite sure I believe this is truly for my good. Maybe God cares about my perfection more than he actually cares about me…
All these thoughts and feelings and questions are legitimate, and my point is not to say that we shouldn’t have them or ask them. In fact, I think they are very important. What I think they indicate is that a vague concept of “God working all things for the good of those who love him” on its own is not enough, and we know it. Our hearts are not satisfied with just the knowledge that somehow there will be a silver lining to our struggle. We are hurting. We are scared. We are tired. We are incapable of bearing up under some of the things life throws our way. Pat answers are not enough, and neither is pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. Even if God will use everything for good, what is his definition of good? Does good in his book equal solely our perfection? Is his love only a “for your own good” kind of love?
We need to know that he actually cares. That he sees us and our pain. That he loves us enough to actually come and help us. Not necessarily to wave a magic wand and make our troubles vanish instantly, but to truly understand how we feel and walk with us through it. Sustain us and empower us. And bring us, personally, to the other side. How many of us believe in a God like that?
“When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9:36
“As a loving father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.” Psalm 103:13
“He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3
“She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: ‘You are the God who sees me,’ Genesis 16:13a
I do believe that that’s who God is. Personal. Aware. Compassionate. Relevant. Faithful. Rescuer. Sustainer. Healer. Friend. It’s only when we know him as these things that we can be satisfied. A distant faith is not enough.
I am reminded, especially as I read through the gospels, that Jesus’ message to us is not “Try Harder.” Did you know that? The popular notion that “God helps those who help themselves” is incredibly un-biblical. Rather, and the Scriptures are very clear on this, God blesses those who realize their need for him, who depend on him and trust him to come through. His message all along has been this:
“Come to Me.”
It’s what he cares most about. You. Being in relationship with you. Drawing you to him so that he can enjoy your company and you can enjoy his and he can breathe his Life into you and take care of you and be your dearest friend.
And if that is what he cares about most, wouldn’t it make sense that the trials he allows us to experience might be for that reason? Not just to “make us better people” or get us to color inside the lines, but to get us to come to him? How else would he get our attention? Do we come to him when our lives are running smoothly and we’re feeling on top of things? No, most of us don’t. So how else will we recognize that we need him or remember him at all unless we come to the end of our own ability to have it all together?
If you grew up around church at all, you’ve probably heard the Bible passage where Jesus said “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3). I heard that throughout my life, but only recently did it occur to me to think about what actually means. If you would have asked me back then, I probably would have supposed that “poor in spirit” meant someone who was sad (in a “poor me”, whiny kind of way), someone with low self-esteem, or someone who lacked courage. What it actually means is to recognize your spiritual poverty, your need for God. To recognize and embrace your dependence on him. To the world that might seem synonymous with low self-esteem, but it’s actually very different. Is a newborn child to be looked down upon for being utterly dependent upon its parent? Of course not. It is treasured and adored with a sense of incredible wonder. And you know what? Those babies are pretty smart to know they’re helpless, aren’t they? They are wise to act in accordance with their dependence, demanding the presence of their caregiver and insisting on being provided for in that humble yet undeniable way that they do. To be aware of who and what you are and to be realistic about your needs and limitations is part of what it means to be wise. We are dependent creatures. We cannot give ourselves life, or make the rain fall on our crops, or prevent our deaths. There is only One who can, and we live every moment, every breath, utterly dependent upon him. And yet he says we are made wonderfully, that this is good. And he longs for us to realize it.
I’m starting to believe this is the primary reason that God sets his standards so high in the first place. Not so that we work harder to prove ourselves (and futilely so, because, in one very real sense, his standards are unattainable), but that we would only realize we need him and finally come to him. Jesus told people that they wouldn’t enter the kingdom of heaven unless their righteousness surpassed that of the scribes and the Pharisees, and those were the people who were working meticulously to keep his laws. He raised the bar and said that not only must you not murder or commit adultery, but you must not hate or look at someone lustfully. He demanded not only outward obedience but purity of heart. Which of us can live up to that? But then he turned around and said the kingdom belonged to whom? The prostitutes and the thieves and the ungoldly, the outcasts and “unclean” of this highly religious society. Why? Because they were the ones who knew they needed a Savior.
“For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.’ Isaiah 57:15
This post was not intended to be a gospel message, but now that I’ve gotten myself here, I can’t in good conscience not share it. We need to know that even more than help in our struggles, we need what Jesus died to give us- forgiveness and his covering of righteousness. We are not okay without him. He died to save us because we needed saving, whether or not we know or admit we need it. We need him so that when the time comes for God to judge us, God will look at us and see us as perfect, as meeting his perfect standards, even though we have not. If we’ve accepted Jesus’ sacrifice for us and honored him as Lord, he will look at us and see Jesus’ own perfection, because Jesus was willing to trade places with us. When Jesus said we need a righteousness surpassing that of the scribes and Pharisees, I believe he meant that only the very righteousness of Jesus himself would be good enough- the covering of forgiveness that he would die to give us. And he did. “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”
“If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:8-9
“He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed.” 1 Peter 2:24
If you have not believed or personally accepted the sacrifice Jesus made for you, I believe that the trials you experience and the times you are driven to despair over your failures are meant so that you might come to Jesus and receive this gift of forgiveness and new life in him, which he gives without cost because he loves you dearly.
For those who have already received his forgiveness and given their lives to him, let us remember that the life of a follower of Christ is not about picking up a free ticket to heaven and going merrily on our way without him. And we must not slip back into thinking that we can be good enough on our own, that we can do anything “good” on our own. Not only do we need Jesus, but he loves us and he wants us to go through life in his presence. He wants to bless us and sustain us and give us supernatural power over the things we face both externally and within ourselves, a power we simply do not have on our own. A power over trials and sin, power that take us through a lifelong process of transformation toward the perfection that we could never achieve on our own. He makes the impossible possible. This is the truer, deeper, supernatural version of “becoming a better person.” Better than just a makeover or New Year’s resolution, it’s becoming who we truly are and could be if all the sin and selfishness and junk had never gotten in the way. Restoration. Sanctification. Completeness. Perfection.
So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Romans 7:21-25
“For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Hebrews 10:14
“Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come!” 2 Corinthians 5:16-18
“Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” Jude 1:24
So yes, perfection might be one of God’s deepest desires for us, because he loves us and doesn’t want us to be dwelling in the ugly stuff that rips us apart inside. But when it comes to perfection, it’s all about how you get there, and Who you get there with. That’s why my previous message needs a caveat. I’ll never deny that God calls us to holiness, and honestly, he has the right to expect it (something I might talk about in a future post). But I’ve been reminded and have been encountering many people who need reminders that the struggles we face are all meant to point us to him and bring us into his presence. The human race is tragically bent toward the temptation and illusion of self-sufficiency, yet Jesus says that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who know they need him, and to those who come.
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28