If you’re browsing along, and see the topic of this post, chances are good you’ve already clicked the next link on your blogroll, especially if you’re not a Christian. You probably don’t realize this isn’t really a theological discourse — well, in a way it is, I suppose, as all discussions of the spiritual life are in some way theological — but my intent is not to bore you to tears. But I will certainly understand if you can’t get past the “God-words.” No problem, happy browsing, drop back again for another topic of more interest to you.
Even if you are a Christian, you’re probably getting a little nervous already, as your eyes glaze over when this sort of stuff gets talked about at church or your bible study. Hang with me a few minutes, then surf on if I get too deep — fair enough?
Good, glad you stayed.
In a prior post on purpose in life, prompted by some musings by Rick over at Brutally Honest, we got some discussion going — at both blogs — on these very topics. Yes, we all need a life, I suppose — unless this stuff really is about getting a life, at least one that matters. At the core of this discussion is some reflection on how well we’re doing in life — specifically whether our lives make a difference to someone other than ourselves, whether as Christians (or just people trying to do the right thing) we’re behaving in ways which are pleasing to God, or meet with His approval, or following the Golden Rule — whatever that might be.
I recall a conversation I had some years ago with a young man in Britain, in the old Compuserve forum days. He, an atheist/agnostic, said something to the effect of, “All religions are the same — there’s basically a set of rules to follow, and if you obey them, you get rewarded by going to heaven.”
And I agreed with him (to his surprise) — with one caveat: that Christianity is the one exception to his otherwise astute observation. In Christianity, it’s not about doing something different, it’s about being something different.
So how does that work? And aren’t Christians all about being good, following the Bible, going to church — and condemning and judging those who don’t?
Yeah, all too often we are. Sad but true. But that’s not really how it’s supposed to work, you know. Which is how we somehow started discussing these “God-words,” or what I call the “-cation” words: justification, sanctification, and vacation. (Well maybe not the last one, but God do I love vacations!). So what do they mean?
Well, “justification” is really a legal term — same root meaning as justice. The term was used in ancient Greek civic culture for writing off a substantial, unpayable debt. It basically says we’re seriously busted, in deep doo-doo, goin’ to court before the judge with a public defender who was out drinking all night and comes to court with a bimbo on each arm. We’re guilty as sin, our tattooed arms and body piercings are on full display, and sitting on the throne is Judge Judy — and she’s got her bitch on, bad. We’re goin’ up the river for a life of TVs in our cells and tin cups, weight rooms and a big guy named Willie who thinks we’re really, really cute.
Then this dude whispers in Judy’s ear. She grumbles a bit, huffs, then blows us away with some unexpected news: you’re free to go. Your guilty as charged, but some stranger has stepped in and offered to do your time for you, to pay your debt in full. Wha?? Dude!! “As far as this court is concerned, you are as good as innocent”, says the Judge. “Now get outta here!”
Declared “not guilty” through no merit of my own. Too good to be true. Why would anyone do such a thing?
Well, to push the metaphor, already strained, a bit farther: it seems this guy who’s paid the price to set you free has been watching you for a long, long time. He’s sees in you something of himself, and envisions for you a potential far greater than anything you could ever imagine. He’s got great plans for you; you fit just perfectly into a grand scheme he’s been thinking about since long before your sorry ass landed on this planet. It’s worth it to him to pay such a price, because the outcome of this grand plan means everything to him. And so he’s given you this gift to make it happen. For free.
Well, there is just one small detail I forgot to mention: a small “postage and handling” fee for this get-out-of-jail transaction. This little liberation will cost you, ummh, pretty much everything you now value. Your self-will. Your selfish, self-centered pig-headedness. Your arrogant and clueless idea of what’s best for you and what will make you happy. Your crazy idea that if you do what you want and get what you want, you’ll finally be content and at peace (how’s that workin’ for ya?). In other words, all that garbage which got your sorry butt busted in the first place.
Bend the knee, suckah — instead of serving time, you gonna be serving eternity.
Suddenly the deal’s not lookin’ so good. You’ve heard Willie’s not such a bad guy after all — and you have been meaning to get pumped up and work on that 6-pack you’ve always wanted…
But in the end you decide to trust this crazy guy whose already footed the bill for your get-out-of-jail-free card. Of course, he already knows what a pathetic sonofabitch you are, and having spent the big bucks to get you off the hook, is fully prepared to do the heavy lifting necessary to transform you into the useful and happy partner — dare I say friend? — which he’s always envisioned you to be. But first you need a major cleanup, starting from the inside out, since a whitewash is never gonna cut it. Extreme makeover needed — on the inside. The outside will take care of itself, in time.
This, my friends, is what we call sanctification.
An extreme makeover, from the inside out. Sounds painful.
It is. Especially if we try to do it ourselves.
Having won the lotto and walked out of court with no prison rap, you are, understandably, pretty darn grateful to this mysterious benefactor whose been so incredibly generous and kind to you. So, of course, not quite getting the program, you try to follow the rules he seems to have in place, figuring this will make him happy. So you go to church; start reading the Bible; say a few prayers; try to be good. You hang around with others who been similarly pardoned — although you find them pretty darn boring, compared to the run-and-gun crowd you’ve always hung out with.
And it really doesn’t work out all that well. The harder you try, the more you come up short. The siren song of your life of self-service is always singing in your ears, beckoning you back to that “happy” life and the “good times” you remember. You fall on your face — a lot. And those Christian “friends” you have? They’re starting to really get on your nerves. Telling you to just try harder, pray more, read your Bible (like that works!). Frowning a lot when you share with them your weaknesses and failures. Talking about you behind your back because you’re a “backslider.”
The demons inside start running the show more and more, those addictions and obsessions which you were supposed to get rid of when you signed on to this deal. They start sounding ever more reasonable, comforting you with how important it is to get your needs met. Before you know it, you are making a bee-line toward the place where you began — or worse. Those seductive voices even begin to sound a lot like God, so surely you must be on track, and with some more effort you’ll surely get there. You wonder where this “peace” and “happiness” is they sing about and talk about in church — and to be honest, those hypocritical holier-than-thou Christians don’t look all that happy and joyful themselves — bastards. Pretty soon it all seems like a bad dream, and you’ve ended up worse off than you began.
This, my friends, is not sanctification. It is slavery.
You’re trying to build the perfect house with defective tools and flawed materials. You’re using your very best efforts to improve your lot when your very best efforts are your very worst enemy. You’re trying to perform that extreme makeover, working from the outside in. The outside may look a little better — but the inside is still the same: selfish, self-centered, fearful, ugly, black. You are trying do the work of God with the hands of man — and you are doomed to fail. You end up exhausted and spent, and never become that integral and integrated person who makes God’s purposes move forward and makes your own life meaningful, contented, and filled with the satisfaction of living with purpose.
I know. I’ve tried this approach. Didn’t work out very well.
So how is it supposed to work, this Christianity thing? Are we set free only to spend the rest of our lives as miserable failures scrambling to meet a host of impossible goals? The answer is, as you might expect, no; the key is a truly strange and rather wonderful solution indeed. It is far more strange — bizarre even — than anything you might have imagined.
It is a thing called grace.
And like any good daytime soap or episode of Lost, I will leave you wondering just what that funny word is all about … until my next post, anyway.
Thanks for sticking with me. Back soon with more.