I saw a commercial once (at 2 a.m.) that said I have to do whatever it takes to “actualize my best me.” Jargon aside, it makes sense, really. Doing results in being. Cause and effect. Want six-pack abs? Just buy the right product and give your new, healthy lifestyle 110% for 10 weeks and maybe you’ll see results. (Phew, I guess it’s time to get to work on those resolutions …) It makes sense to assume that doing something will produce some change. But a personal makeover obsession won’t do one bit of good when it comes to fixing the human condition.
When you feel defeated by sin, burnt out by expectations, and discouraged by your inability to get it together, the last thing you need is “good advice.” So I don’t have any new advice for you. But I do have a bit of helpful hyperbole: Advice is tyranny. Okay, that’s a little over the top. But there’s a reason for the overstatement.
Spiritual Success in 4 Easy Steps
Advice is fine as far as it goes. Occasionally people get it together and take the 2 a.m., six-pack abs advice. But spiritually speaking, advice won’t do you one iota of good. In fact, it may make things worse.
There is a spiritual principle here. If we zoom out to 40,000 feet and consider God’s will for people (his Law), we see that ultimately, his Law mirrors back to us our failures and try as we might, we simply can’t live up to it. God’s Law isn’t the problem—it’s good and holy. The problem is our indwelling sin and our inability to keep that holy Law.
Unfortunately, Christians often make the mistake of translating obedience to God’s Law as the means by which we gain God’s acceptance. This creates a whole host of problems that often ends in guilt-ridden, spiritual burnout. Over time, some clue into this bait-and-switch and bail from the church altogether knowing they’ll never add up. Some are more resilient and continue to beat their heads against the wall. Whatever the case, if acceptance before God hinges on spiritual achievement, we’re going to need some serious help. This is where Christian-y steps-to-spiritual-success advice comes in.
The list might go a little something like this:
Make sure to have a daily quiet time.
Join a Christian club and get to work.
Do more volunteerism.
The problem with this list is that it presupposes that with the right amount of effort, we can please God. But how much effort is enough? How does God weigh a person’s good and bad actions. What if all that effort wasn’t enough?
And this is how it goes. Advice meant to “help” will play a switcheroo on you and cause the kind of anxiety that keeps someone up at night watching bad Ab Buster infomercials. See what I mean? Tyranny. But I’ve got some good news that will help you get a better night’s sleep.
If you are a Christian, God is pleased with you because of what Jesus has already done. To be a Christian is to be united to Jesus in faith, which means God sees Jesus’ moral record, not your checkered one. When we really get that, then our bullet point list becomes a grateful, worshipful response from the heart, rather than a list of Christian duties. You don’t have to have devotional time. You get to. You don’t have to do acts of Christian service. You get to. See the difference?
Something for Nothing
Our dutiful checklists are intuitive. Punishments and rewards based on good (or bad) behavior is plain sense. What we don’t get—what we have to hear over and over—is the something-for-nothing of the gospel.
Jesus has made peace between us and God once and for all. And we benefit from that, for free. We need to be told again and again and again that our sin is forgiven, and that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. And sometimes, we just need to get the attention off of ourselves, and meditate on unmerited grace!
For those with tortured consciences, know that, as you come to Jesus, you get welcome, not condemnation. For the overachievers in the crowd, you can forget the extreme spiritual makeover, and know that all the doing meant to gain you acceptance has already been done.
You’re in good company: I’m often self-involved and need to hear this as much as the next guy. So when I realize I’m off kilter (which is often!) I read Ephesians 1 again to get refocused. So take a moment and read this. Read it slowly, and let it sink in.
Get that? If you are in Christ, you are:
Blessed with every spiritual blessing
Chosen before the foundation of the world
Holy and blameless before Christ
Adopted as sons and daughters
Redeemed through his blood
Forgiven of your trespasses
Your spiritual striving didn’t accomplish your in Christian-ness. And after you came to Christ, and screwed everything up, he didn’t let go. Before you were born, before you thought a thought, and before you felt the gnawing guilt of not living a fully transformed Christian life, you were chosen, loved, adopted, redeemed, and forgiven. Period.
Chucking Advice Column Christianity in Exchange for Good News
That first part of Saint Paul’s letter is an elated, breathless, gotta-wipe-the-sweat-off-his-brow-with a-hanky-Pentecostal riff filled to the brim with the stuff that we really need.
Do you see it? The answer is in Jesus, not you. He’s the man who lived the life you have not lived and died the death you should have died so that you don’t have to live for you. Hallelujah, the pressure is off!
Thanks be to God, Jesus inverts the logic of both the spiritual overachiever’s aspirations as well as the dejected defeatist’s commiserations. In Christ both are already lavished with forgiveness, blessing, election, and blamelessness. God doesn’t bank on you to make good on all that advice; Jesus already accomplished perfection. Now your life gets to be a joyful response of gratitude!
So, Christian, you have permission to forget about what Advice Column Christianity is trying to sell you. Your gut has been right all along: the stick and carrot of spiritual advice is tyranny. We’ve got really-and-truly good news. You don’t have to experience life transformation to be loved. You’re already loved in Christ.