You come home from work really grumpy. You don’t want to talk to anyone, so you’re annoyed when your parent, sibling or roommate asks what you did that day. You try to answer in quick, terse words — then flee to your bedroom or go outside to run. At dinner, you’re quiet. By the end of the day, everyone near you knows not to talk to you. Finally, you’re reading the Word before bed, trying to pray, and you feel guilty as you realize how awful you’d been that day. You determine to be better the next day.
But then it all just repeats again.
Have you had days like this?
That situation happens to me weekly. Daily, sometimes. And there are a lot of other problems of which I could give similar examples. Gossip, laziness, jealousy — you get the picture.
But I want so much to be a better person.
The problem is that I keep trying to make myself a better person. I make efforts to be better, then get exhausted and stop, and then I go back to worrying about all the ways I mess up.
It’s a sad cycle. And the fact that I struggle with it shows that I have problems. But that doesn’t mean that I’m stuck in it. I have found 2 Corinthians 5:17-18,20-21 to be helpful:
Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself…. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
This passage defines who believers are and contradicts the cycle of failure that I see myself in. There are a few things in this passage that especially speak to how we should see and motivate ourselves.
1. Believers are a new creation. We’re no longer broken, struggling to be “good” people. Although I still struggle with my sin, I am not my sin anymore. God does not count my sins against me anymore. Living my life as if He did count them against me is arrogant and disdainful toward Christ’s work. But if I joyfully and humbly recognize that “God … through Christ reconciled us to himself” then I can stop worrying about making myself better.
2. Be reconciled to God. It’s interesting that Paul tells us that God has reconciled us to Him, then tells us we need to be reconciled to God. I think that in this command, Paul is telling us that reconciliation isn’t passive. We have to live it. And we live it by acting on it. We ask for forgiveness and know that we have it. We ask God to listen to our prayers and know that He is listening. And we ask Him to fill us with His Spirit and know that His Spirit is in us.
3. We are to become the righteousness of God. And God takes His righteousness really seriously. It’s why Christ had to die for our sins. But God is making us His righteousness; in other words, He is making us good people. That’s why we can’t just keep living our sinful lives. But that’s also why we don’t have to recourse to our renewed best effort. We are the righteousness of God because He is making sure we are.
Our lives as Christians are tricky because we do have a role in becoming more obedient — we are supposed to try to be better and better each day. But it’s not that simple. We are living in a dialectic of struggling against our sin while knowing that God is the one who takes away our sins.
In my head, at least, it’s hard to understand. But some of the best advice I’ve had for what to do when I don’t understand is this: obey. It doesn’t matter if we don’t quite understand how God is making us holy. God tells us to just obey — but He tells us this after He has forgiven us for disobeying. That means that when we try to live good lives, it’s not to make ourselves good people. In Christ, we are already living good lives because that is who we are. We are obedient to show God how much we love Him, not because we fear His wrath!
But that doesn’t mean I always feel like a good person.
When I feel like I am not living a good life and am not a good person, I have to remember who I am in Christ before trying to be a better person. When I try to be a better person because I feel like I am not good enough, I’m actually walking away from God.
So Jesus, who knew that we would try to make obedience all about us, clarified the two greatest commandments: “Love your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If these commands are driving my behavior, rather than my perceived need to be a better person, then I am moving in the right direction. Then I am becoming a better person because my focus has moved away from myself.
When I think of how this mindset affects my everyday life, I think of my summers during college. My sister and I would come home from work and go running together to stay in shape for soccer. We both had days where we were exhausted and ready to snap at each other. Had we just given up and tried to be better the next day, we never would have made progress. But we learned to ask for forgiveness and to be patient with each other. We could do this because we knew that God had already forgiven us and was making each of us a better person.