As we sit in the beginning of February, I’m aware that my New Year’s Intentions (I didn’t write them down, so calling them resolutions is a stretch) are already facing some headwinds. I’ve only gone to Starbucks once (OK, twice) this week — that’s progress, right? On a more serious note, even though I have been praying that I might be more gentle and intentional with my family, well, those prayers haven’t kept me from responding with harsh impatience several times this week. Good intentions and sincere prayers notwithstanding, the weaknesses I had last year have traipsed over into the new year right along with me.
In moments like these, it’s easy to grow discouraged with our apparent lack of spiritual progress. And in moments like these, I have to come back time and again — and again — to the core truth that the Christian life is not ultimately about my good intentions or even my spiritual disciplines, as important as those things may be. It’s about accepting the grace that’s offered to me — to us — at the cross.
Now, I realize that last paragraph is stuffed with Christianese, so stay with me. I want to talk a bit about grace here, and I hope to do so in a way that’s honest and encouraging, not just airing out familiar, but perhaps trite-sounding spiritual platitudes.
The promise of grace
I don’t know about you, but I struggle with grace. Not from a theological or intellectual perspective — I can deliver a pretty articulate summary of how God’s grace is fleshed out in His Son’s sacrifice for the benefit of sinful humanity. No problem there.
No, my struggle lies in appropriating that promise of grace. Living into it, so to speak. I know and believe that God loves me deeply, that my sins are forgiven. But it’s so easy for me to hang on to shame when I should just relinquish it. It’s also easy for me to respond to my shame, that toxic cloud of untruth that whispers, “You’re a bad person,” by resolving over and over again to try harder, to do better. When those intentions come up short, of course, that shame is amplified, and around the track I go again. And the whispers get louder.
A number of years ago I stumbled across Eugene Petersen’s stunning paraphrase of Matthew 11:28-30. His take on Jesus’ teaching here takes my breath away, because it gets to the heart of my (and perhaps your) inclination to try to deal with my sin on my own:
Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me — watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.
Trying to fix ourselves is burdensome business. But Jesus offers us something wholly different: a chance to know Him and to be changed by that encounter. It’s an encounter in which we exchange crippling legalism for real life, endless striving for real rest. “The unforced rhythms of grace,” Petersen calls it. This is the Jesus whom I want to keep company with, the Jesus who invites me to experience a life lived “freely and lightly.”
“Be with Me”
As much as these words express what my heart longs for, I still struggle to live into them. I would have thought I’d be further along in the whole process than I seem to be. The clear victories and spiritual growth I experienced in my early years as a Christian have given way to a slower pilgrimage in my middle years. In some ways, I look back and think I was doing a better job at it 10 years ago than I am these days.
But there’s the rub: It’s not about how good a “job” I’m doing. That’s the lie of performance that keeps me shackled to shame.
No, our job as Christians is simply this, I think: to keep company with Jesus. In prayer. In God’s life-giving words. With other Christians. Our assessment of how we’re doing — or not doing — is less important than simply being with Him and letting Him lift the unhealthy yokes we hoist onto our own shoulders.
Where intentionality does come into play, of course, is making space in my life to appropriate that truth. It doesn’t happen magically or automatically. I still have to choose to be with Jesus. Frankly, I struggle with doing that consistently, too. Despite those failures, though, Jesus keeps whispering, “Come. Be with Me. Lay down your burdens. Walk with Me.”
I want to keep doing that this year, and I hope you do as well.
Copyright 2012 Adam Holz. All Rights Reserved.