I’ve long been a fan of new year’s resolutions, and while I’m making use of them again this year, I learned something important from last year’s resolutions.
In 2018 I did really well at reaching my goals. I read more books than I ever had in a year. I lost weight. I reached other personal and professional targets. And yet, at the end of the year… I still felt unfulfilled. Why? Because I was trying to give myself worth through achievement. It’s a reminder of how futile self-justification is. Like every other idol, it’s a god that is never satisfied.
No matter who you are or what you do, every human inherently has a tendency toward self-justification. We can seek our sense of worth in being smart, good-looking, funny, talented, or whatever else we find valuable in ourselves. (Or, on the flip side, sometimes we can’t find anything valuable in ourselves and it leaves us feeling worthless.) As a minister, we can try to find our worth in being thought profound or talented, or getting invitations to speak, or getting lots of blog hits, or even just hearing “good sermon” from enough people every Sunday morning.
Because that pull to self-redemption is in our nature, we all have a tendency to twist our Christianity into the same kind of works-based meritocracy. That’s exactly what the Pharisees had done to the Mosaic covenant. That’s why every man-made religion is works-based. And, that’s why my own Christianity is often a struggle against self-justification (and I suspect I’m not the only one).
Over the years I’ve been told that my writing and preaching are often heavily slanted toward finding problems and shortcomings in myself, others, and the church and discussing how we got to that mistaken place, how we can improve, what we can change, etc. And, I believe that’s fair. While I still strongly believe there’s value in examining how we can do better, there’s danger in putting the cart before the horse. It’s critical that we first understand this point:
On our worst day, God loves us just the same.
When we fail, He is there to pick us up. When we hit rock bottom, He’s the prodigal Father, waiting to run to us and restore us upon our return.
The side effects of self-justification are particularly nasty. We hide our sins, afraid to let anyone know that we struggle. We walk pridefully, measuring ourselves against others (like the praying Pharisee in Luke 18:11). We fail to show mercy and grace toward those we feel are below our standard (like the merciless servant of Matthew 18, or the prodigal’s older brother in Luke 15). Each of these prohibits us from having the kind of humility that God demands (James 4:10).
David showed us the right response in Psalm 51. He was crushed by his sins but knew there was no amount of sacrificing he could do to justify himself (51:16). He knew that it would have to be God who cleansed him and restored him (51:7-11), and then he could go about sacrificing and singing God’s praises (51:14-19).
But, as always, our tendency to flock to either side of a pendulum clouds the issue. When we discuss this idea of our inability to earn God’s favor, some will reject it and cast it as an endorsement of the “free grace, no obedience needed” idea so commonly held today.
But that’s not what this is. It’s just putting the cart on the proper side of the horse. We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19). We live a life of obedience because He has saved us, not so that He will save us (Ephesians 2:8-10). As C.S. Lewis put it, we don’t believe “God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us.” There’s no rejection of obedience or of the need to grow in that, but rather a proper sorting of where obedience and growth come from.
So, my main resolution this year is a bit different. I resolve to stop trying to justify myself by my works. I resolve to stop trying to prove myself to a God who already loves me, accepts me, died for me, and walks with me. I resolve to rest in Jesus’ grace and realize that my worth doesn’t come from anything I can do for Him, but from the immeasurable price He paid for me.
Yes, I want to do better. Yes, I want to walk more closely with God. But I want to do so because He’s already shown me His great love, not to give myself the feeling that I’ve earned that love.