This morning a young gent asked my how he can stop being worried about doing the wrong thing when he goes about his life. When I asked him to clarify what he was talking about, he told me that he doesn’t have trouble trusting God for the things in his life that he can’t control, but gets all worked up about things he can. He is sure he is going to sin and bring the wrath of God down on his head. I asked him who gets the glory when he is obedient and he was quick to point out that, “of course God gets the glory if I am obedient.”
Help me understand, I said. You feel like you will be punished for disobeying? You will be a failure? Others will think badly of you? Including God? But if you are obedient, God will receive the glory?
“Right,” he said.
Where will you be if you do the right thing?
“Well, God will bless me and he will smile on me and I will be filled with joy,” he said.
So, on one hand, you are motivated to obey God by the fear of punishment and other’s bad thoughts regarding you, and on the other hand, you’re also motivated by the reward of God thinking highly of you? When you are given the opportunity to love someone. Are you motivated by what they will think about you when you do a good job?
“Of course,” He said. “God will be pleased and the person I help will be pleased as well.”
So, you are driven by the fear of failure and the possible rewards of success?
“What do you mean by possible rewards of success? I’m with you except for that word.”
Think about this for a moment, if you love someone because you are afraid of suffering if you don’t, are you really loving that person? And if you aren’t actually loving that person, because you are doing it for all the wrong reasons, will you receive a reward (Mt. 6:2)? On the other hand, will you be rewarded when you, a human being, can’t love perfectly? Now, you are filled with fear again.
“Ah, that’s exactly my problem. I feel guilty all the time. When I am obedient I’m guilty, when I fail, I feel guilty. No matter what I do, there’s no joy, only condemnation.”
Would you like to hear what I think you should do?, I said.
Okay, here goes. Let me explain what I think is going on. First, these longings are by your pride. Your desire to avoid punishment comes from your desire to have a comfortable life with you at the center. And your desire to receive praise is equally a desire to be highly thought of and to be the center of your life. If you avoid trouble, that’s good for you. And if you receive accolades, even if from God, that’s also good for you—even better.
Either of these positions is sin because you are at the center of both. That sounds like pretty much everyone, doesn’t it. Here’s the rub; the Bible tells us that God won’t share his glory with another (Is. 42:8; 48:11), so even when you obey, because you obey with wrong motives, you still feel bad. God is disciplining you, even when you do what, on the surface seems to be right—because you aren’t really doing right. Doing right includes the motives for doing right. It is one large package.
Does that make sense, so far?
“I’m with you so far,” he said.
Doing wrong things is sin, and doing right things sinfully is also sin. There are two ways of fixing this situation. First, the Bible tells us that one of the reasons for the Law is that because we can’t obey it, it drives us to God for help (Gal. 3:24). With that in mind, the first way to fix the situation is to continue on the path you’re on. Only now, really pour it on. Resolve to be as obedient as you can be. Decide to read your Bible with an eye to what is wrong and what is right, and with every fiber of your being throw yourself into doing right and avoiding wrong.
After a few weeks or months of this, you should be just about crazy with frustration and so totally consumed with guilt and shame that you’ll give anything for relief. This is because you can’t perfectly do the works of the Law. You think you can, but you can’t. But go ahead and try. But don’t give yourself any slack for failure. If you fail, own it! Be a man! Do your best!
Then, when you finally come to the end of yourself, come to Christ. Ask him to forgive you for striving after your own glory, for being consumed with not being thrown into Hell. Ask him to forgive you for trying to earn his favor by being the best Christian you can possibly be. Beg him to forgive you for being such a colossal failure. Give up trying to do what you do to avoid punishment and to bring praise. Change your mind about who is God in your life. Humble yourself before God and let him lift you up (1 Pet. 5:6).
Does that make sense?
“I don’t like it, but it makes sense, sort of. Hey, you said there were two options. What’s the other one?”
Okay, the problem, again, is that your desires are driving you; pushing you to avoid punishment and other’s low esteem, and pushing you to clamor after praise for who are and what you can do. That’s the way of all the world. It is also the way to destruction.
The Bible has a better way to live. God wants you to be drawn rather than driven; drawn by grace. Instead of being driven to do what you do because you must, grace draws you to do what you do because you get to. Instead of trying to impress God with your great style, you need to give that up because you realize that you are who you are because of who he has made you to be. He already knows you and loves you just as you are. You are only insulting him by trying to impress him. Instead, you should let him draw you to join with him in the great adventure that is the Kingdom of God. Grace takes you along with Jesus and as a child, brother, member of Christ you are sucked along rather than being driven along.
With that in mind, the second way to respond to this whole situation is to give up trying to impress anyone. Lay down your life, pick up your cross and follow hard after Jesus (Mt. 16:24). He knows your limits, he knows what you can do, he is not impressed by your striving or your failing. He loves you and wants you to follow, to be obedient, to serve because you can and because you get to rather than because you have to and are striving to.
You don’t need to try to impress others, because the King of the Universe already thinks highly of you. Who’s left to impress? You don’t need to fear punishment because the Savior or the World died to take your punishment. You don’t need to hesitate to love others because the Spirit of the Holy one lives in you to empower you to love with the same grace you’ve received.
The difference between these two options? One takes a long time. The other you can do right now. One is painful and is the trajectory you’re already traveling on. The other, allows you to come to Christ in a new way, right now. In either case, you’ll end up in the same place. This is because God is God and you belong to him. He won’t let his children go on in their arrogance forever (Heb. 12:7, 11). So, turn to God, let him draw you by his grace.
Does that make sense?
“It does. Let’s pray right now!”
And we did.