WHEN I say “Christian”, I’m talking primarily to myself. But maybe there are others out there in the same boat. If so – welcome to my boat. (But how did you even get into my boat without being invited? Sit over there on the other side so we don’t capsize. Sorry; I digress.)
Have you ever read that passage in Romans 7 where Paul says he can’t do the right thing? He says stuff like:
“I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate.“
“I want to do what is right, but I can’t. I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.“
and, in case we haven’t got the message:
“I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong.“
That’s pretty self-condemnatory. Am I the only one who’s dared to think that Paul just put that stuff in there to make us feel better about being a bit of a rubbish Christian? Come on, Paul, are you seriously saying that you of all people found yourself unable or unwilling to do what you know God wants you to do? Pull the other one.
Actually, there are other places where Paul’s not-yet-perfect behaviour is documented – like when he insulted the high priest (Acts 23). R.T.Kendall quotes this as an example of Paul not controlling his tongue. And, to be honest, I don’t think Paul made stuff up about himself as some kind of false humility. So, at a time when I’m very conscious of “wanting to do better” as a Christian, it’s good to know that there is at least one other guy in the same boat. (By the way, apostle Paul, you can sit on whatever side of the boat you choose. You’ve earned that privilege.)
But enough about the apostle Paul; let’s talk about me. For many years, when it comes to being part of the church I’ve had an on-off battle with not feeling the right feelings / not having the right desires / not caring about things I “should” care about. When I say it’s an on-off battle, it’s “on” when I’m facing something, or being challenged about something, and it’s “off” at other times, and I just ignore it. I don’t feel I’ve ever “won”, or even moved on very much.
Over ten years ago a fellow believer told me she thought God was telling me to “get rid of the ought-to’s” in my life. And I do tend to have them; I ought to do this, I ought to care about that. It’s true that God doesn’t want me to be burdened with stuff I’ve put on myself, or to try to win his approval by how well I perform. So that was good advice. And, of course, the world is desperate to tell me that “you just need to be yourself”.
The trouble is, myself isn’t good enough. Myself is very self-centred and inward-looking. Myself really doesn’t want to bother with other people’s needs or serving or working when it’s inconvenient, tiring or stirs up aggravation. And myself is also rather afraid of past mistakes or troubles happening again. So, no; just being myself isn’t God’s answer. So what is?
I don’t feel I’ve ever “won”, or even moved on very much
Paul asks the same question:
“Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?“
I’ll give you three guesses as to who can do that.
“Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord.“
Yay! The answer is a person, or more specifically, in a person.It’s not my will power, discipline or determination. It’s not deciding to pretend or going through the motions. None of this will make a sustainable difference to how much I “will and act to fulfill his good purpose” (Phil. 2:13).
I’ve often quoted that Philippians verse, thanking God that it’s him that will work in me to bring about his purposes. And yet in many ways I’ve felt disappointed because God hasn’t made me a very fruitful or passionate Christian. The clue may be in the full context of the verse, which includes a couple of instructions:
“Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him. Do everything without complaining and arguing, so that no one can criticize you.”
“Work hard”; “Do everything without complaining”. Hmmmm. You mean I actually have to do something to bring about the bit in the middle? OK, so although “myself” doesn’t go in for working hard, clearly God expects me to do so. And although I’d rather moan that things are a bit tricky and I’m not getting the right encouragement, God expects me to get on and do stuff anyway. Wow. Tall order.
Just being myself isn’t God’s answer
Which is why I can only do it in Jesus Christ. By worshiping and praising and calling out to him and bringing to him the specific people and problems and needs and pains and struggles and resisting the fears and rejecting the whispers and taunts of the devil and asking God to give me his heart so that I think and act and look more like Jesus in a pretty murky and depressing situation.
That will improve me. That will take me beyond where “myself” naturally wants to go. That will incline me to care and think about stuff I’d rather ignore. Only the presence and power and peace of God himself can take an ineffectual bloke like me and move him on.
Self-improvement? No thanks. Changed by Jesus? Yes please. That’s where I want to go.