Speaking of works-based righteousness: I think our congregation still struggles with this deeply. It’s part of our set Asian-American, bi-cultural neuroses. It’s packaged in with the things we’ve been taught at home, by our parents, by the performance-driven culture around us. My parents are the best parents in the world; they give me more than I ever deserved and support me more, so much more than the parents of a lot of my friends. They never pressure me except not to waste my potential. Yet I still feel it because I grew up saturated in it. That constant guilt during my waking hours, like the feeling of coldness during sleeping hours (if you’ve ever tried to sleep without adequate blankets, you know what I mean) is always there, pushing me onwards to perform. I’ve talked about the difference between chasing after something and going after something because you are being chased from behind. Works-based guilt is a cause for the latter.
The thinking I am speaking of exists by the presupposition that we must fend for ourselves; that God will not come to save us, that God is not in the business of saving us, but only judging us. We think if we’re going to make it through the judgment day grind, we’re going to have to take our piety upon ourselves and work towards pleasing God. We acknowledge salvation by grace with our lips, but our hearts are far from it. We acknowledge that we’ve been “saved by Jesus Christ” and that we’re “born-again”, but after that conversion, we live as if we’re still on the wrong end of God’s wrath. So we work all the harder. When we get lazy and stop reading the Bible regularly, we beat ourselves up over it and subject ourselves to self-inflicted emotional trauma. If we forget to do devotions in the morning and our day goes badly, we think God is “disciplining us” for our grievous error. If we don’t get something we want, even if it’s a good thing, we think it’s because we didn’t pray hard enough and never think that it might possibly be that in God’s sovereign plan, the timing wasn’t right.
Not only is this a profound misunderstanding of faith, it is a deep affront to God’s saving power and it is often disguised as piety. When we lament, “why can’t I just be a better Christian?” and put ourselves down for our piss-poor effort, we are in essence spitting upon the work of the cross, nullifying the precious jewel and regarding it useless in our predicament. Not only that, just consider what happens when we do succeed. If I read the Bible every night and pray for an hour before I go to bed, who gets the credit then?
I hear it more often than not, “I struggle so much with loving God. I can’t seem to do my devotions consistently. I fail all the time.” While this sort of self-reprieve is no worse than completely giving ourselves to sin without abandon, it is no better either. What’s the difference between sinning and being okay with it, and sinning and complaining about it? There is no difference; neither one grasps the power of the gospel, the gospel of the one who knew no sin and yet became sin for us.
A warning to the pious. My friends, beware of guilt. It is dangerous because it makes us think that having it is the only way we can live with our sin. We think if we’re not feeling guilty about our failings then we are not truly right before God. But the truth is the exact opposite! Our guilt is very real and we can only be right before God if it is removed, not if it is lived with. If all we had to do was struggle with our constant guilt, then Christ died for NOTHING!
What’s the difference between being chased and chasing something? The former is done out of fear and the latter is done because of love. Don’t chase after piety because death is chasing you from behind. Chase after loving God because grace has given you motivation.