Trevor is a good pastor friend who has been part of a particular denomination for almost forty years. It’s a good denomination, but over the years, it has occasionally shown signs of leaning toward a works-based salvation. While having lunch one day, I could tell that my friend was overwhelmed. When I inquired about his tired appearance, he replied, “I’ve been busy working for God for nearly four decades and I’m exhausted.”
Tears started welling up in the corner of Trevor’s eyes. “Pete, do you ever wonder how much is enough? How good is good enough?”
I just listened.
“Most of my ministry has been spent living in fear that I’m not good enough for God. From day to day I question whether or not he really loves me. And if I’m honest, most of my ministry has been fueled by this fear; and the harder I try, the more I feel like I’m failing.”
My friend is hardly alone in his struggle. Many of us wrestle with trying to please God with our good deeds. I call this the “spiritual treadmill,” a condition that causes us to work harder and harder and never feel like we’re really making any progress toward pleasing God.
Make no mistake: the spiritual treadmill is a trap. It’s a lifestyle that leads us into believing that freedom will exist at the next level. It causes us to think that if we could do just a little more for God, then we’d know he loves and accepts us. But once we reach our goal, the spiritual bar gets raised. We end up falling short and feel the need to make up for our failures.
Time and time again, life teaches that we’ll never be good enough. Our lives tell the tale over and over again: work-based religion doesn’t work.
The thing is, religion sniffs out the insecurities that we wrestle with and lures us into thinking we can make up our past failures and mishaps. Religion whispers, “If you would just give more. Show up more. Serve more. Pray more. Read more. Memorize more. Evangelize more. Sing more. Then, and only then, God will love you. At the very least, he’ll love you a little more.”
And oftentimes, we fall for religion’s lie and earn God’s love. We attempt to embrace a rhythm of life that wears us out. We hop on the spiritual treadmill and we run. We run and run and run. But the more we run, the more exhausted we become. Every day, we wonder, wish, hope we’ve done enough to earn his love and grace.
There are two distinct paths that we can take in the so-called Christian life. A couple of years ago I read a book called True Faced where the authors talked about two distinct paths we could potentially take.
Path One: This is the path of pleasing God or “working on my sin” so I can achieve an intimate relationship with God. This sounds very, well, Christian. It’s all about selling out, trying harder, and committing more.
But over time this path will make you cynical and tired because it’s characterized by self-effort and one’s own goal, or focus, in sinning less. One of the tendencies we have in Christianity today is that we focus on sin management—in essence, behavioral modification. While there are several problems with this path, the biggest I see is that the Gospels make it clear that Jesus doesn’t want to edit behaviors; rather, he wants to change hearts.
Path Two: This is the path of trusting God with my sin instead of trying to please him by not sinning, which is the goal of the first. It may seem subtle, but this path is drastically different from the first. On this path I’m simply living out who God says I am.
While choosing path two seems like a no-brainer, in my experience, most of us choose to spend our time here on this earth exploring the guilt-ridden, failure-producing traps of path one. Path two doesn’t seem as spiritual or as heroic. And beyond that, the real reason we’re drawn to path one is because of our past.
We’ve been hardwired for attention, acceptance, appreciation, and affection, and since we’ve spent our life trying to earn these 4 A’s, it seems natural to project that on God and fall into the routine of trying to please him.
And we’re not the first to feel this pull toward path one. In fact, the apostle Paul goes to great lengths to help the early Christians from making the same mistake. Their past—living the religious life of a Jew—set them up to go running down path one.
In the early church Gentiles were forced to live like Jews in order to be acceptable to them. Behind this social crisis, however, a more fundamental theological issue was at stake: Was the truth of the gospel the basis for determining fellowship between Jewish and Gentile Christians, or was it the law?
Jewish Christians were taking salvation, which comes through faith in Jesus and what he did on the cross alone, and were adding to it other rules and regulations. In essence, they said that circum¬cision is needed along with Jesus for salvation.
Jesus + circumcision = salvation
Now we look at that and think that’s silly. You don’t have to be circumcised to be a Christian. But the reality is that almost every generation and every culture has been tempted to add something to that equation. For instance:
Jesus + being immersed in water = salvation
Jesus + doing Communion a certain way = salvation
Jesus + voting Republican (or Democrat) = salvation
Jesus + church membership = salvation
There are dozens and dozens of things that we’ve tried to force into that equation. And each time we do that, we are mixing law and grace—and becoming dangerously close to turning religion into an idol.
Paul went on to say that the Jews had a great system of rules but Jesus still needed to come to save them anyway. Obeying their rules and being good didn’t work. “For some of you your entire Christian life has been about…‘trying to be good'” (2:18 MSG). Pleasing God is a great longing, but it cannot be our primary motivation or it will imprison our hearts. When our motive is trusting God, our focus is then living out who God says I am. As a follower of Christ you have you have received a new heart. You have a new identity. You’ve already been changed and now you get to mature into who you already are.
Paul was saying that the central issue is not about a list of rules. We can’t achieve godliness through rule following, as we’re no match against sin. It’s not about working a little harder, doing a little more.
The central issue is what God is doing. What counts is the inward transformation that he alone can do in our hearts, which truly heals the wounds of our past and allows us to start living the life he created us to live.