A friend was recently asked to write out her testimony, and she struggled. Not because she had no testimony, but because she believes that her story is the same as mine: she was raised a Christian, then her eyes were opened just a year or two ago to what the Gospel really means, and now she’s free to worship God. She weeps when she gives that brief account. I have a very similar story.
Raised in a Christian home, I knew, before I could walk, that Jesus is Lord and that He loves me. Baptized at twelve, attended Sunday School, all of that. My rough patch as a Christian was at age 15, when I watched my dad die a long, painful death in the hospital. Trying to recover from that as a teenager was—simply—horrid. However, I remember reading Job, learning from the pain, and coming out the other end of a long, dark tunnel to find joy in serving God.
For years afterward, I attended Bible studies, read the Christian books, listened to the sermons. They all told me (or at least I heard) how much harder I needed to try to be a better Christian. How horrible I felt every day, when I failed at being better! The message of “do more, try harder” pounded at me, weighed me down. No matter how much joy I felt at knowing that Jesus was risen, I carried a chain around my ankles that told me I was no good—a failure. I failed at being a wife, a mother, a teacher, a friend, a daughter.
All those self-help books, all those studies about being a better woman of God—I knew them all. And after reading them and nodding and smiling through the studies, I went home more beaten down than before. What a failure!
Sometime in 2009 I began to realize that this was not the way to live. I knew all the scripture, all the truth. I knew what Christ had done. Yet the weight of trying to be better, and the knowledge that I had failed, was choking me.
My good friend and I discovered we have the same stories. We discovered together that our struggle was not ours to own. We realized that we were right: we cannot be better. We simply could not become better on our own. We had picked up some form of religion that had told us we must “do more, try harder” to become super-Christians, when in fact that wasn’t our job. I cannot be better on my own strength. Why try?
The better, more clear, more real story is this: On my own, I am a sinner. I am a failure. Instead of handing myself over to God and asking him to make me new, I was trying to do it myself. Each new program that came along in church, I tried. Each time, I failed. All along, all I needed was the Gospel preached to me. I didn’t need to hear another programmatic message about the “Ten Secrets for a Better Marriage” or “How to Raise Happy, Healthy Christian Kids.” And there’s the victory: I am a failure. But God, in his overwhelming mercy, saved me. What I needed was to have the Gospel preached to me, over and over.
I needed to be reminded of Paul’s exhortation to Timothy:
I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5)
I needed the reminder that people will chase after other things, trying something better. What could be better than hearing the Gospel, in season and out? Why do we try to add to it or enhance it?
Since I realized my desperate need to hear the Gospel preached, I realized another truth, and my life has since been drastically different. I found that I had been no better than a Pharisee. I had been working to make myself better, to adhere to a law, not realizing that I had failed before I began. All the trappings of the “do more, try harder” methods had failed, but I kept looking for something else, while the Gospel was simply waiting for me to return to it. I found the truth in Galatians 2:15-21:
We are Jews by nature and not sinners from among the Gentiles; nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. But if, while seeking to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have also been found sinners, is Christ then a minister of sin? May it never be! For if I rebuild what I have once destroyed, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.
What I had not realized was that I had made Christ’s death unnecessary, because I was trying to justify myself.
When I felt like a failure, I was right. I cannot, on my own, make myself better. I cannot save myself on my own. Now I remind myself: it is God who makes me better. I am nothing without his grace. I was unclean, and Christ’s death cleansed me. I deserve hell, and Christ saved me. God could not look on my sinfulness, but Christ’s righteousness, laid over me, makes me whole and new. Now that I am saved, I can walk joyfully through my days. When I feel like a failure (and I still do—the world calls that “low self-esteem”), I admit that I failed, place myself at the foot of the cross, and ask Christ to make me whole, because I cannot do it on my own.
When I feel like a failure, I pick up my Bible and read the Gospel once again. I am reminded: It was Christ who saved me!
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Ephesians 2:1-10, emphasis mine)
I fall down. I fail. But God picks me up again. It is his design, his plan, and his work, not mine. I don’t need a program or self-help book to tell me. I need the Gospel. Over and over again.
(Thanks, MK!) 🙂