By Elizabeth Sunshine
I could have been an awesome Pharisee. At least, I could if I were a first-century male Jew. I’m very detail-oriented, have a passionate desire to do the right thing and really like rules that tell me exactly what I should be doing. Of course, I am not a first-century Pharisee but a 21st century Christian, and so my tendency to view everything in terms of rules and responsibility poses problems for me. But the struggle against this tendency has taught me great things about God’s grace and what it means to live for Christ.
Grace at Work
I gave my life to Christ at least six times before I was fourteen. I was fortunate to grow up in a committed Christian family and a strong church where I heard the gospel. Or at least, I thought I did. I knew having a right relationship with God was the most important thing in life and it should change how I lived. But it didn’t. Time and time again I found myself snapping at my parents, fighting with my brother, and failing to speak up or share the gospel with my classmates. Since my life wasn’t visibly being changed, I concluded that my previous commitments hadn’t been good enough, and so I set out to try again.
After years of frustration I finally came to a point of complete helplessness. I was tired of trying to serve God and failing. At a summer camp reunion I prayed, “God, if you want me to change, you’re going to have to do it.” That night I felt the Holy Spirit rushing in and assuring me he would. And after that I did see my life changing. I suddenly desired to read my Bible and pray as much as possible. The reoccurring sins that had so bothered me before didn’t disappear immediately, but I slowly but surely began to do the right thing more often.
Until that night, I had misunderstood the gospel. If you’d asked me to explain what I believed I’d have said something like, “Jesus died for my sins, so when I ask God to forgive me, he will. That means my record is wiped clean, so out of gratitude for what Christ did, I should live a good life.” The problem with this view of the gospel is that it leaves the process of growing in holiness and becoming more like Christ entirely up to me. And I can’t do it. I can’t change myself into a saint any more than I can change myself into a cat.
But the promise of the gospel goes deeper than merely giving us a blank slate. Christ sends the Holy Spirit to dwell within us and give us power to resist temptation and to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. We are not on our own.
In recent years, I’ve discovered that throughout the Bible, God calls us to rely on his power for strength to love and obey him. The night before he was crucified, Jesus told his disciples, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine, and you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:4-5)1. Fruit in the Bible can refer to many things, but here it is shorthand for having a Christ-like character and acting in ways consistent with that. But this is not something we must strive for alone; rather, we gain it by abiding in Christ. Just as plants grow fruit effortlessly, without needing to work for it, when God’s power acts in us, we naturally begin to live holy lives.
This theme doesn’t begin in the New Testament. Even Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, which spends 176 verses praising the Law of God, does not present obedience to this law as something we accomplish on our own. While the Psalmist vows repeatedly to keep the Law, he also calls on God to “teach me the way of your statutes” (v. 33), to “give me understanding” (v. 34), to “lead me” (v. 35) and to “incline my heart to your testimonies” (v. 36). In other words, this Old Testament poet looked to the grace God provides to enable him to keep the Law.
In other words, the process of becoming more like Christ is a result of grace, a free gift of God, just like forgiveness. Jesus tells us how we should live, but these commands are not demands that we must live in fear of failing to meet. Obedience is an expression of love and gratitude to Christ, and it is an effect of his grace, not just our effort. When we succeed there is no reason to boast because we succeeded only through God’s power. When we fail there is no reason to despair because the Holy Spirit will remain with us and continue transforming us.
This does not mean that once we are saved our actions don’t matter. The Holy Spirit lives within all true believers, and he gives them a love for Christ and a desire to obey him. If you don’t desire to follow Christ, or if that desire doesn’t affect your actions, you should question whether you have truly received God’s grace. But if you do genuinely seek Christ, even if you sometimes fail him, then rejoice and give thanks to God because that proves he has truly saved you. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:10, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.”
Everything is Service
Like many new Christians, there was a time when all I wanted to do was religious activities. It’s easy to see prayer, reading your Bible, and participating in church ministries as part of your commitment to God. But other things like cleaning your house, talking with your friend or going to work did not seem to have anything to do with God. Worse yet, they seemed like distractions from truly serving God. But in fact, everything you do can be an expression of love for Christ as you walk with him.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). God made this world good, and everything in this world, when rightly used, can display his goodness. We eat to God’s glory by giving thanks to him for the food and acknowledging that we live not by bread alone but by every word that comes from his mouth.
We also glorify God by loving other people. A scribe once asked Jesus what the greatest commandment was. Jesus replied with not one but two commandments: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself (Mark 12:28-31). Jesus grouped these commandments together because one of the best ways we show love for God is to love human beings who are created in his image.
One implication of this is that a Christian need not become a pastor or missionary to serve God. It’s true that Christians should devote their lives to serving God and that becoming a pastor or missionary is a great way to do that. But any profession that doesn’t involve sin can be done to the glory of God if you focus on serving God and your neighbor through it. If you are a scientist, serve God by discovering the wonder of the world he created. If you work in manufacturing, serve God by creating quality items that will improve your customer’s lives. If you are a manager, serve God by loving the employees he has placed under you. If you are a teacher, serve God by helping your students learn what they need to know to live fulfilling lives, to understand God’s word and/or to serve God themselves.
I once asked a man at my church what he did for a living. He replied, “I help people by giving them advice about what kind of insurance to buy.” He could have said, “I sell insurance,” but instead he described his work in a way that emphasized service. Thinking of your job as serving people can have a profound effect on the way you work. A salesman who considers it his job to help people find the insurance policy that is best for them will focus on the customer and their needs, even if it means selling a less expensive plan. A teacher who is focused on helping her students learn will work harder and be more patient than one who just wants to make it through the day.
These insights have freed me from the burden of trying to make myself holy and of setting up requirements that God has not placed upon me, like focusing on religious activities and neglecting everything else. I still struggle with my Pharisaic tendencies, but I am learning to trust God for sanctification as I do for salvation. I have seen the Holy Spirit work through me in powerful ways, often when I least expected it. I am also learning to see everything I do as an act of love for God and for my neighbors rather than just going through the motions or acting out of self-interest. I hope God will give you the grace to do the same.
1All Bible quotations are from the ESV.