The Idolatry of Religious Self-Improvement

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Sometimes I get such a heavy heart as I ache to share what God has done in my life, but the words either won’t come or seem trivial, or offensive, or theologically impertinent. How can I possibly tell you how much Jesus changed this performist’s heart? How can I possibly tell you how God turned my theological world upside down? How can I possibly share the shocking paradigm shift God showed me in the last 10-15 years? 

Like the apostle Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, God decimated me so that He could help me see that I wasn’t actually glorifying Him with my spiritual fervor. I was idolatrous of perfection and self-improvement. I was so mistaken to believe that my drive for spiritual self-improvement could make God more pleased with me. I completely misunderstood the life He wanted me to live for His glory. Like the apostle Paul, I thought I knew how I was supposed to prove my commitment to my God and King; I learned how to be a ‘good’ Christian growing up in Sunday School and in a Christian home.  It was all about achievement of a sinless life. It was all about having more self-control. It was all about beating my body into subjection, until I could become ‘just like Jesus.’ I zealously set out to prove myself with my righteous deeds. But in the end, those actions and those attitudes were born out of idolatry to become better, to sin less than others, to achieve more than others, to gain more favor from the Lord.

You see, seeking to become “just like Jesus” is the most offensive phrase to me today.  Because my whole problem began by believing I could become “just like Jesus.” How arrogant and impertinent is that!

It reminds me of two Scriptures: First, In Genesis 3:5, Satan comes to Eve and tempts her with the phrase, “when you eat of the tree, you will be LIKE GOD.” And in Isaiah 14:14, during Satan’s very famous boast, Satan says, “I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself LIKE the Most High.” Friends, there are a lot of Christians who would scoff at the arrogance of the devil, but in their hearts, still think they are pretty good Christians. They believe with all their religious piety, that their perceived righteousness has raised themselves to some level in which God takes note of THEM, “wow, look at how righteous they are!”

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Although I didn’t know it at the time, more than anything in the world, I wanted God to take notice of ME. I worked hard to earn His favor. Listen, I was already saved. I had already taken care of my eternal security many years before. This was about my idolatrous heart that wanted to become better and better so that I could rest in my perceived belief that God was somehow impressed with ME! I worked hard to acquire self-control. I set very high standards for myself and my family so that we didn’t accidentally fall short in some way. I read my Bible and attempted to implement all the “that shalts” and stayed far away from the “thou shalt nots.” I worked hard to perform in just the way I thought Jesus-followers should perform. But the problem was that I was trying to create a self-improved version of myself. The glory of my life was my achievements. God’s grace and His mercy meant very little to one who thought she was doing pretty good on her own. No, I didn’t worship myself. But I did want more than breath itself to become a better version of myself. And do you know what? As long as I applied a little extra self-control, I could manage to keep that old sinful nature at bay (I thought). I could pursue holy living. I could force myself to adhere to righteous behavior and righteous thinking. As long as I grit my teeth and worked hard enough at it, I felt like I was succeeding. 

But, I believe God, in His kindness, eviscerated me. You see, He knew that I would never feel like I was ‘enough’ as long as all I could see was my SELF and my performance. So, He gave me a devastating illness: DEPRESSION! Depression takes all your desire for life and improvement and satisfaction away. The most crushing thing it takes away is a person’s SELF control (a person’s ability to control what their SELF is feeling and is doing!)! You see, what was keeping me from realizing God’s sufficiency for my insufficiency was MY ability, up until that point, to SELF-CONTROL my life and my actions. I had worshipped becoming ‘better’ but missed the Savior Who had come to rescue me from a life of bondage, the bondage of trying to become as good as God, to earn God’s favor, to be favorited by God (you might even say). I thought that’s what Christians were supposed to do! I thought God would be proud of me for achieving religious improvement! But without realizing it, I had raised that standard of MY becoming ‘better’ above my Savior’s already provided perfection for my imperfect self. My glory was my religious zeal and fervor! It wasn’t in my gracious and merciful Savior, to my shame!

After Paul’s own evisceration on the road to Damascas, he realized his religious zeal was misplaced, too. The God he believed he was serving was actually unhappy with his actions, as religiously zealous as they were. God didn’t strike him down in His anger; He struck him down in His kindness because He had so much He wanted to show Paul about His gracious mercy and what God actually wanted for his life. 

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Don’t you find it ironic, that the religious zealot of Saul, became the apostle Paul that penned these words: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:24) Paul! He calls himself a ‘wretched man’ and he describes in agonizing detail his battle with his sin nature which, though he hated it, kept winning.  Yet, two verses later, he reminds us that there is “NO condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus!”

In my depression, I lived in the tortuous prison of “wretched man that I am.” There was no possibility of self righteousness. God saw to that, in His mercy. There was no possibility of self-improvement. There was no “take the bull by the horns and better your life by grit and determination” mantras. There was only defeat, disillusionment, despair, and disappointment! Is it any wonder, that when I discovered that I was in the most wretched of situations, that God’s mercy and grace for an imperfect life started to become really important me!? It was like I came to know the Lord all over again. I had learned Him to be a task master and a God of high expectations for me. But I came to know Him in my depression as a gentle shepherd, a loving Father, a tender friend, and a merciful Savior! During my 11-12 years in depression, I finally gave up all my attempts at perfection and at self-righteousness. I came to embrace the truth of my condition, that I was a totally depraved and needy sinner, in desperate daily of God’s mercy for my failures and His grace to even hold my head up some days. 

During God’s surgery on me, I learned to love basking in the tender affection of a Savior toward me, a saint who had NOTHING to offer Him but my brokenness. I had nothing left to show Him of my merit. While my view of mySELF decreased, my view of HIM increased. (“He must increase while I must decrease!” – John 3:30) The effect of unmerited favor powerfully drew me into His heart. I longed to be loved like that. I longed to lay down my burdens, battle worn and weary, and feel love like I never had before. It felt so unnatural to know I was loved so deeply when I felt so unworthy! I was so surprised to find such satisfaction in being loved without having earned it. 

The way God kept me alive I think, during such darkness of my heart, was to teach me to cling to Him and His righteousness in spite of my unworthiness! He taught me to fight the darkness with this truth: God passionately loves me in spite of the continued darkness of my heart. He passionately longs to show me how all the things that showed me how depraved and unworthy I was were already settled in the debt He already paid! There was nothing left He needed me to do to prove my worth to Him.  My worth was determined when Jesus died to take away the penalty for my sin (my ugly, depraved life). He made me a child of God, which gave me infinite unmerited affection from my loving Father. And until God eventually removed my depression in 2014, that unmerited affection for one who felt short of feeling ‘enough’ had to be enough for me. Chronic, miserable, devastating imperfection would have to be enough for me because of one redeeming truth: God loved ME as I was! Imperfect, sick, without the ability to act righteously, without the ability to think righteously, but redeemed, loved and cherished! What a treasure He was to me!

Many who hear my story think I am callously promoting lawlessness. It couldn’t be further from the truth. “God’s word says that man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks at the heart.” I love my Savior more than these pathetic words could ever express and I wouldn’t choose to hurt Him. If I could, I would remain sinless the rest of my life. But God didn’t make us sinless when He saved us; I suppose He could have. But if he had removed our sin natures, why would we need Him!? Why would we be so amazed by His grace and overwhelmed by His mercy when we failed? He left us with our sin natures so that we would sing of His amazing grace for our continued imperfection. He left us desperately needing Him. He left us longing for redemption from these miserable and yes, even sick, bodies. He left us craving His perfection for our imperfection. He left us here in our sinful world so that we would consider HIS GLORY more important and more precious to us than our own successes and perceived goodness.

7E07BD83-120D-4278-AA06-850BC78D1C3ADo you see it? Do you see how much God wants us to be amazed by HIM!? By HIS love? By HIS kindness? By HIS grace? By HIS mercy? Friends, this Christian life isn’t about OUR SELF IMPROVEMENT at all! Our job  in this life is to show forth the glory of HIS grace! Our job is to be daily amazed by His incredible perfection and glory and to shout it from the rooftops! 

When your desire to self-improve ultimately brings glory to YOU, you steal God’s glory! You elevate yourself to become ‘like God.’ So, while we should never seek after lawlessness, we should never, EVER, EVER stop being amazed by His incredible love and undeserved kindness! 

When you fail in this Christian life and sin (which you WILL do!!!!!!!!!), take heart because God’s love never fails. When you stop and think how kind God is to love a miserable wretch like you, you demonstrate your utter dependence on His daily grace bestowed upon you and you reiterate your desperate need for Him. When you are content to rejoice in your Savior’s glory and perfection in spite of your brokenness, you demonstrate, “You must increase, and I must decrease!” You demonstrate, “whom have in heaven but You!” You demonstrate, “Your mercies are new every morning.”

You see, while the Christian community to this day, is yelling from the rooftops, “become better versions of yourself!!!! It’ll make God happy!!!!” I’m cringing!!!!! For in my drive to become better, I took my eyes off Him and set it upon myself!  So, for me, (this is MY story), getting better, doing better, thinking better, behaving better were all seeds to my idolatry. ‘Getting better’ made me believe I could actually become better – this depraved, sinful soul. (The Bible says, “There is NONE righteous, NO NOT ONE!!!!”) I was disillusioned to believe that my sinful depraved heart could achieve a particular holiness that God would count as HOLY! God cannot call ‘righteous’ anything that is not 100% righteous!!!! And there is NO WAY for even Christians to be 100% righteous! The only reason He can be pleased with us at all is because of one thing: Jesus, His son, did everything to compensate for my sinful condition, and bring me into a right standing before Almighty God. He did this for me at salvation, but He does this every single day that I remain unrighteous. For anything that isn’t 100% righteous, God calls unrighteous! 

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So, when I sit in church and listen to a preacher pound the pulpit and tell me I need to do better, think better, make life changes, have more self control, make better life choices, and the list goes on, so I can make Almighty God ‘happy,’ my spirit revolts. When I read Christian pop stars self-improvement memes about making choices to just overcome difficulties and get busy improving your Christian life, I just scream! Because for me, those powerful self improvement messages sent me head long into the idolatry of self-worship. As righteous as those exhortations might sound to the Christian community, they tempt me to start wearing the crown again.  They tempt me to believe that I can achieve everything my heart desires. They tempt me to believe I am the author of my life and the captain of my ship. I’m not! God is the captain of my ship, and I pray that I will never steal the glory from Him again nor seek validation from Him for my righteousness that doesn’t first come from a systemic love for my Savior.

You see, His grace perfects me day by day, but not by my digging down deep and making choices to perfect myself. God, Himself, is sanctifying me because I love Him more than breath itself and He’s restored to me a right mind with which to respond to His promptings. Praise God! His Spirit working in tandem with my spirit longs to show Him my love, but yet, I choose to remember to wholly embrace the fact I’m still a wicked sinner. You can’t magnify the Lord for His incredible grace and kindness without first being intimately aware and disgusted by your own depravity and shortcomings. But it is that very depravity that should leave you running headlong on a straight path to the protection of His mercy and kindness. And there, my friends, God will have you right where He wants you, needing HIM. Glorifying HIM! Magnifying HIM! Thanking HIM! Praising HIM! 

Friends, there is nothing more freeing than learning to become wholly dependent of Him for His righteousness! NOTHING! No more striving! No more beating yourself up! No more self-flagellation! No more lying to yourself as you attempt to show the God of the universe your pathetic attempts at righteousness. No more trying to fool the world around you into thinking you are more righteous than you are! Just stop! You are seeking self-adoration. It may be religious thinking, but make no doubt about it, it is still sinful! It is quite  possibly even idolatry.

So, here’s my story: My sin was rooted in my drive for perfection, but my redemption was born out of my brokenness! That blessed brokenness, which was so painful to me for so many years, was what took my eyes off of myself, and placed it wholly and completely on the only One worthy of my affection, my LORD and Savior, Jesus Christ! And friends, that is Who should get the glory. Yes, that puts a lot of the emphasis on God and very little on you. That’s exactly where the emphasis should have always been, all along. God says, He is our ‘enough!’

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So, I will never cease to glorify my Savior. I will not (I can not) become enchained to this idea of self-improvement or self-achievement. My only glory will always be God’s amazing love for me and my undeserving life. And my life has never been happier. I have never felt more freedom. I have never felt as loved as I do today. I have never felt freer from the shame and condemnation of failure. 

I wonder how many Christians would benefit like I did to living with depression. How many of God’s people would consider HIS works on our behalf more amazing than their works on His behalf. Not because of their successes, but via the path of their failures. How many of His children might sit there reading this article on their phones and laptops and begin to bawl like I am now because they finally discovered what they were searching for all along, the relentless, passionate love of God, even in the face of their failures and in SPITE of their brokenness?! How I want this gift for you!!! Embrace His grace and mercy for your imperfect life!

As a final note, if God has allowed you the devastating illness of depression, could I offer you a possible suggestion? Might He want you to make MORE of HIM than you make of yourSELF!?????? He may not heal you but if you learn the love and mercy and grace of your amazing Savior, it might make the journey more bearable. It did for me. God’s grace and peace to all of you.

 

 

 

 

 

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