How My Religion Failed Me

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My religion said, “After I was saved, God would turn me into a “good girl.” He would help me if I tried hard enough to keep getting better. And so if I tried, and performed better and better each day, week, year, God would be pleased with me.” And as I grew up in my faith and began to check off the things my religion said I had to do, (things like reading my Bible, praying, going to church, serving him and all the others), I believed that the Holy Spirit working in me promised to make ME more righteous, emphasis on ME. 

When I experienced depression, there was no evidence of any righteousness left in me. So, I had some options as to what was happening to me. 1) Maybe I wasn’t saved; I refused to believe that. 2) I just wasn’t trying hard enough and maybe I needed to do more self-flagellation. 3) Maybe, I needed to feel more remorse and sorrow and force myself to repent more. 4) Maybe, I just wasn’t worthy of the Holy Spirit’s or God the Father’s time to make me better. 5) Or maybe—just maybe—the whole foundation of my spiritual journey was built upon MY righteousness, attempting to make God happier with me, rather than allowing God‘s righteousness through Jesus on my behalf to satisfy all His requirements for righteousness: perfectly sinless behavior. 

You see, when you pull that foundation stone of my religious self-betterment out from the bottom of the pile, the whole tower comes tumbling down. Why? Because the foundation of my spiritual journey was that God’s favor depended on MY righteousness, the things I did, and the things I thought.

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In my understanding, one needed to become more righteous as that was the only way God would be pleased. More importantly, in order to please God, righteous works were the absolute essentials in the whole ideological argument. Earning the pleasure of God always, always, always came from better behavior.

To my despair, I found my religion didn’t leave me any way in my depression to please God. And frankly, I could not believe that God—a good, loving God—would leave me in a place where I could not earn His pleasure.  No, don’t misunderstand me, as I’m not talking about earning my salvation. I’m not even talking about being God’s special prized possession. At this point, I just wanted to know that God wasn’t unhappy with me. 

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Yes, I felt like a worthless, pathetic Christian, but I was more afraid that God’s un-favor or wrath might rest on me? In my depression, I felt with every worthless thought,  every unhealthy behavior, and every angry outburst, the rest of my world tired of me. I frustrated them. I wasn’t the nicest person or the kindest person that they could have known before depression. I was an entirely different identity whom I believed didn’t deserve compassion nor mercy nor grace because I found myself so revolting, yes, even to me. 

It’s not a huge leap to go from how you believe others see you, and in fact tell you how tired they are of having you act this way, or even worse see you for what they can only believe is simply a bad behavior issue, to leap to the premise that God surely must feel the same way. I didn’t feel that I could please my husband when I was depressed, I didn’t feel like I could please my children, my church, or my friends. In fact, in self-preservation and self defense, my depression kept me from caring what everybody else thought of me. It was the only way to keep myself from drowning in self-hatred and keep my head above water. 

So, when I could, I began to re-evaluate everything that I had learned about God, and everything that I had believed about Him, through Sunday school teachers, through parents, through pastors, through friends, through Christian school teachers—I had a lot of teachers who all tried to help me learn how to live to please God. Everything  I had come to believe hinged on one’s self improvement. It dealt with works and goodness. In my depression, I was unable to do any of these good things because frankly depression steals away the will to control your life in any way.

And yet, though I despaired, part of me had the state of mind to think, “this can’t be. If this goodness was required to please God and so many illnesses allowed the brain to become ill and thus denied them goodness, I couldn’t believe that my God would be so unkind and unfair as to leave the mentally ill condemned with no hope of pleasing Him. I determined that somehow in my childhood, that I had inadvertently inserted some kind of faulty building block that had broken my religion: my Christianity. Evidently, I hadn’t learned about God in a healthy way. I had distorted God.

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In my Christianity, my pleasure to God always seemed to hinge on behavior. The more I felt like I was becoming “just like Jesus,” the more I felt God was up in heaven patting me on my head, and saying, “good Heidi- good Heidi.” To my despair, I hadn’t felt that “good Heidi” pat since my depression began. 

It was in that despair that I began to study the gospel, the good news, that my righteousness (and the whole world’s, in fact) was so wretchedly unrighteous, that Jesus came to die to pay the punishment for my unrighteousness and credited to me His own righteousness, in spite of anything I did after salvation. I studied living by “grace alone” instead of just being “saved by grace.” Instead of living as a believer with “grace a lot,” I began to believe God was calling me to live by “grace alone.” 

C2B7B30F-D0BF-4CF7-9D57-FC3DA5BEFE98So, after much thought and discussion with my husband, I ripped out that old faulty foundational stone which required my righteousness (my works, my obedience, and my good behavior) to please God. As long as it remained the primary requirement to please God, I was condemned and without hope.  

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Embracing grace, I admitted and accepted that I would never be righteous (“there is none righteous,  no not one.”) Embracing grace, I began to replace that unfortunate delusion with the fact the reason God sent His son was to make me right with God, because the world had been trying for years to become right with God by obeying the Law which couldn’t make anyone righteous. It only proved that nobody could obey the Law in full. Embracing grace, I realized that God sending his son to die for me, a pathetic worthless sinner, was the only way I could be right with God. Embracing grace, I was determined that that old self-righteous, pharisaical way of trying to become righteous through my works needed to be torn down and completely abolished. When I put the right foundational stone in place as the cornerstone of my life in Christ, Jesus’ righteousness,  it’s like my eyes were opened. 

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Every time I looked at my own behavior and the things I said and thought in my depression, and allowed them to condemn me and make me feel like God wasn’t happy with me, I corrected it with the gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that God’s pleasure no longer would be based on my behavior. When I was ugly, I remembered that God had credited me with the righteousness of His son, forever satisfying that condemnation that He might’ve felt for me before He saved me. I realized that when His Word said the work of Jesus on the cross removed His wrath toward me and removed my sins as far as the east is from the west, He was trying to tell me that Christianity should never be about MY works, but HIS. 

This whole paradigm change certainly didn’t make my depression go away and it didn’t necessarily make me feel emotionally better. But I chose to let it feed my mind (Romans 12:1-2) with the truth of the Gospel, renewing my mind with the reality of the mercy that God provided for us when our depravity caused us to live in a sinful condition, and with the reality of His grace which continues to offer us favor that we don’t deserve, because of His work 2000 years ago on the cross bestows on us these titles: friends of God, beloved, and children of God. 

You see, as a Christian, the very greatest insult, shame, accusation, and condemnation that you can give to somebody who’s depressed and experiencing self-hate, because of their depraved condition, is to tell them that the God that came to the rescue their souls, they could no longer please, love or serve. You are in effect telling them they are disqualified even though they had up until this point been trying to love and serve Him with all their strength.

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To tell them that God can’t see past their sick mental health state, that He is forever unhappy with them, and that God has no choice but to turn His back on them, is like a knife in their hearts. You see, for a believer especially, but even for one who is still lost, that is the greatest fear that they can have confirmed by you: That their “good and loving father” and possibly the only Friend that they feel they might have left in the world, is  not able to look past their depression and love and accept them. 

Knowing that this isn’t true still doesn’t cause the depression to go away, but it gives you something that might be worth living for. It offers you hope that though everybody else might turn their backs on you, He never will. When everybody else can’t look past what you say or what you do, and when the world tells you you’re unacceptable, God tells you, “you are accepted because I have accepted the sacrifice of my own Son.”

I don’t remember when I came to the conclusion that my distorted theology wasn’t working in my depression, and frankly, I don’t know how that faulty theology of works justification is supposed to work for anybody. All I know is somewhere in my depression I found peace and I found hope because I found that for everything that I was doing wrong over and over and over and over again (though God never said my deeds were righteous), He still saw me as righteous because He saw the sacrifice of His son which pardoned me forever.

I realize that it’s hard to understand this if life is going great for you; if you behave well as a Christian because you have such wonderful self-control and will power, oh, the peace you feel in your soul. To some of you, you probably believe that I even stopped trying to live like a Christian—that I stopped trying to love God. 

But, let me just posit this: there are far too many churches today, who teach works justification from the time a child enters Sunday School. Children are taught that if and when they love Jesus, their behavior will improve; just like a vending machine: in goes good works, out comes righteousness. If it doesn’t, it’s their own fault.

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What is one of the many reasons that so many depressed Christians are taking their life? Why isn’t their faith and their walk enough to keep them wanting to live? One of the many reasons is because their religion told them that Christians don’t get depressed, they don’t act this way, and that there is no grace for misbehavior. It failed to teach that everyone falls short of God’s perfect righteousness, not just the depressed. It failed to teach them to build their foundation on the God Who has already taken care of their “sin issue,” evidenced daily by their behavior issue. It failed to teach them that the wrath and judgement of God have been appeased. It failed to tell them that God made a way through the cross of Jesus Christ to count them as righteous, as if they were righteous (even though none of us are). It failed to teach them that their ONLY hope IS in the overwhelming, undeserved love of God, mercy of God, and grace of God.

We need to understand that God, whose thoughts are so much higher than our thoughts, understands that we, the depressed have a sickness and that our mind doesn’t always work the way we want it to work, and more than anything we might want to sort it out and figure out, “when does God judge my action as sin or symptom?” 

The answer might surprise you. We sin every day. We have very few moments during the day when we aren’t having a prideful thought or a testy attitude or whatever. If we could be found righteous in our works, then, by golly, we wouldn’t need the cross of Christ, would we? But whether we sin big or sin little, we need Jesus Christ’s righteousness placed on us so that God doesn’t have to look at our actions or thoughts or behavior or our good works to make a decision about us, because He has already declared us forgiven for those things, past, present, and future.

You see, when I finally realized that I couldn’t control the thoughts or the behavior in my depression, I embraced a new pattern of thinking that could hold me up every day of my depressed life, whether actively depressed or not. I repaired my grace-less theology and learned to embrace “grace alone” which caused me to look to God’s grace, kindness, mercy and favor earned for me being showered down upon me. Together with that, I learned to reject everything that told me that I owed God for any of His favor, because frankly, if I thought I owed Him even one thing, I would despise myself for not being to give Him the one thing He might have asked of me. 

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My new pattern of thinking rejected good works that were necessary to please God. “No, that’s not right,” you might say.  “God’s Word specifically says that ‘without faith it is impossible to please God’” (Hebrews 11:6). Well, I would have to ask you, “if you were beat down, every day, and every minute of the day like I was, could you hold on to a faith that believed that the cross of Jesus was enough to declare you righteous? Could you believe that Jesus’ righteousness credited to you was enough to give you peace with God and justify you when you couldn’t do anything on your own to earn that? Could you believe that even in your deprave state, that God called you His beloved and His friend. How much faith do you think it takes to hold on to a God-alone, God-powerful, God-sufficient, and God-controlled life? Let me tell you: it takes a LOT of faith! I was recently reminded that sometimes all the faith that is necessary is only as big as a mustard seed. Think about that.

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So I have basically just put this out there for the world to read so that you could ask yourself some hard questions, especially if you have friends and loved ones who are depressed and are looking to you to support them. As for you who are content with your religious upbringing, because you have pretty strong self control, and you think you’re  pretty good already, and you’re pretty proud of yourself, and you think that God is more pleased with you than He is with me, I weep for you. Why? Because one day, most likely, something will happen and you will not be the saint that you have believed you were and that will make you question the love and kindness and mercy and grace of God. Because your hope has been grounded and fulfilled in your improving behavior all these years rather than in a gracious and merciful God. But take comfort even in this, even when your pride fills your heart and you truly believe you’re doing pretty good in God’s economy, He still loves you the same. Your self-righteousness which is something God has always despised is forgiven, too, and He returns to you the same unmerited and unearned favor, as well. 

Here’s a fact, nothing I do will ever be counted as righteous. There just isn’t any good works that are perfectly sinless and 100% righteous (sorry to burst your bubble). Obviously, bad works are always bad. But it isn’t the things I do for God that earn me God’s pleasure. He is never pleased with my half-baked, partial righteousness. My partial righteousnesses will never meet the standard that actually pleases God—the things I do for God, my works, the thoughts that I have tried to bring under control, my acts of service, are all acts of love. They do not earn me anything. 

God says that man looks on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart. And the  commandment that He Himself says is most important to Him is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength. There is a point when you realize that as much as you want to do the things that show your love to God, (your intentions and your desires), you will never be able to do as much as you want to do or that would be required of you to earn a righteous standing. You will not ever be able to be completely righteous nor completely committed.

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So aren’t you glad (I know I am), that God is pleased with those who believe in Him, trusting that that He knows the intentions and desires of our hearts? Aren’t you glad that He said that the cross has set us free from the curse of sin and the Law (our guilt), and that we have been reconciled to God forever? Aren’t you glad that your righteousness/unrighteousness has been overwritten by His perfect righteousness? Aren’t you glad that no matter how bad you feel you are, how many times you have failed, and how much you feel your life disappoints the God of the universe, His righteousness has made you perfect in His eyes! Aren’t you glad that the good news of the gospel is that He sees you now as flawless? Boy! I sure am! 

Flawless by MercyMe

Pleasing God: A Paradigm Shift (Part 4)

This is Part 4 of a series of posts. Please scroll back  and read part 1, before continuing on here.

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SO THIS IS OUR Paradigm Shift: What pleases God?

2 Corinthians 5:9 (NAS): “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.”

Hebrews 11:6 (NAS): “And without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.”

Well, I guess we all need to decide what God is calling us to do to please Him? Do you really think He wants us to live perfect lives? (Which by the way, was Jesus’ job: to live a sinless life for us and die for us, redeeming us from the curse of the law which demands obedience to ALL God’s laws?) Or does it please Him more to be utterly honest with Him in our imperfection and choose to BELIEVE that He did what we couldn’t do so we wouldn’t have to? He died to redeem us from the CURSE of having to obey the law. 

Is it possible that God is pleased with us when we are quick to let him show us mercy for our imperfection? Don’t you think it pleases Him more to have his children live by the very grace He died to give us? Not embracing the sin He hates, but embracing the God who saved us from having to live under the guilt and shame and bondage of an impossible drive to meet an impossible ideal: Complete and perfect righteousness.

Does our freedom In Christ please God?

Galatians 5:1 says “It was for freedom that Christ set us free! Therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject to a yoke of slavery.” 

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Do you know what that yoke of slavery was that Paul was talking about? The law! The good and perfect Law, that God Himself gave as a stopgap to His people! Following a bunch of impossible, albeit, seemingly good behavioral rules.

Do you know who the Pharisees were in the New Testament? 

They were the “good Jews” of the day who asked themselves, “hmm, what would please God best?” And, what they determined was that God would be MOST pleased by their behavior. So they created long lists of rules to obey and thereby prove to God their righteousness. However, Jesus said they disgusted Him. Because their perceived righteousness was tied to their deeds instead of being birthed from a love in their heart towards God. 

“And He said to [the Pharisees], ‘You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God.’” (Luke 16:15 NAS)

God says that you push away His grace by trying to live up to some impossible righteous standard. 

“For if you are trying to make yourselves right with God by keeping the law, you have been cut off from Christ! You have fallen away from God’s grace.” (Galatians 5:4 NAS)

So, are all the commands in Scripture, even the original Law of God bad?

Of course not! Our Bible is not a bad book full of ridiculous commands.  They are God’s words and are truly good.

 “But still, the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good.” (Romans 7:12)

In Romans 7, Paul asks the same question: “So, is the law bad?” The answer is No! The commands are good. But trying to live up to satisfying ALL the commands is bad because that’s not what its purpose was. Its purpose was to show us how powerless we were to live up to the perfection of God! That was its purpose! To prove our imperfection to us. If you feel imperfect in living up to all its commands, then the Law has fulfilled its purpose! Trying to or expecting to perfect ourselves for the purpose of pleasing God is enslaving and leads us back to the very slavery that Jesus died to save us from.

Romans 10:3-4 says “For they (Israel) didn’t understand God’s way of making people right with Himself. Refusing to accept God’s way, they clung to their own way of getting right with God by trying to keep the Law. but Christ has already accomplished the purpose for which the Law was given. As a result, all who BELIEVE IN HIM ARE MADE RIGHT WITH HIM.”

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Now, let me ask you, if trying to achieve this idealistic perfection in our Christian life is both wearying and enslaving and is in fact impossible, doesn’t it make sense that God probably doesn’t wish for us to allow any other impossible idealistic goals in life to enslave us either?

So, now we’ve come full circle. 

Why do we NOT feel “enough?”  Because we have not learned to be content with who we are, where God has placed us, and the circumstances God has put in our life. Where we are right now will never be enough as long as we keep chasing the impossible ideal. In fact, that very ideal may not even be God’s particular will for us, so then we’re stuck in this place where we are actually fighting God for the life WE want instead of the life HE wants for us. And spiritually, WE will NEVER feel enough as long as we are reaching for an ideal that isn’t grounded in Jesus’ finished work for us. The only One in History who WAS enough was Jesus. The only One who can make us feel “enough” is Jesus! The only way we can feel enough is if we are content with Jesus’ perfection on our behalf.

Why are we holding onto impossible idealistic expectations in life and our self-fulfilling attempts to become righteous?

So, if God’s loving desire for us is freedom from self-reliance and self-fulfilling ideals that are impossible to achieve anyway, why are we holding onto them with such a death grip?  in the same way, if His desire for us isn’t as much a perfect life as it is a life that is completely God-reliant on his mercy and grace, totaling believing Him when His Word says we are already completely accepted and intimately loved, why are we turning our backs on the open door to His grace and mercy, with our own attempts at self-righteousness? Why are we trying to fulfill with pride some impossible perfection? Why don’t we enter through our authentic and humble confession (a contrite heart) that we ARE imperfect and we know it, to find the very grace and mercy of the One Who already loves and accepts us without all that striving after the wind?

I am going to try to give you an illustration that helps you come to grips with the beauty of this paradigm change for anybody. 

Leaning into our imperfection leans us into God

whose desire is to show us mercy!

I’m going to try to show you a series of charts. Try to follow them to their logical conclusions with me. We’re going to start with this:

We are indeed imperfect, sinners, failures at times, messy-life people who haven’t achieved all they originally desired they could with their lives! Our first question is which way are we going to lean when we become painfully aware of our own imperfection?

We have have two choices: 1) we can either lean into self-perfection (orange side) or 2) we can lean into our imperfections (blue side) that makes us feel like such failures? Which way would you lean?

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1) When we lean into our self-pursuing, self-achieving, self-reliant self-perfection, our goal we justify is only that we are simply trying to do the right thing and do the best we can. We will usually choose this method because we truly believe this is right. Our unfortunate deception is that “good behavior makes US good.” (orange side)

2) On the other hand, rather than denying our inability to perfect ourselves, we could agree with God and just come out admit that we surely aren’t perfect! Does our acknowledgement of our imperfection agree with God’s assessment of us? Doesn’t God even say that our righteousnesses are like filthy rags! He knows we’re imperfect. So, we agree with the apostle Paul in Romans 7:18 “For I know that nothing good dwells in my, that is in my flesh!” (Blue side)

1) But if we still  futilely attempt to achieve all our dreams and our self righteousness, too, with every failure, we decide we need to try even harder. We believe that God will be pleased if we try harder to become “better.” We believe that His commands are what God’s actual expectations of me are (fully obedient, every one, absolute perfection). We reason if it’s in the Bible, God expects us to achieve them on our own. We believe, “we can make God happy in us if we can only make ourselves better!” (Orange side)

2) But when we lean into our imperfection, we freely acknowledge our own neediness and our imperfection. We long for justification. We discover in His word that when we accepted Christ as our Savior, God justified us long ago. We long for acceptance. We discover that God’s acceptance of us was won by Jesus on the cross. Unable to take any comfort in our OWN successes, we long for someone to redeem us and for lives which even we, at times, can hardly stand to look at. We long for Someone to make us feel complete, rather than this feeling of failure hanging over our heads. There is a hole in our heart, a longing, that is dying to be filled. (Blue side)

1) Still striving to the right (to achieve all your own perfection), on the off chance that we are somewhat successful in our goals and in our ability to impress a God with our obedience, who are we really MOST proud of? US!!! Self-fulfillment! Self-satisfaction! PRIDE! We feel pretty good about ourselves so we believe God must be pretty proud of ME right now, too! If I succeed, if I win, if I achieve all my goals? “Look at me! Look at my self-control! Woo-hoo! Yay, ME! We are so proud of ourselves that we bring our impressive acts of righteousness and success to God! (Orange side)

2) But for those who are still willing to continue to lean into their imperfection, we recognize our great neediness. We acknowledge our great need of a Rescuer and someone to love us in spite of all the ugliness we feel. Out of desperation, we cry out to God in our brokenness, in our messiness, in our ashes, in our imperfection, and in our depravity (our sinful condition). In our desperation, we find the courage to show Him our brokenness. We find safety in that humble admission. We choose to be authentically honest. We choose to embrace a humble and contrite heart. By now, we acknowledge how far from perfection we have fallen. Groaning out to the spirit of God, we affirm, “I don’t want to live this way!” (Blue side)

1) For all the self-reliant, self-achievers, if you even succeeded in deed, you likely failed in spirit, because you attempted to achieve it through self-righteousness. You probably only succeeded because of your own stubborn will power. Unfortunately, it is highly probable that God may not even have been in that success. Although you may have obeyed the rules as you understood them, you likely felt pretty good about ourselves doing things yourselves (self-reliance = pride). Pride is sinful, by the way! The glory of the Lord was diminished because He was cheated of getting the glory! Unfortunately, in your futile attempts to please God, the irony is that you denied God from being the Hero of your story! You just made yourselves your own self-proclaimed heroes.

But what happens if you fail in those struggles and attempts to win, to succeed, to self-rely, to beat your bodies into perfect righteousness? What happens when you don’t succeed? You’ll beat yourselves up again! “I’m imperfect! I’m a failure! I can’t achieve anything good! My life is a mess!” And the cycle of getting beat down over and over again begins all over.

In this paradigm, the harder you try to improve, the more you fail. And the more you fail, the more unacceptable you feel because you’ll only see YOUR efforts and YOUR achievements. Because it depends on your own efforts, you will determine that you don’t deserve to feel acceptable. Because you’ll let people down (couldn’t make others happy), you’ll feel unloved. You’ll condemn yourselves because of failed expectations (you expected more of yourselves). You’ll feel judged because you’ll have fallen short of the perfection mark (the standard). You’ll feel like a failure because you’ll never arrive at a perfect mark all the time. You’ll feel unloved because you won’t feel acceptable because of your failed behavior which was supposed to earn your love and acceptance. In this paradigm, demonstrated by your banging your head up against the wall over and over again, you believe you really can and could have arrived at that perfect mark given a little more effort and more will power. (Orange side)

2) But what if you had humbly leaned into your imperfection from the beginning (I know, it’s counterintuitive)! God would have seen your hearts in perfect agreement with His! You wouldn’t have denied His holiness! You would have agreed that His holiness was so far above you, that your actions were nothing but filthy rags in comparison. You wouldn’t have  denied your imperfection. You would have freely confessed that you had fallen short of His perfect standard. Both you and God agree that it’s not what either of you had intended or desired. But as a response to your humble and contrite heart, He’ll pour out His mercy and grace on you! God will be pleased because you demonstrated your great need of Him to complete you! The cross covered your sin! Jesus’ righteousness was put onto you! And finally, God did what glorifies God most. He demonstrated His own character by giving you His mercy and grace!

What happens in this scenario is that when you make mistakes and don’t succeed, you’ll just keep leaning into His grace to sanctify you from within and remember with confidence that your acceptance is complete and your sins forgiven. You don’t lose your footing because it already aligns with where you truly are. You need Jesus! I need Jesus. His grace and mercy are always available to both you and me.

Psalm 51:16–17 (NAS): “For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise.”

Let me ask you again: We have have two choices: 1) we can either lean into self-perfection (orange side) or 2) we can lean into our imperfections and our need for God (blue side)? Which way would you lean? One way causes us to need God more! The other way causes us to need God less! One way causes us to crave the grace of God—it means everything to us! We can’t live without it or the God who freely gives it! The other way grace is cheapened! We don’t need it. We can do it by ourselves! Which side do you think pleases God more?

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A heart that is humble and contrite towards God, sorrowful at anything they do that doesn’t reflect His character (all their imperfections and all their failures), is a heart that leans into the heart of God Himself. The fruit of such a heart will naturally yearn to please Him which will more often and likely affect their future actions.

If you are faced with a child who adamantly refuses a parent’s help and grudgingly insists on doing things himself and his way (“I’ll do it myself”) as opposed to observing a  child who acknowledges his bad behavior and says, “I’m sorry, mommy!” Which child is more likely to do the right thing the next time? The child who is genuinely sorry and acknowledges his imperfection to his parents because it’s a natural outpouring of his tender heart.  

Similarly, a child of God who leans into God by leaning into their imperfections in this paradigm will yearn for the heart of God, will be more likely to align himself with the behavior that reflects God’s heart, and the sanctifying work of God HIMSELF through the work of His Holy Spirit will produce fruits that are more reflective of the character of God. 

Galatians 5:22-23 “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

But not thru human effort. Thru God’s work in us. Our job is to lean into Him via our great need. His job is to perfect us from the inside out, in His grace and in His timing! 

Philippians 1:6 “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”

(To be continued)

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.