When I was younger I thought that if I didn’t take communion one week and then I died, I might not go to heaven. Good grief, what would younger me think of older me with food sensitivities who only took half-communion for a year… that I was only half-saved? I’m not exactly sure of the ‘logic’ but maybe I thought that the further away from my communion with God, the more unforgivable and full of sin I became. I cringe at the ways I create to make life more difficult. Even after I realized the communion thing was a false belief, I still thought that if I sinned and died before I repented of that sin, I wouldn’t go to heaven. I’ve heard this exact statement from friends even today and I want to scream, “Please let me introduce you to my loving Jesus!” But I have to put myself in check, remembering that I am a recovering perfectionist who has lived in fear and works-based salvation for most of my life. No one could have changed my mind back then so I know my words won’t convince my dear ones, but perhaps they will at least plant a seed that I pray God will grow into greater understanding of His unconditional love and the gift of grace.
Grace is not emphasized enough in our lives and teaching. As a result, so many of us grow up in fear and burn ourselves out from striving to be perfect. Did you know that when you asked Jesus into your heart, God started seeing Jesus when He looks at you? I honestly didn’t know that until a couple years ago, and it took me even longer to accept and believe it. This journey toward grace takes some serious unlearning of what we have always believed to be true but, I promise you, it is worth it. Jesus has already taken the punishment for our sins. We don’t have to live in fear anymore. We are free. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2). Hallelujah! Why do we live as if this were not true? Why do we live as though Jesus never died for us and we have to save ourselves over and over again? Aren’t you exhausted? I am!
So let’s crawl our exhausted selves right up into God’s lap and let Him tell us the truth about grace. Grace is “the free and unmerited favor of God.” Look at that. Grace is free! We don’t have to pay for it because Jesus already did. We don’t have to keep working to try and earn it. Please hear me. WE CAN’T EARN SOMETHING WE ALREADY HAVE. And grace is unmerited or, undeserved. I think this was my biggest hangup. I knew I didn’t deserve grace so I had trouble accepting it. But, God knows it’s undeserved, and He gives it anyway. If we deserved it, it wouldn’t be a gift. It would mean that we could work for our own salvation and forgiveness when God clearly says that we are saved by faith, not works. Grace means freedom from a works-based life, freedom from striving, freedom from perfectionism, and even freedom from the fear of imperfection. How often have we heard that we are saved by grace through faith, not by works? Why don’t we believe it? I think Satan has a field-day with our fears. He is the accuser and knows that if he can get us to believe that Jesus’ gift was not enough to save our terrible selves, we will be stripped of all peace and joy, and our striving will hinder our ministry and make us much less fruitful. Stomping on Satan’s lies over and over again (because he is super-persistent) is life-giving work; life-freeing for ourselves and life-saving for those we are supposed to point toward freedom in Christ. We can’t be used by God to free others when we aren’t living free ourselves. We need to ask God to help us throw off those chains! He’s already broken them but, for whatever reason, we won’t let them go. He wants so badly for us to let go!
Sometimes it’s difficult to see that the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament because He seemed so punishing and severe back then. But we have to remember that at the end of Old Testament times, He sent His Son to take care of all the punishment for good… for ALWAYS. Not just until the next time we sin. I pray this most precious truth sinks down deep into our beings. We can never work hard enough to earn forgiveness. It’s a lost and hopeless cause. But, because God already did the work for us and forgave us, we can have hope. I’ve been wanting to talk about grace for awhile now but I couldn’t find the words and then we talked about it in our small group this week and this beautiful passage came up in my reading today:
“‘So there is hope for your future,’ declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:17)
“‘You disciplined me like an unruly calf, and I have been disciplined. Restore me and I will return, because you are the Lord my God. After I strayed, I repented; after I came to understand, I beat my breast. I was ashamed and humiliated because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
‘Is not Ephraim my dear son, the child in whom I delight? Though I often speak against him, I still remember him. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I have great compassion for him,’ declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 31:18-20).
Even here we see God in the Old Testament, showing His character of grace and the love of a parent. His people were unbelievably rebellious (kind of like us). They turned away from Him and toward idols. They didn’t understand His love. But look at what God says about them. I could just weep. He calls them dear. He yearns for them. He delights in them! He DELIGHTS in His rebellious, straying children. His grace melts my heart. When God’s people realized what they had done and how they had strayed, like so many of us, they groveled in shame and humiliation. I was the queen of this kind of torturing, self-flagellating remorse for many years. I beat myself up in shame even though I knew Jesus had already died for me. I was ashamed that He paid the ultimate sacrifice so I thought if I beat myself up, maybe I could have some of the punishment that I deserved and He wouldn’t have to take so much. But the truth is, He already took it. It’s already done. Nothing I could ever do could somehow make the best thing that ever happened to the world any better. I can’t take away His suffering and give it to myself, so I must learn to accept it. I must pray every single day that God helps me accept it. No matter how often I stray from Him, God still delights in me and holds me dear. He restores me over and over again.
I was angry at God for a long time. I hid that fact even from myself for awhile because I didn’t think I should be angry at Him. After awhile, I just had to allow the fire-hot honesty flow out of me. I can hardly stand to recall the picture of myself screaming terrible things at God, even that I hated Him. I accused Him of hurting me and taking pleasure in hurting me. I recoil at the memory, but that picture is an important part of my story. I was living in such darkness that I could not see the real picture. I was relying on my own understanding of God and He wanted to show me His understanding. I’ve fallen to my knees in repentance and acceptance of his mind-blowing grace each time the real picture becomes just a little bit more clear. The true picture is God’s extremely broken child, reeling in pain and hurt, trying to escape her Father’s comforting arms, lashing out at Him for not making it better… all the while being held by Him who, despite the blows and cutting words, still held her dear. Despite what she thought, He was not saying, “you’re getting what you deserve” or “I don’t care that you’re suffering”, but simply, “I know, beloved. I know. I’m here.” He so desperately longs for me to understand that He already ‘made it better’. He made it best. I just can’t see it yet.
He’s a God of unbelievable grace… but oh, how He longs for us to believe it. I suppose that just as addicts are always recovering addicts, I will always be a recovering perfectionist; a recovering striver, constantly learning the freedom that comes from resting in the grace of God. I see and feel this so deeply in my own life and pray it for yours: “So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). I know I can’t convince you but, once you feel the peace and joy that comes with that freedom, your heart will absolutely leap to share it with others. For that reason I pray fervently for all of you who still live in fear and striving. I pray that you ask God to tell you the truth about His grace and that you allow that truth to saturate you, to fill you to the point that there is no room for works-based and fear-based lies anymore. And if you’re like me and you don’t even want to ask God to show you the truth about grace because you don’t think you deserve it, there is no shame in asking Him to help you want to ask! My mouth almost hurt the first time I finally eked out that prayer, but God hears even our most hesitant prayers. The next time you pray, your mouth may form the words a little better. Then you may be able to ask louder and with more confidence. And once God gives you the desire, then you can ask Him to tell you the truth. And then you can ask Him to help you let the truth sink in. Once His truth finally sinks down into your heart, you will feel the blessed freedom that comes with God’s gift of grace. I will never stop praying this for us, God’s dear ones!