The past couple of weeks have been very challenging for me.
Faith-wise, I went from a place where everything was going pretty well—where I was deep in God and His work, sharing what I knew with fellow believers—to a place of apathy and pointlessness, where it looked as though nothing I tried to do turned out right.
Ironically, what I struggled with the most in this period was not sin or even doubt (though those were present also).
What I struggled with the most was Grace.
It seems weird that a Christian should struggle with something like this. Who struggles with accepting a freely-given gift? It sounds silly. Maybe that’s why it took me a long time to realize it.
It took me even longer to realize why.
Before I met God, I built my entire self-image around being an exceptional achiever. It was never enough for me to be a good student; I had to be a great one. I couldn’t just be an artist; I had to be a prodigy. Be just another boyfriend? Excuse you, ma’am. I had to be the best and most supportive boyfriend you could ever imagine.
I only felt worthy when I achieved something. I never felt comfortable with things given to me for free (except it was from my parents, cos yeah, I didn’t ask to be born, so suck it and pay up Mom). Whenever I achieved something by chance or “luck”, I would reconstruct the story in my mind to emphasize the small efforts I made—so that at least I could tell myself I’d “earned it”.
If it sounds like an unhealthy way to live…yeah, it was. But I couldn’t see it at the time.
When I came to Christ, I brought this mentality with me. I knew my salvation was by grace and not by works and all that, but in the back of my mind I decided that once I was here I was going to be the best darned Christian God ever saw. I may have been saved without works, but I was going to make this Christianity thing work. I would be the most committed, most serious, most dedicated child of God.
I knew I couldn’t secure my salvation by my works, but darned if I wasn’t going to impress God with them.
I think this is why so many new Christians I know are so focused on working for God as opposed to just getting to know Him.
Don’t get me wrong; working for the Lord is great, and is in fact our duty as Children of the King.
However, a lot of us grew up in environments that tied our sense of worth to our performance, and so when we come to God we naturally assume we have to “do things” to keep Him pleased with us.
That’s certainly what I thought.
But the Christian life turned out not to be as easy as that. One of my friends has a saying: “Christianity is not natural.” Therefore any natural attempts to be “good at it” inevitably fail. You can never build a consistent prayer life through discipline alone. It won’t work. The same with studying the Word. Or breaking sinful habits. Or acting in faith.
The more I tried to perform as a Christian, the more frustrated I found myself. This is what happened to me a couple of weeks ago.
The more I tried to be a perfect Christian the more I failed.
Which, ironically, was what taught me to accept grace.
Because the principle of grace puts a wrecking ball to the performance paradigm. If our salvation is given to us freely, then we can’t sustain it by our own efforts. Neither can we impress the Father by effort, because there is nothing we do that He does not enable us to do. Even our desire to do good comes from Him (Phil 2:13), so how can we boast?
Trying to impress God with the work we do for Him is like taking a loan from a rich uncle and then trying to impress him with the car you bought with his own money.
It doesn’t make sense, does it?
Grace doesn’t ask us to impress the Father. It doesn’t even invite us to try. Grace rather invites us to accept God’s love and His mercies even though we constantly prove both to God and to ourselves that we really don’t deserve it.
And that was so hard for me to accept.
In the first place, it invited me to realize that I was fundamentally weak. For someone who built his self-image on being the best, this was a bitter pill to swallow.
“…He said, ‘My grace is all you need. My power works best in weakness.’ So now I am glad to boast in my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”
—2 Corinthians 12:9-10
Whenever I read this passage, I always took the God’s power part and ignored the many lines talking about “weakness”. Weakness? Me? Never!
But after a long time wrestling with it, I’ve come to realize it’s true.
Yes, I’m weak.
I can’t get my act together.
I’m a mess.
But God still loves me.
What’s more, He’s still happy with me.
The fact that God cares for me and provides for me and fulfills His promises to me (and even keeps making promises to me) without my proving to Him that I deserve it with a perfect track record makes no sense to me.
But that’s grace. And that’s who God is.
What’s more, that’s the only way the Christian life can truly be lived.
God doesn’t expect us to stop being weak. He expects us to keep realizing the depths of our weakness—so we realize our deeper and deeper need for Him.
I still struggle with it sometimes. Not gonna lie. There are days when I don’t get anything done or fall once again into a sin I swore I was done with, and then I send myself on a guilt trip and beat myself up over it and imagine how Jesus must be face-palming Himself up there by the Father’s right hand and after hours and hours of this—because I am a very neurotic person—the Holy Spirit asks me in the gentlest voice if I’m quite done with that.
Then He picks me up and sets me on my feet again. He never gets tired of picking us up again.
For though we are weak, He is strong.
Therefore when we are weak, we are strong.
Strong in Him.