For those of us practically born and literally raised in the church, certain verses have been worn so smooth in our minds that like the old church pew in my mom’s foyer, everything just slides off. When the pastor reads John 3:16, my mind slides into neutral. What was once fresh is now familiar….too familiar. And when my soul fails to focus on the truth, my heart begins to entertain a lie.
To re-engage our wandering minds, I suspect seminaries teach pastors this trick: read a passage of scripture and then say, “Notice what God did not say.” It’s a verbal sleight of hand to reacquire our focus by looking at the converse meaning of the verse. And it works! At least when the pastor does it…
If I knowingly tried this tactic on my own, would my soul respond likewise? Would looking at the converse meaning reveal any flaws that have crept into the familiar corners of my thinking ?
My Father leads me and I begin with what He did not say through Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus:
Praise be to God, who has begrudgingly made it possible that you can be saved through your own works. Salvation is of your own doing. No gifts or handouts. Think of it as a wage you must strive to earn. In fact, your best chance is a checklist.
Because our God is a mysterious God, we cannot know for sure if our activities will warrant us a sufficient wage. Therefore, prepare for yourselves a scorecard of sorts so that you may boast of your works on the last day. Make a list of the things you can do to try to earn God’s favor. Begin with:
Giving to the poor
Praying for the sick
Reading the holy word
Caring for the hungry
I urge you, in view of God’s limited mercy, remember the words of your ancestors: “Blessed is he who pulls himself up by his own bootstraps.”
Peace to you, my brothers and sisters. Good luck to all who follow Christ.
If these had indeed been the “encouraging” words to the church in Turkey, I would think Paul both flippant and half-mad. One cannot possibly secure salvation this way. The so-called scorecard is woefully incomplete. Where are the Ten Commandments?! And shouldn’t the Golden Rule be somewhere near the top of the list as well?
Of course, we’d need to add some things to reflect Jesus’ other well-known instructions, including loving our neighbors and praying for our enemies. Perhaps what we would need is a sub-divided list—things to do for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the strangers, the nice neighbors, and the mean neighbors.
We’d best not forget the other things that Jesus said in His sermon on the mount. We should probably tack on to do’s for displaying meekness, showing mercy, and being peacemakers.
Oh, wait a minute! What about all the things we should not do? James wrote a whole book about not showing favoritism, swearing, cursing, judging, or slandering. Maybe we need a separate list for “Things Not To Do.” This is God’s favor we’re seeking after all, so chances are that more is better.
Perhaps I can read enough of the Bible (bootstraps and all, you know) to write out a potentially sufficient list. If I can get that part done, then I’ll just be left with figuring out how to fulfill each requirement.
Is 10 dollars to the poor enough?
Is 10 minutes of pray enough?
Is 10 verses of reading enough?
Is a donation of 10 canned food items enough?
Hey Paul, some more explicit instructions in your letter would have been handy here. Do you think 20 dollars and 20 minutes would put me in better standings? Or if I just doubled everything my Christian sister does, would that be sufficient?
How will I know if I’ve done enough, given enough, or worked enough? The writing of these lists only serve to erase my peace. The more I define the requirements, the more I outline my failures.
Is God satisfied or unhappy with my scorecard? Uncertainty creeps up the back of my neck. I begin to fidget. Is there a way out for those of us who don’t have enough hours in the day to keep up? My list and I are no longer maintaining eye-contact with each other. I’m looking for a loophole instead.
Fear lurks in my soul and darkens my mood. Have I done enough good works to be saved from damnation? Where is the dividing line between not enough and just enough?
I realize I’m no saint like Job, but I’m no sinner like Judas either….or am I?
Tell me, Paul! I must know! How much must I do to obtain God’s love, mercy, and favor? Ten good works? Twenty works a day? One thousand in a lifetime? Am I to live every day, breath every breath not knowing where I stand with the Almighty? Do I just cross my fingers and hope?!
And then I hear it.
A still, small voice saying “Come to me, all who are weary.”
It is my God.
It is my Father God and He is whispering, “Here, here is the truth that will set you free:”
“God has made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure, which He set forth in Christ.” (Ephesians 1:9)
Oh what sweet relief! God has not hidden away His will. It is not a mystery that my heart need fear. In fact, it is with much pleasure that He has set aside all the guessing, measuring, and comparing in Christ.
“But because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy…” (Ephesians 2:4)
Mercy, yes love and mercy! That is what I need most. Not more lists, but more mercy.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—” (Ephesians 2:8)
Grace and faith. These are the only items on the scorecard that matter. Everything else is a reflection of my arrogance. Who am I to think that I could replace the Father’s merciful love and grace with a list? Do I really think so little of Him?
“—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that on one can boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
No amount of giving, working, or sacrificing saves us.
We can’t pull ourselves up.
We can’t plug our accomplishments.
We can’t put forth our most earnest efforts.
It is all a gift, an unbelievable, leave-the-bootstraps-behind, walk-in-grace gift.
“But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace…” (Ephesians 2:13-14)
When God set about to bring us near to Him, He placed one thing on His list and one thing on our list.
His list: Spill blood.
Our list: Be washed in blood.
No less is needed. No more either.
“Peace to you brothers and sisters, and love with faith from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Ephesians 6:23)
In Him is where all peace can be found. Perfect, soul-settling, list-ending peace.
Lay down all the worry and all the pride. Crumple up all the lists and all the guilt.
Fear not. The Good News is here.
Come! Believe and receive anew.
A huge thank you to My Love for his help with this blog. I’d written and rewritten the intro 25 times before he put an end to that madness. (Okay, I’m off by a factor of 5, but it would have been a full 25 rewrites without his help!) Thank you for helping me unscrambled my thoughts and clearly convey my intent.