The Freedom of Becoming a Realist

Life, suffering, and failure have a way of transforming you from an idealist to a realist—from thinking that you’re strong to reminding you that you’re weak.

When I was 25, I believed I could change the world. At 42, I have come to the realization that I cannot change my wife, my church, or my kids, to say nothing of the world. Try as I might, I have not been able to manufacture outcomes the way I thought I could, either in my own life or other people’s. Unfulfilled dreams, ongoing relational tension, the loss of friendships, a hard marriage, rebellious teenagers, the death of loved ones, remaining sinful patterns—whatever it is for you—live long enough, lose enough, suffer enough, and the idealism of youth fades, leaving behind the reality of life in a broken world as a broken person. Life has had a way of proving to me that I’m not on the constantly-moving-forward escalator of progress I thought I was on when I was twenty-five.

A while back, I received an email from a friend inquiring about my understanding between the relationship of ongoing sin in the life of a Christian and sanctification (Christian growth). He said he understood that Christians continue to be sinful, but the question he asked me was whether I thought Christians continue to be staticallysinful. I told him that I hadn’t considered the categories of statically or non-statically sinful because, while those categories may be moderately helpful in a theoretical discussion, they are categories that don’t correspond to life as it is actually lived. For instance, it becomes pretty subjective as to what is static and what isn’t static. I have improved over the years in some ways but I also see areas in my life that seem better or worse given the day, the circumstances, the season of life, etc. Some things I’ve “licked” (although I’m typically proud of those things so that becomes a “new” problem) and others, I’m sure, will plague me the rest of my life with more or less success depending on a variety of situations, moods, people I’m dealing with, and so on. I told him that the category which speaks to the reality of life as it is actually lived is Martin Luther’sSimul iustus et peccator (Christians are both justified and sinner simultaneously)–a category that the Apostle Paul gives existential voice to in Romans 7.

I think most people can probably relate better to what my life has actually looked like: Try and fail. Fail then try. Try and succeed. Succeed then fail. Two steps forward. One step back. One step forward. Three steps back. Every year, I get better at some things, worse at others. Some areas remain stubbornly static. To complicate matters even more, when I honestly acknowledge the ways I’ve gotten worse, it’s actually a sign that I may be getting better. And when I become proud of the ways I’ve gotten better, it’s actually a sign that I’ve gotten worse. And ’round and ’round we go.

If this sounds like a depressing sentiment, it isn’t meant to be one. Quite the opposite. In fact, as my friend Mike Horton says, “The hype of a radical calling to change the world can creep into every area of our life and make us tired, depressed, and mean.” If I am grateful for anything about these past 17 years, it’s for the way God has wrecked my idealism about myself and the world and replaced it with a realism about the extent of His grace and love, which is much bigger than I had ever imagined. Indeed, the smaller you get—the smaller life makes you—the easier it is to see the grandeur of grace.

So, while I am far more incapable than I may have initially thought, God is infinitely more capable than I ever hoped.

I Want a "Do Over"

New beginnings. Fresh starts. Clean slates. Second chances. We love ‘em all. They carry so much promise; they —give us so much hope. If we blow it today, we can start again tomorrow. We conclude that the answer to yesterdays failure is today’s success. If I preached a bad sermon this past Sunday I can fix my sense of failure by preaching a great sermon next Sunday.

In many ways, all of our striving under this performance idol is a grown-up re-creation of the adolescent playground cry: “I want a do-over!” Have you ever heard that? Watch children playing a game at a park like football or basketball. Maybe somebody messed up the opening kick. Maybe they weren’t sure the ball stayed in bounds or not. So somebody proclaims, “Do-over!” And they start over. They have to get it right. They want the bad play erased and replaced by the good play.

We’re still doing this into our adult years, trying to manage our lives in some bizarre system of spiritual checks and balances, trying to outweigh our bad plays with our “do-overs.”

When we worship at the altar of performance we spend our lives frantically propping up our images or reputations, trying to do it all—and do it all well—often at a cost to ourselves and those we love. Life becomes a hamster wheel of endless earning and proving and maintenance and management and controlling, where all we can see is our own feet. We live in a constant state of anxiety, fear, and resentment until we end up heavily medicated, in the hospital, or just really, really unhappy.

So what’s the answer to this enslaving addiction that plagues us all?

The gospel of grace.

The gospel is God’s announcement to failing people like you and me that we are now free from the slavery of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” We don’t have to put all our weight into the do-over. We can put it on Jesus. Because Jesus succeeded for me, I’m free to follow with abandon and fail without fear.

Ever Feel Like God Is Disappointed in You?

One night about 18 months ago when I was putting Genna to bed, I asked her, “Honey, how do you think God feels about you?” Her immediate response was, “Disappointed.” After some probing, I realized that she wasn’t feeling convicted about any particular sin, she simply sees God as someone whose feelings toward her are basically unhappy ones. She knows that God is perfect and that she is imperfect—she understands that God is holy and that she is sinful—and so it only makes sense to her that God is perpetually displeased with her.

Seizing an opportunity to preach the gospel to my daughter, I scrambled in my mind for an illustration that might help an 11-year-old grasp the liberating power of Christ’s imputed righteousness.

I said, “Imagine some stranger (let’s call him Steven) comes walking down our street right about the time Mommy is making dinner. He walks up our driveway, through our front door (without knocking), into our kitchen, looks at mommy and asks, ‘What’s for dinner?’ Now, you and I both know that Mommy is hospitable. But a complete stranger walking in our house would freak her out. She’d probably say something like, ‘Who are you? And if you don’t turn around and leave right now I’m going to call the police.’”

I continued, “Now imagine that same stranger comes walking down our street around dinner time with your older brother. The two of them together walk up our driveway, through the front door, and into our kitchen. Your brother looks at Mommy with his arm around his friend and says, ‘Mom, this is my friend Steven. Can he stay for dinner?’ Her response would be totally different, wouldn’t it? She would say something like, ‘Nice to meet you Steven. Of course you can have dinner with us.’ Then she’d get another place-setting and treat Steven like a son at our table. Why? Because he was with our son.”

Many Christians (like my daughter) think that God is perpetually disappointed with them. But because of what Jesus did for us on the cross, God sees us as friends and children, not as enemies and strangers. God is a good Father and because Jesus brings us with him, God’s affection for us is unchanging and his approval of us is forever.

Sinner Up a Tree

The interaction between Jesus and Zacchaeus is so well-known to Christian people that we’ve made up a silly song about it (“Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he…”). In this case, that song isn’t the only problem with the story being so familiar; another problem is that, because we know the particulars so well, we miss the profundity completely.The story of Zacchaeus and Jesus is a powerful portrait of both Jesus’ extension of undeserved grace and of a forgiven sinner’s expression of unrequired obedience.

It’s easy to forget that Zacchaeus would have been a double-outcast in his time: hated by the Jews for collecting taxes for the oppressive Roman Empire, and hated as a Jew by his Roman employers. It’s safe to say, in other words, that Zacchaeus was likely not suffering from an overabundance of friends. Who knows when the last time (before hosting the Savior of the World) Zacchaeus had entertained a guest in his home?

Everyone knows the story: Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector (which means that even the other tax collectors didn’t like him – he was skimming extra money for himself off of their hard-won, pre-skimmed earnings), was a small man, and so had to climb a sycamore tree to see Jesus as he passed by on the road. Jesus, out of the large crowd that would have been following him, picked Zacchaeus out and said, “I must stay at your house today” (Luke 19:5). Not, “If you shape up, I’d be willing to spend some time with you.” Not, “If you clean up your act, I’ll grace your home with my presence.” Jesus was compelled to be with Zacchaeus.

Jesus is compelled to be with sinners…it’s why he came. In Zacchaeus’ home, he says, “Today salvation has come to this house…for the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).

The crowd, of course, is very disappointed in Jesus. “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner,” they mutter. Reading this passage now, as “mature” Sunday-schooled Christians, we know that the crowd is in the wrong. “How could they misunderstand Jesus so completely?” we think. “How can they be so mean to Zacchaeus?” We forget how nails-on-a-chalkboard annoying it is for us when someone in our lives gets something they don’t deserve or avoids some penalty that they do deserve. “That’s not fair!” we cry. We are just like that crowd surrounding Zacchaeus, despite our protestations to the contrary.

Perhaps the most powerful thing in this passage, though, is Zacchaeus’ response to Jesus once the Savior is in his home. He says, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” His obedience flows naturally from him the moment Jesus enters his life. Jesus never tells him what to do. Just as Jesus doesn’t require a changed heart or lifestyle to enter his home, he doesn’t then demand charity and reparations (“Now that you’re a Christian, Zacchaeus…”). The Gospel, God’s one-way love for sinners, creates what the Law, God’s holy standard, can only require. And it creates more!

Zacchaeus goes above and beyond the call of duty, promising to give a half of his possessions to the poor, and promising to repay anyone he had defrauded four times the amount owed. No doubt, Zacchaeus had been told many times what the law required, but hadn’t moved an inch to follow it. Faced with the power of God’s one-way, undeserved love for broken, sinful people, though? Zacchaeus pledges to do more, happily, than the law ever would have asked of him.

What we see here (and in our lives) is that love inspires what the Law demands—the Law prescribes good works, but only grace can produce them. Gratitude, generosity, honesty, compassion, acts of mercy and self-sacrifice (all rquirements of the law) spring unsummoned from a forgiven heart. By definition, good works can’t be forced or coerced: they’re instinctive, reflexive, spontaneous. What’s so obvious in this story is that works of love flow spontaneously from the one who hears and believes God’s final “I Love You”–a love that has no strings attached.

Jesus impacts Zacchaeus in two amazing ways: both examples of God’s amazing grace. First, Zacchaeus’ joyful charity is not the preface to God’s grace, it is its result. Jesus extends grace to a terrible sinner, before that sinner repents (it is grace, after all, that produces change—not the other way around). Second, that undeserved grace creates a new life of unrequired obedience, bringing forth more “good works” than any laying down of the law ever could.

This is how God works on us. He picks us, the least deserving, out of the crowd, insists upon being in a relationship with us, and creates in us a new heart, miraculously capable of pleasing Him. Hallelujah! What a Savior!

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