Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Hard Work of Doing Nothing

This is a blog post I wrote for my church website in February 2014 (High Pointe Church in Altoona, IA)

Am I the only one who ever feels like the Christian life can be exhausting at times? There are days, sometimes weeks, where I feel like I’m just spinning my wheels. I feel like I can’t do anything right. I get beaten down by my guilt & sinful desires. My mind is a frequent battleground for the war that Paul describes in Romans 7 between the old nature & the new. I end up either beating myself up, or throwing a giant pity party. But why does it get this way? How do we get to that point of exhaustion, and what drives us there?

The last few weeks at High Pointe, we’ve had the privilege of learning from John chapter 15. We’ve heard sermons on the concept of abiding in Christ and continued the discussion within our small groups. Personally, it has been eye-opening, refreshing, and mindset-altering. And in the midst of saturating my mind with these truths, the Spirit of God has helped me realize the catalyst that leads to our periods of “spiritual exhaustion.” It’s when we forget that we are branches & try to act like the vine.

John 15:5 – “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.”

“Apart from Me you can do nothing.” - I think it’s safe to say that truth is the foundation of any & all Christian growth. We would all readily nod our heads and say a hearty “amen” while listening to someone read that verse. We would all agree that “of course we can’t do anything apart from Christ,” – and we’d probably even try to sound smarter by victoriously adding, “Instead, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me!” But for some reason, even though we would all nod our heads in agreement to this foundational truth…it’s usually the first one that we practically abandon.

One of the most difficult things in our walk with Christ is to get our hearts to agree & mesh with what our mind knows to be true. When it comes to our salvation, our minds know & understand that what truly took place was a divine miracle of passing from death to life (Ephesians 2:1-5; Colossians 2:13-14). Our minds know & understand that it wasn’t based on anything we have done, could do, or ever deserve – it was truly an act of God & through His grace alone (Ephesians 1:3-6; Ephesians 2:8-9). Our minds know & understand that once we place our faith & trust in Christ, we are forever justified & viewed by God through the righteousness of Christ (Romans 5:1; Romans 8:1; Romans8:33-39). And we know that nothing can ever change our position in Christ. However...when it comes to our sanctification, for some reason our hearts tend to hold on to some deep-seated desire to continue to work for that salvation. To try & prove our worth to God. To dig deep and do everything in our power to “be all that we can be.” Our hearts try to hold on to the notion that God is disgusted with us when we fail, and that our good behavior is required to keep God’s approval. This is the disconnect that causes our disappointment & exhaustion.

These contrasts of belief & practice are what pastor & author Tullian Tchividjian calls “self-salvation projects,” and they eventually give way to legalism & slavery. In his book Jesus + Nothing = Everything, Tullian says most believers realize that we could never earn our salvation, “…but when it comes to our sanctification, suddenly we become legalists.” He goes on to say,
“We seem to inherently assume that our performance is what will finally determine whether our relationship with God is good or bad: so much good behavior from us generates so much affection from God; or so much bad behavior from us generates so much anger from God … Legalism happens when what we need to do, not what Jesus has already done, becomes the end game. Our performancism leads to pride when we succeed and to despair when we fail. But ultimately it leads to slavery either way, because it becomes all about us...”
And when being a Christian becomes all about us – when it becomes all about following our “to-do lists” – that is the very moment that we, as a branch, have broken off in a futile attempt to be the vine. We subconsciously believe that we are our own life source. We start reading the Bible as if it was mainly written about what we need to do for God instead of what God in Christ has done for us. And the whole time we’re “working hard” to build up our spiritual résumé & impress God, we don’t even realize how far we’ve strayed from the foundational truth that we were once saying ‘amen’ to:  “apart from Me you can do nothing. Talk about a definition of exhaustion – working hard to do nothing.

So how do we avoid this? What does it look like to “abide in Christ?” I believe it starts with a daily acknowledgment of the gospel. The gospel, ironically, starts with us – but it’s not good. As William Temple said, “the only thing you contribute to your salvation and to your sanctification is the sin that makes them necessary” (Romans 3:10-12; Romans 3:23). Too often, I fail to daily acknowledge the fact that Jesus brought me out of death. If I could do nothing on my own to escape my spiritual death, why would I ever think that I could do anything on my own to become more like Jesus (Galatians 3:2-3)? “Sanctification consists of the daily realization that in Christ we have died and in Christ we have been raised. Life change happens as the heart daily grasps death and life.” – Tchividjian

So is sanctification effortless? Does our growth require no “work” at all? Of course not – Jesus says in John 15:10 to keep His commandments. But the work isn’t focused on us or our performance – it’s focused on Jesus and His performance for us. We work to recognize that He is the one at work in us & through us (Galatians 2:20; Colossians 3:3). To gain a deeper understanding of what we already possess in Christ. And perhaps the thing we need to work the hardest at is to simply stay put; to remain; to abide. To stay attached to the true vine – our life source – and let His grace, mercy, and love propel us to then let our light shine before men, so that ultimately He is glorified (Matthew 5:16). “Practice doesn’t dictate position. Position dictates practice.” – Judah Smith

When we try to do it on our own, the Christian life will become exhausting. But when we abide in Jesus, we find true rest. Abiding in Christ doesn’t mean that we have to work hard to keep a good standing with God – it means living with the freedom that Jesus has done all the work for us, and will continue to remind us each day that “It is finished.”
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” 
Matthew 11:28-30