THE WAY TO LIVE_DOT III (YOUR ROLE) // CHAPTER 18
If you were raised in a religious home, or attended a religious school, it was probably the rules that made you question whether that religion had a place in your future. Rules can make us feel judged and ostracized. And rules often aren’t evenly applied, so religion also seems to breed endless hypocrisy.
Many religious people believe in their religion, but don’t live what they believe. In other words, they are bad philosophers: bad at living out their values. Good at believing, bad at behaving.
Religious people love loopholes. They look for loopholes in their faith systems to avoid more restrictive rules. Many Catholics have found ways to justify birth control. Only a percentage of Muslims pray with their faces to the ground five times a day. Just a small number of Christians show the type of kindness, love, and forgiveness that Jesus modeled. Every major faith tradition teaches some form of the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. But we’re all guilty of excusing our way around that rule. Bad news, we’re all hypocrites, not just religious people.
Despite that, all faith systems agree that to be in good standing, followers need to keep the rules. Belief and behavior are central to every major religion in the world. Obedience determines whether you are a good Muslim, Christian, or Jew. Whether it’s the Five Pillars of Islam, the Ten Commandments of ancient Judaism, or Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, rules define proper and improper behavior within a system.
We also live in a world that rewards performance. It’s ingrained in us from an early age. Answer the test questions right and you pass. Answer wrong and you fail. Score the most points and win. Score one point less than the other team and you lose. Do well in school and you’ll get a good job. Do well at work and you’ll get a promotion. In the world we live in, performance matters.
Just about every aspect of life works that way. So why wouldn’t it be the same way with God? If God created the world, wouldn’t he want us to perform for him? Shouldn’t our relationship with him be based on our ability to follow his rules? Isn’t there a relationship between our ability to follow rules and perform for God and his happiness with us?
Our culture’s focus on performance has the potential to shape our assumptions about God and Jesus. Answer these questions:
What do you have to do to make God happy?
What do you have to do to keep God happy?
We know there are always exceptions to rules. A student fails an exam by two points, and a professor finds a way to give them a passing grade. A sales associate makes a less-than-stellar presentation, loses an account, and their manager responds by giving them another chance. A driver is rear-ended and, upon discovering the challenging circumstances of the careless driver, decides not to make an issue of it.
Sometimes we don’t get what we deserve.
It’s great not to suffer consequences for what we’ve done, but it also feels like we’ve cheated the system. Shouldn’t people get what they deserve? Isn’t that fair? Isn’t that just?
Making a deal with God
Have you ever tried to make a deal with God? Like Charles Barkley in Space Jam? (“Please give me my basketball powers back! I promise I’ll never swear again. I’ll never get another technical. I’ll never trash-talk. I’ll never go out with Madonna again.”)
Bargaining is based on two assumptions. First, someone has something that we want or need. Second, that person isn’t going to be easily convinced to help us. Most religious systems foster this mentality, and understandably so. That’s how the world works. We often look at God as if he is not going to do anything for us unless we make him happy. He could love us, but we have to negotiate with him to get him to see that we are worthy of his love. We think God will not allow us to have a good life, meaningful existence, or success unless we follow all the right rules. We live as if we need to prove to God that we are worthy of his love, acceptance and blessing. We’re trying to make God happy, and if we think he’s happy, we’re trying to keep him happy so that he won’t hurt us.
God created us. He knows us. Everything about us. He knows things about us that we don’t know about ourselves. He’s not asking us to bargain with him, convince him to love us or believe in us. He’s asking us to be like Abraham. Remember what Paul said?
“And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him as righteous.” // Romans 4:22
Is feeling good the same as being good?
Abraham was righteous because of his faith. Let’s revisit righteousness. If we’re not careful, we can start to confuse our own righteousness with God’s righteousness.
In other words, we can start to confuse feeling like we’re in right standing with actually being in right standing. If we have a good day and feel like we mostly followed the rules and performed well that day, we can feel righteous. If we have a bad day and feel like we mostly ignored the rules, we can feel unrighteous. This feeling of “goodness” based on how well we do something is called self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is different from morality. Self-righteousness is how good you feel when you do “good” things, and how bad you feel when you do “bad” things. Guilt, self-righteousness and bargaining are often tied together. When we don’t feel righteous, we feel guilty. Because we feel guilty, we attempt to bargain with God so we can feel righteous again.
We want to believe that our attempts to be good somehow make us righteous. We may sound a lot like Abraham Lincoln, who said, “When I do good I feel good, when I do bad I feel bad, and that’s my religion.”[i]
The book of Isaiah says this about self-righteousness:
“We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall, and our sins sweep us away like the wind.” // Isaiah 64:6
In the ancient world, when women would menstruate, they would use old rags and then dispose of them. This is the term used here to denote “filthy rags.” God says that our attempts at righteousness, doing good deeds, and performance matter to him as much as those rags would matter to us. Sin is something that infects us, and no amount of good we do can cover it up or hide it. No matter how hard we try, we can’t do enough good to have a good relationship with God on our own. Does that mean good behavior doesn’t matter? Of course, good behavior matters. But does good behavior make us right with God? Nope. It never will. Good behavior may be the thing that makes our relationship with people work, but it’s not the thing that makes our relationship with God work. We can work our whole life to be “good enough” for God, and we still won’t. God doesn’t ask us to be good enough, he asks us to have faith. That’s it. The starting point with God is not good behavior, it’s faith.
If faith is action based on belief, then our behaviors should become better as our belief in God increases.
This may seem like I am contradicting myself. I’ve talked about poor philosophers a few times. Let me ask you some more questions.
What does God need from you?
What do people need from you?
God needs your faith. People need you to be good. We must live good lives because our lives affect the people around us. God knows you. He created you. He is with you on your worst day. He’s not going to start loving you because you act good. He’s not going to stop loving you because you act bad. If you’ve read the Old Testament, you’ve probably noticed a pattern—the creative and constant ways by which humanity fails. And the faithfulness of God to help us figure out a way back onto the right path. We should try to be good, but our goodness by itself will still result in our failure. That’s why we need to start by simply having faith in God.
In Christianity, the perpetual failure we experience has become known as sin. Some of us, me included, don’t like this word all that much. It seems judgmental and antiquated. So, we often will say that we make mistakes. We know that we aren’t perfect and often fall short. But to be a “sinner” can feel harsh to us. If someone called me a sinner today, I’d probably become offended and defensive. So, I prefer to say that I make mistakes.
A mistake is an action or judgment that is misguided or wrong. We consider mistakes to be accidental. What about mistakes that we make on purpose?
And what do you call the person who makes the same mistakes on purpose over and over? A mistaker?
Most of us feel like Paul.
I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? // Romans 7:21–24
Sin is a Greek word that comes from archery. In archery, to sin means to miss what you are aiming for. If we’re aiming for the bullseye and we miss, we have sinned. We don’t like to be called a sinner though because it makes us feel condemned and disqualified. But there’s a tension because if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t just make mistakes by accident. There are a lot of mistakes we make on purpose.
A sinner is any person who knows the difference between right and wrong and chooses wrong. If we listen to the average street preacher, not only does being a sinner mean we’re going to hell, it also means that God is looking forward to seeing us there.
What should we do? Most of us just try harder. And like Paul, we discover that the harder we try, the further we seem to fall. This isn’t a new principle. This has been happening since the very beginning. All the way back to Adam, Eve, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Many people run away from this entire proposition and see God as either nonexistent or evil and capricious, saying something like the Richard Dawkins quote mentioned in Part I. We often feel that we don’t understand why God would create us this way and then punish us for being the way we are. And no matter how far we run, or how angry we get, we still struggle with what Isaiah 64 calls the “infection” of sin: the infection of making mistakes on purpose.
There are really only two responses to sin. Trying harder or realizing we do not have the ability to hit the target and asking for help.
When Jesus talked about sin, he made it so inclusive that nobody could escape the label. He said things like:
“You have heard the commandment that says, ‘You must not commit adultery.’ But I say, anyone who even looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” // Matthew 5:27–28
The standard is so high, the target so far away. None of us can hit it. Paul says in Romans 3 that we are all sinners. We all constantly and consistently miss the mark. We know this to be true. This is part of being human. And most of us live hoping that the good one day will outweigh the bad. If we try harder, we can hit the target someday. Do better tomorrow. Or not. There’s always next week.
Hitting the bullseye some of the time, every time
Sin has been around as long as humans have. In the first century, John the Baptist showed up in the region of Judea preaching and baptizing. In addition to the Gospels, John the Baptist is referenced in the Koran as well as by the Jewish historian Jocephus. John’s message was harsh, but thousands of people flocked to the Jordan River to hear him. One afternoon while baptizing people in the Jordan River, John looked up and saw Jesus standing in line, waiting his turn. In that moment, he was amazed, and connected that moment to something deeply significant to all of us, sin.
“The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, ‘Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!’” // John 1:29
In the Old Testament, God made some rules that governed the family of Abraham, the Israelites. One rule included a provision for how to handle when people sinned. When a person sinned, they were required to sacrifice an animal to God, usually a pure and spotless lamb. The animal’s blood would atone for, or cover, the sin committed. This was a visceral reminder of the cost of sin and the need for forgiveness from God. No one believed that the blood of an animal was equal to the blood of a human being. But according to the old covenant, the blood of an animal was enough. The challenge was that the sacrifices had to be offered continually and repeatedly. There was no final or ultimate sacrifice for sin. To this day, the Jewish people celebrate Yom Kippur, or the day of atonement, as a day set aside for repentance to God and others.
John’s statement in the Jordan River was a game-changer. He was asserting that once and for all, Jesus would atone for all sins. Past, present and future, a final sacrifice to fulfill the covenant made between God and his people in the Old Testament. Now it wasn’t just for the family of Abraham, it was for the entire world. He’s not just the logos that the philosophers talk about, he’s the final sacrifice that fulfills the old covenant. The culmination of 1,500 years of history.
Twenty or so years after Jesus’ crucifixion, the apostle Paul described the significance of that event this way:
You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. // Colossians 2:13–14
Through Christ, God has canceled the effects of our sin—our inability to hit the target. When we place our faith in Jesus and decide to follow him, our sin is forgiven. God knows we can’t hit the target, so he decided to do it for us. That’s called grace.
God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. // Ephesians 2:8–9
When we choose to have faith, we experience this gift of grace. It is impossible to act our way into this kind of relationship, and we don’t have to perform to stay there. Once and for all, God did what we could not, and can never do: he hit the target.
Jesus took our sin—each one of us—and paid for it once and for all. It doesn’t matter if we missed the mark because Jesus didn’t. Grace and forgiveness are gifts, not something we earn, and it’s not just for Abraham’s family. It’s for all of us. But like any gift, it must be received. God isn’t asking us to feel self-righteous for him. He’s not trying to bargain with us so we earn his forgiveness. God is trying to give us a gift; faith is the only way to accept this gift.
It’s not about being a good person for God. It’s not about accepting a belief system. It’s about understanding that we are incapable of being good on our own. Philosophy by itself will help us be better humans. But being a better human will only get us so far. God wants us to know him. He created us, he loves us, and he wants us to realize that his eternal plan was to bring us all into his family just like he did with Abraham. It has taken thousands of years of human history to get to this point. That’s how deep it goes. That’s the logos at work.
Because of our faith—our action based on our belief—we are God’s friend. Just like Abraham. Our right standing with God is a gift from him, and it’s only through his grace and our faith that we experience this righteousness. God’s grace is not something we earn, it’s something he freely gives. This gift has never been and will never be based on our performance.
When we have faith and believe that Jesus is who he said he is, God extends us the grace that puts us in right standing with him.
Our faith + God’s grace = Righteousness
Performance or our ability to follow rules doesn’t factor into that equation.
What about the rules? Why are they important?
Think back to a time when a person extended grace to you. Try to remember the most extreme case—an event where you received something so undeserved and unexpected that you weren’t even sure you could accept it. Have you ever been embarrassed by the significance of a gift? Now imagine if the person who forgave you or gave you an unexpected gift said, “I don’t want anything in return. This is a no-strings-attached gift. But if you feel the need to thank me, simply pay it forward to someone else in need.” Most likely, you would look for opportunities to do just that.
That’s how Jesus told his followers to live. That’s the part we’re supposed to play. That’s why we must go beyond faith. We must determine to be good to others like God is good to us.
[i] William Henry Herndon, Herndon’s Lincoln Vol. 3: The True Story of a Great Life, (London, England: Forgotten Books, 2010).