Growing up, my family attended a church in our community on a periodic basis. My memories of the church were of fun games and pleasant friends. However, the Bible was an enigma and Jesus Christ a faint distant figure.
I thought about God the way I thought about school. Do your best and you'll be accepted. Give God your righteousness, and He'll give you His love. After any given Sunday worship service, I would commit myself (again) to being righteous. I would pay close attention to my words and actions and try to behave in a more disciplined manner.
Yet, the reality was that - try as a might - I wasn't very righteous. I would squabble with my siblings over trivial things. I would break my parents' rules in sneaky ways. This elicited a sense of foreboding: if God accepted me on the basis of my righteousness, then I wouldn't make the grade.
As a teen, I attended a summer camp which held weekly chapel services. Most of the messages were about moral self-improvement. However, one chapel speaker lucidly explained the Gospel. The Gospel, as he explained, is that we're not able to fix ourselves or be righteous in our own strength. But God, in love for us, sent His Son Jesus Christ to live the life we should have lived, and die the death that we deserved. Righteousness isn't something we give to God; it is something He gives to us. Eternal life isn't something we achieve; it is something we receive as a free gift through faith in Christ.
This changed everything. Whereas before I obeyed God out of fear, I now had nothing to fear. Jesus had borne the wrath my sin deserved on the cross. I now found in myself a genuine love and gratitude toward God which became my new motivation for obedience. In a remarkable way, I began to actually change.
One example of how I began to change from the inside out is this. I had a large case of 1990s alternative music. Though no one every said this directly, I was internally convicted that the music fostered dark thoughts and self-pity. I never spoke to an adult about this, but one particular Wednesday morning, I threw all the CDs into the trash receptacle behind our house. This action did stem from a fear of God's displeasure, but a sincere desire to honor Him in response to His love toward me shown in Jesus Christ.
Furthermore, for me the public high school was about one thing: being cool. I was very controlled by the approval or disapproval of my peers. In my high school there was a group of Christians that prayed in front of the library every morning. For over two years, I observed the group from a distance. However, I was internally convicted that through I privately believed in Jesus, I needed to make it public. It was in my third year that I finally joined with the group in prayer. I remember one of my friends walking by and jeering, "Roberts, who are you talking to?" Yet, I was no longer controlled by his disapproval. I was free.
I've come to see that the way I first related to God - giving to God my righteousness - is the default setting for the human heart. This posture puts us in control; it makes God our debtor. Yet, it also elicits deep anxiety because we know that we're not the people that we should be, no matter how hard we try.
On the contrary, the Gospel is at first troubling because it makes us dependent - we have to rely on God showing us undeserved mercy. Yet, it produces deep joy and peace because we know that we're loved and accepted though Jesus Christ.
How do you relate to God? Is it on the basis of giving to God your righteousness, or is it on the basis of God giving you His righteousness? Is eternal life something you achieve, or is it something you receive as a free gift?