There is this distinction I've been reflecting on, this key distinction that can easily elude as as we think about the Christian life. There is this point in the process of repentance and faith that I feel like things get short-circuited for me, and perhaps for others as well. I want to talk about it. But to name that place, first I need to take you on a little journey to get there.
Too often, in our day, Christianity is presented as a tool for making us feel good about ourselves. About affirming us. About teaching us to believe that we are so much more than we think. Jesus is presented as this first-century iteration of a Zig Ziglar book or a Katy Perry song.
Of course, that doesn't fit Scripture. The Bible does not paint a particularly flattering view of humanity. At all. In the first place, it has a profound sense of our sinfulness. The apostle Paul, in Romans 3, weaves together seven different passages from the Old Testament to give this summary of humanity's condition:
“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes.” (Romans 3:9b-18)
That is Scripture's picture of us in our sin. And even without our sin, we do not get to claim a particularly lofty station. We are, as the Genesis story would tell it, made out of dirt. God is eternal, “[m]an is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.” (Psalm 144:4) God is utterly beyond our comprehension: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) Job, reflecting on the greatness and vastness of space and time and creation, says, “Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?” (Job 26:14) The natural conclusion, when confronting God, is that of the Psalmist: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4)
This is the humbling truth of meeting the living God. It is Job coming with his complaint and God responding in the whirlwind, “Gird up your loins. First, I will question you.” (Job 38) It is Isaiah in the temple, sure even the dream-dimmed vision of God will leave him destroyed. (Isaiah 6) It is all the might and armies of the nations coming out against the Son on His pale horse, and the fields of carnage they are reduced to. (Revelation 19) It is the Lord laughing at the wicked, mocking their petty pretensions. (Psalm 37:13) It is a dozen other pictures, each one meant to remind us that we are not as great or as good as we like to pretend. Not before the living God.
And it is right here that I want to pause, because this is the pivotal moment that I have been thinking about. When we are confronted by our lowliness and our sinfulness in the Biblical picture, we can have one of two temptations.
One, the one I don't think many of us have but which you do find in history, is to accept all of this as the sum of the story and simply despair. To conclude that life is meaningless, that striving is fruitless. There is a sort of worms-and-maggots theology that can come from all of the above and fail to account for the other side of the Bible's teachings.
And there is another side. “What is man that you are mindful of him?” asks the Psalmist, but then, “Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor.” (Psalm 8:5) While we are sinners, we are also made saints. We do not have to fear God's holy presence: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16) God is called our Father; Christ our elder brother. (Hebrews 2:11) There is actually a dignity and a delight that God grants us. “The LORD your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17)
So we need this second set of truths as well. We are sinners and we are saints; we are creatured of dirt and seated just below the angels. And it is here that the second temptation, and the point I think is key, comes into play.
Here's the question: how do you relate those two facts? It seems to me that, often, we use the second is to simply undermine or undo the first. We treat Scripture as if it is saying, “You are wicked and tiny, depraved and fleeting... Just kidding!” I sometimes hear sermons that try to be “gracious” by spending two points calling us to obedience and the third telling us that actually, because of Jesus, we shouldn't worry about it. It's as if we wave a magic wand of encouraging texts and move right back to the self-affirming fuzzies of the feel-good gospel, only a little unsettled for the detour.
But to do this is to miss the point. There is a tension that exists in Scripture, like a rubber band stretched between two fingers. We need both sides of that tension – sin and grace, lowliness and lofty calling. But we need it not so that one side can undo the other. We need it because that tension is meant to launch us forward into a new place, a place you can only get to by living in and believing both things at once.
The first set of truths are supposed to break us. That's why they're hard, and why so many slick religious sorts avoid them. They are meant to gut us, to leave us shattered.They are meant to do this because we are built wrong. Sin shapes us in its image, and each of us is a little figurine of sinful self-absorption and pride. If there is going to be any hope for us, that sinful shape has to be smashed.
The second set of truths are then meant to remake us. The grace of God and His calling for our lives is meant to take the pieces and start to rebuild them. But crucially, not into the shape they started with. We aren't like my daughter's dollhouse furniture, constantly knocked apart and then restored to (nearly) original condition through a judicious use of grace and superglue. We are like a new house being constructed out of the rubble from the old, with a whole new style and floor plan. We are like gold going through the crucible, starting out mixed and dull and coming out pure and glittering. We are meant to be changed – changed, more and more, into the likeness of God in Jesus.
The more we confront both our smallness and our sinfulness, the more we have to let go of ourselves. Our love of feel-good affirmation is toxic to our growth because it tells us the image we currently have is the one we should aspire to, when it is in fact the image of sin. The more we go the other direction, the more we acknowledge that God is good and great and holy and exalted and I am not, the more we are emptied of this self-love.
Then we are filled, but not filled with self-love. Not anymore.
When the Psalmist says that God seats us just below the angels, it is because we deserve it. In fact, the point of those verses is that we don't. It is utter insanity on God's part to give creatures like us such a lofty place. Utter generosity.
When Zephaniah says that God will exult over Israel with loud singing, it is not because Israel is worthy. That chapter makes clear that Jerusalem is a corrupt and wicked place, and that God is coming in judgment, and that judgment will cease only because God chooses to turn from it and instead show undeserved mercy and love.
We are not a part of God's family by birth, or even by new birth. The image Scripture uses is adoption. God is our Father not of necessity but of choice. And He doesn't adopt us because we are appealing or awesome; He does it because He chooses to ignore how messed up we are and treat us like Jesus instead.
We are meant to be filled with truths about God. That He is generous. That He is gracious. That He loves us undeservedly and freely. We simply aren't considering ourselves anymore, at least not as the center of things. We are looking at Jesus.
Walking into Christianity is meant to strip us of our self-obsession and never give it back. It is meant to bring us to the end of ourselves. But it does this because only by stripping us of ourselves will we have space for God. Only by dying to ourselves can we learn to live to Christ.
That is the journey of Christianity – and it is a journey. It is a path we walk throughout our earthly lives. To die to ourselves more and more so that we may begin to live to Christ more and more. It is a humbling road, and one that leaves us broken. But it is also one where we are being remade. Little idols that look like self melted down and refashioned into shining pictures of our Lord and King.