By Christine Hoover
Originally Published in Be Still Magazine, Issue 2
My favorite part of vacation is the anticipation of it, especially if the vacation is just my husband and me, a new place to explore, and the promise of good food and sound sleep. In preparation, I gorge myself on pictures of our destination, imagining and anticipating how deliciously relaxing our getaway will be.
I have a horrible habit, however. When my husband and I get to our destination, my anticipation of the vacation always turns to the anticipation, or more accurately the dread, of it ending. Every morning, my head still on the pillow, I do the countdown: Only five more days. Only four more days. Only three more days.
I suppose I do this because I’m trying to give myself a pep talk. Only five more days! Make the most of today while you can! Enjoy every second and take it all in! A week from now you’ll once again be deep in laundry and lunches!
I try to keep these thoughts to myself. One, because my husband doesn’t share in my struggle to relax and enjoy a vacation. Two, because he thinks my countdown is morbid and depressing.
And, in reality, it is quite morbid and depressing, even though my goal is actually to have a good time. I suppose I’m so filled with the dread of returning to the routines of life that I can’t receive what’s literally right in front of me. I’m so focused on forcing myself to have fun that I’m not having any fun at all. I promise I’m pleasant to be around. Promise. Just don’t tell me how many days are left in the vacation because I will panic for a brief moment.
I’ve realized that forcing things is also my tendency in relation to God. To show him my dedication and determination, I want to immediately respond. I want to be instantly spiritually mature, and I’ll make list after list of how I plan to get myself there. I don’t want to sit still to receive like Mary; I want to run around honoring Jesus with my service like Martha. As a result, I live in the mode of sheer panic and frenzy, overanalyzing and over striving. It’s no wonder I am obsessed with being good.
And it’s no wonder it’s a common problem. Because we really do want to please God, but we’re forcing it. We walk around like it’s up to us to figure things out and get things right and finally get our lives in order.
A typical goodness-obsessed response is to make a list of things we plan to do in order to understand and receive God’s love. Or put reminders in sticky-notes all over our bathroom mirrors: “God is love!” “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (smiley face, heart, underline)!” Here we are, trying to get the Christian life right, but we go right back to our self-sufficient ways, trying to force the fun, so to speak. We will have fun, gosh darn it. We’re having fun, right? (Forced smile.) Or: I WILL figure out how it is that God loves me. There must be a formula somewhere for that.
We can’t force fun, just like we can’t force ourselves to “get” God’s love. That’s like trying to corral and contain an ocean with an eyedropper.
You Can’t Do It
Why do we do this? The answer is simple: we’re fearful. We want control, and the idea that we can’t intellectualize or force God’s hand or force our own understanding of God’s love is frustrating. We also fear we’ll miss something we’re supposed to do, we’ll appear to not be good enough, or we’ll disappoint God.
Think about it: most of the things we fear in life are things our emotions are acknowledging we’re not actually in control over. We want to believe we have control over hearts, have control over circumstances, and can bring change. We tend to believe that we’re responsible for a lot of things, our relationship with God primary among them. It would be much simpler to slap some rules down and call it a day, but following rules and forcing righteousness through self-sufficiency is not life-giving. “For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law” (Galatians 3:21). Self-sufficiency can’t give life, and it doesn’t.
But we believe otherwise, thank you very much. Our goodness-obsessed little hearts believe, fully and completely, that if we just work hard enough we can actually fulfill what Jesus commanded when he said, “Be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Armed with our colored Sharpies and excellent work ethic, we take it as a challenge, not as an indictment that we aren’t actually able. We hold so tightly to our own capabilities, to our attempts at knowing God through a list of rules, because it’s a little scary to let go, receive, and respond as he leads.
There is a wild, unruly aspect of identifying with Christ because we must set down the easily calculated checklist of the law and follow Someone whom we can’t see and often can’t feel and whom we all the time have trouble wrapping our minds around. Also, in identifying with Christ, we’re asked to do and be things that are impossible. Forgive an offender? Flee the lusts of the flesh? Be joyful always? Do everything without complaining?
If you’re still ticking off items on your good-Christian checklist and haven’t figured it out yet, let me tell you a little secret. There is a huge disclaimer to the Christian life, a disclaimer that for some reason most of us goodness-obsessed people have missed or have decidedly ignored. Here it is: the Christian life really is impossible. Those nagging thoughts questioning your own ability, which follow every sermon you hear or book you read or exhortation from a friend or command in the Word? Those thoughts are true—you can’t do it! You are not competent for the task. You can sticky-note verses all you want, but that’s not going to make you adequate to live the Christian life.
This may be a revelation to you. You may need to take a few deep breaths or spend a few moments gathering yourself in the quiet space among the color-sorted clothes in your closet. But, truly, think about it. As followers of Christ, we are asked to die to ourselves and take up his cross. He asks us to go against our very nature and embrace a life contrary to who we innately are. He asks a selfish and self-centered people to love and serve without expectation of return. He asks us to suffer with joy. He asks things of us that we cannot possibly do: be holy as he is holy, crucify our flesh with its passions and desires, put all our hope in an unseen reality.
The things God asks of those who follow Christ are attitudes and actions that involve the heart, a place that we can’t reach and can’t change, no matter our effort or desire.
Now that I’ve thoroughly discouraged you, I have another little secret. It’s not so much a secret as it is a misapplied or under-applied truth: God gives us what we need to live the Christian life, and he gives it in the form of himself. He dwells inside the believer and, if we allow him to, lives the Christian life for us!
When Jesus was about to die, he said—and this is so amazing that I can hardly stand it—“It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you” (John 16:7). To our advantage? Who is this Helper who could possibly be better than Jesus in the flesh, talking to us, physically leading us, doing miracles right in front of us?
This helper is the Holy Spirit.
Who Is This Helper?
In the church I grew up in, we never talked about the Holy Spirit. For years into my adulthood, anytime anyone mentioned the Holy Spirit I got a little fidgety and nervous. I’d seen the Holy Spirit misrepresented and even misused, and I’d known that He (it?) was Someone (something?) often talked about in hushed tones or ignored completely. This very much explains my personal struggle through legalism and spiritual perfectionism because those who are led by the Spirit are not under the law, and, clearly, I lived under the law and under the law alone. To my detriment, I was ignoring the Holy Spirit.
If we are to live by faith and in grace rather than by our own goodness, we cannot ignore the Holy Spirit. He is God, and just as we can’t talk about love without talking about Him, we can’t talk about freedom without talking about Him. Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. We can’t talk about love and joy and peace without talking about Him, because He is the One who produces those things in our hearts. And, interestingly enough, we can’t talk about goodness without talking about Him, because goodness is a fruit of the Spirit. So let’s talk about Him: what is the Holy Spirit’s role in our lives?
The Holy Spirit is who makes us competent for the Christian life.
Not that we are sufficient of ourselves to think of anything as being from ourselves, but our sufficiency is from God, who also made us sufficient as ministers of the new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:5–6)
Where our fleshly efforts cannot perfect us inwardly, the Spirit perfects us.
Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? . . . Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? (Galatians 3:3, 5)
The Spirit does for us what we cannot do on our own: He justifies and sanctifies.
He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5).
The Spirit enables us to pursue righteousness and do all that God asks of His followers.
I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish (Galatians 5:16–17).
The Holy Spirit, as is evident from even this small glimpse of Scripture, is the intimate, dynamic Person of the Godhead who is acting in and through us daily to live the Christian life. He is called our Counselor, our Advocate, our Intercessor, and our Helper. He seeks, saves, and sanctifies. He convicts of truth and sin and helps us to know the mind of God. The Holy Spirit is a living, breathing, affecting sticky note for the heart.
So let’s stop pretending we can be good Christians according to how we behave or look or speak or make decisions. Our external behaviors often look really good on paper, but we all know that good Christian behaviors do nothing to create joy in our hearts or help us know God’s love or enable us to fight off the lusts of the flesh. Let’s give up on this idea that a list of behaviors is the way to the abundant life.
Let’s also stop giving ourselves and others trite answers in the face of the daily struggles and realities of life. Directing people to have a quiet time, pray more, or go to church more isn’t going to change anything at the heart level. Directing people to God himself for comfort, security, and the ability to face the most difficult of circumstances? That is when we invite the Holy Spirit to come alive in our hearts to mend, lead, convict, and comfort.
Let’s stop fighting against what we all know from experience to be true: we can’t live this Christian life. We need help. Let’s fall into our weakness, not in a giving-up sense or a self-flogging sense, but in recognition that we live only by the power of God. “For though He was crucified in weakness, yet He lives by the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, but we shall live with Him by the power of God” (2 Corinthians 13:4).
This article is an excerpt from Christine’s book, From Good to Grace: Letting Go of the Goodness Gospel. Check out her latest book, With All Your Heart, as well!