So many of the decisions people make are connected in some way to the status we perceive ourselves to have. Whether we want to protect our reputation or to improve it, and whether we want to shield ourselves from disapproval or to gain approval, we tend to care a lot about how well we’re doing. That’s not necessarily bad. Children seek their parents’ approval so that they know they’re operating acceptably in the world they’re discovering. We avoid dishonorable conduct in the academic and professional realms because, among other reasons, we acknowledge the repercussions of being caught in dishonesty.
At the bottom of our hearts, we just want to know we’re okay, that we’re doing well at whatever we’re putting our hearts and minds into. There are definitely real problems with evaluating our worth and our success based on the opinions of other people, just as there are problems with doing so based on our own personal, subjective measures of what is good. At one extreme end are people-pleasers, and at the other, narcissists.
But the desire to do well is just another good thing that God has planted in the heart of human nature that, when corrupted by sin as we believe lies about ourselves, gets twisted into compromised versions of truth and goodness. When we’ve believed that we need people’s approval in order to be okay, we develop a fear of man. When we think that we, and anyone who thinks similarly to us, are alone best qualified to judge ourselves, we develop an arrogant shortsightedness. Agreeing with subtle lies transforms our entire perspective on goodness, and on everything else as well.
In the Kingdom of God, one of the primary objectives of Christ is to restore broken things. He allowed Himself to be broken, so that we could be raised to new life with Him, completely whole. His name, Prince of Peace, actually refers to the Hebrew word “shalom,” a word whose meaning is much richer than the Western concept of peace that mainly implies the absence of conflict. “Shalom” means wholeness, goodness, blessing, general wellness and well being. Christ is the King of Making Things Okay.
So He is the One by whose standard I determine whether I’m okay. Not by mine, in which I can either excuse or condemn all my own actions so that I destroy myself by either over-inflation or implosion. Not by everyone else’s either, since the ever-changing and conflicting standards of imperfect people would pull me apart in every direction. Christ is the One who gets to decide whether I am okay, to define my wellness, my success at being someone. Then I, as an individual emerging to new life out of an old world where everybody agreed with lies and our perspectives got twisted, I get to decide whether I’m going to agree with the Truth He makes available about myself. Now that God has given everything and set it before me, all He asks is my “Yes,” my “Amen,” because He won’t force me to let Him untwist my self-concept. I have to choose to agree with the opinion of the One who is both the Truth and the King of Making Things Okay.
So what does He say about us? What is God’s opinion? We approach Him hoping He’s not too mad about everything we wish we’d never done, or the things we forgot we did. As we follow Christ, we hope He’s not evaluating us based on how perfectly we perform, how often the sick get healed when we pray for them, or how well we know Him. Even while we study the Scriptures to find out what’s true about Him, it’s incredibly easy to inadvertently start projecting our assumptions on God about how we please Him.
When we believe that by our faith in Christ we have been cleansed of all unrighteousness, it becomes easier to believe we’re “okay.” But if you’re like me, you still want to know that when you’re putting all your heart and soul into a pursuit, that you’re doing “okay” at that pursuit. I know I’m justified completely by the blood of Christ, so I’ve become His disciple. But frequently I wonder whether I’m a good disciple, and I tend to doubt I’m doing very well at following Him.
In John 14:12, we read that Jesus describes all Christians with this jaw-dropping generalization:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in Me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.” (English Standard Version)
When I see this statement, I feel a combination of what Bill Johnson (Pastor of Bethel Church, Redding, CA) describes as the “appetite for the impossible” that should be normal in the redeemed; as well as a curiosity about what these ‘greater works” look like in my time and location; but last I often feel a sadness that that isn’t what my life looks like, and I wonder why not.
I tend to get self-conscious about the disconnect, wondering what’s the matter with me, instead of God-conscious about the connection, wondering what He’s longing to do with me. There’s a problem when I am more ready to believe that there is something so fundamentally wrong with me, that I would become unable to receive the promises of God, than I am ready to believe there is no deficiency in me so profound that the blood of Christ and the goodness of the Father are insufficient to surmount it.
The Apostle Paul experienced a radical conversion from a militant persecutor of Christians to the Holy Spirit-filled author of most of the New Testament, and he thought of himself as the “least of all the saints.” He knew he was ministering well in the churches to whom he traveled, preached, and wrote letters, but he didn’t think of himself as a “great” saint. He was operating out of an intimate relationship with a God who preaches that the greatest among us, in this upside-down Kingdom, are those who behave as the least, as the servants of everybody else. He deeply understood that what justified him was the grace and the sacrifice God had given by behaving as a Servant. He wrote about it to the church at Philippi, and in Philippians 2:8 he illustrates the humility of the Servant King:
“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, He made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!” (New International Version)
How does a person respond to a God who acts like this? When His approach to me is to step down from the highest place, get down and crawl to the lowest place, in order to lift me up, it seems as though I can never respond to Him adequately. We can start comparing ourselves to someone like Paul, the “least of the saints,” who brought the Gospel to the Gentiles by the masses, or to Peter, who healed people by the power of Jesus just by casting a shadow on them. I could compare myself to Todd White, a man who operates in the gifts of words of knowledge and healing so constantly that he can’t go out in public without people receiving a radical touch from God. Maybe I should be more like Heidi Baker, through whose ministry in Mozambique the Lord is providing food and resources, academic opportunity, spiritual sustenance, physical healing, and adoption to tens of thousands of the poorest people in the world. I want to be a good disciple, moving in the power of the Spirit. How am I to respond to a God who is so deserving?
His answer has never been, “Be more like your brother, he’s better than you.” These people lived these things just because they always tell God “yes.” He doesn’t need us to make ourselves adequate, He’s already done that. He only ever wanted us to respond with a “yes.”
I look back at what Jesus says, and I realize that the only sense in which He ever asks us to compare ourselves to others is in counting prioritizing each other’s needs above our own, in love. He says the “greater things” are done by those who believe, that those who believe are those who love, and that those who love are those who obey. Maybe when He makes grand statements about the impossibilities He’s expecting to see in believers’ lives, it’s not to place a heavy burden on us, to do what we can’t do. He says His burden is light. Maybe He’s actually making a promise, calling us up to a greater reality where nothing is impossible with God, and His Kingdom comes on earth as it is in Heaven, because He’s confident in what He can do. He just wants a “yes,” our consent to let Him do the impossible at our hands as workers in the harvest.
We all just want to know we’re doing okay. I think we won’t believe that we’re okay as long as we treat the promises He’s made to call us into greatness, as standards by which to judge how good we are at being His friends. When we do that, we’re taking the words of the King of Making Things Okay, in which He informs us about how He plans to make us okay and use us to set right all kinds of broken things, and we misconstrue what He said to mean He needs us to be good enough to make it happen.
We are His Plan A, and there’s no Plan B. Our faithfulness and our obedience are of unquestionable importance. But I’m starting to the think that we must live out this New Life in the same way in which we were reborn into it: not by striving, not by knowing everything, but by grace through faith.
Hebrews 11:6 “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (New International Version)
Maybe we’ll stress ourselves out less if we believe Him that our mustard seed of faith is enough to please Him, and that He’ll know we have faith by our simple trust that He’s there to reward our honest pursuit. That means I don’t have to be an expert at anything at all in order to please God, in order to be “good at” following Him. The King of Making Things Okay has restored shalom to my soul, healed me of my sin and supplied for all my deficiencies. Now, in order to do well at following Him, I need only believe that He has done so, and respond by the pursuit of Him.
And maybe the standard of how good I am at following Christ has less to do with how well I’ve already come to know Him, and more to do with how well He knows me. He knows me so completely, and His faith is more than enough to make all His dreams happen in me. Maybe it’s not so important how much I already understand, or what I’m already doing, but it means everything that He understands, and He’s done everything. The mind of God is the one that needs to extend beyond all boundaries in order for the Kingdom of Heaven to lay siege to the world.
I just want to do a good job at my little part in helping Him. But if all it takes for me to know I’m doing okay, is to know He’s justified me, and to respond by the ongoing pursuit of Him, falling deeper in this love with the Beautiful One, then maybe being His good servant is actually all about being His friend first. He has my “yes,” and in the ongoing discovery of the One who explores the depths of Himself and of myself, I can’t help but do a good job. Loving Him is always the right way to go. Our relationship is much too precious to Him, for Him not to be the One in charge of making sure our Love stays beautiful and bears fruit in this world, where praises go up, and Heaven comes down.