It’s intimidation time. I’m on the back porch talking to a middle-aged symbol of virility. The man has a barrel chest, a silk shirt, a gold chain around his neck, and the faint scent of cologne. He has heard I’m a preacher, and now wants to teach me the Bible. What would I do without this extra schooling? He’s trying to explain to me why it’s okay for a married man to lust after other women as long as he doesn’t sleep with them. I remind him Jesus still calls that behavior adultery of the heart. My “Bible teacher” halts for a moment as though he’s hit a speed bump. “I get what Jesus was trying to say,” he says. “But that command is a bit extreme.” Then the guy goes on to strengthen his case using phrases like “human nature” and “window shopping” and “look with your eyes, but not with your hands.” Gee whiz. What profound stuff. I notice men air out these sketchy views when they’re being challenged to rise above their personal weaknesses.
The fact is, Jesus makes us nervous. If you think He doesn’t, take this verse for a test drive: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Here’s another one from God the Father: “You shall be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:16). Both of them call and command us to be like God. Whenever I see these passages, I feel a certain visceral need to explain them away. They sound difficult, if not impossible. They also sound suspiciously performance driven—a no-no in the evangelical world, where we prefer to speak of relationship instead of being and doing things.
Rats. Somebody needs to at least take the edge off the whole thing. And Christians have often done so…poorly.
Opinions in some circles say you must not attempt to be or do anything in the Christian life until you feel it is normal to you. Supposedly, that keeps it real. If you don’t feel like doing what the Bible commands, and you do it anyway, that suggests you are faking the Christian life. Yet we go to work without wanting to go. Does that mean we’re hypocrites? We also do homework and practice musical instruments when we don’t feel like it. Do those things mean we’re phonies? It more likely indicates we are responsible and committed people who have found something more important than our moods.
A follow-up idea tells us to wait for the Holy Spirit to make us behave. This “Be who you are until you’re different” approach creates a passive attitude toward Christian growth. It basically says that the guy on the back porch with me who drools over every skirt he sees, will one day, unexplainably, stop. Blind-sided by the work of the Holy Spirit, obedience will simply happen to him. It probably won’t though. The Bible describes the indispensable role of God’s work within—If Christ isn’t living in us, then we can forget living Christ. Yet there are scores of moral imperatives in the New Testament that command our activity.
When it comes to righteousness, we’re not told to wait or to feel. We’re told to practice (1 John 2:29). That means some things in the Christian life don’t come automatically. Some don’t feel natural right out of the starting gate. Ice skaters look like they were born on ice. They weren’t. They started off as awkward monstrosities. Then a hovering, slightly neurotic mom enforced a regimen of practice. Thousands of hours later, the same kid with wobbly knees who looked like an ostrich in combat boots, now seems fluid and graceful.
It won’t be long before we encounter some required “moves” we think are impossible. That’s when theology hits the fan. We look for loopholes, ways around the requirement. Maybe the Bible has been translated or interpreted wrongly. In some extreme cases Christians suspect that maybe the Bible itself is just plain wrong. A lot of this comes from being terribly ashamed of what we can’t do or the exhaustion brought on by trying.
But the practice of righteousness is about learning grace—grace in the face of failure as well as grace for successfully rejecting sin (Titus 2:11-12). Grace says to the adulterous woman in John chapter 8, “Does no one condemn you? Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” That message essentially says to us, “No condemnation!” and in the next breath, “Stop sinning!”
The perfectionists among us can become so disappointed that they’re crushed by their own failures. It’s hard to resume practice when every fall means benching yourself and breaking out the Twinkies. You have to learn the grace of God’s unconditional love and acceptance so you can go on practicing righteousness without fear. Still, even while pursuing Christ-likeness with gusto, we will find the experience grueling without a coach, an enabler. We won’t even know how to tie on our skates. In this case, you have to learn the grace of God’s supply for victory, that you’re not alone in practicing turns, spins, and jumps. You have an indwelling glorious helper who loves you and loves what you’re doing (John 14:15-16).
It’s going to be okay, really.