It seemed like every ounce of flesh wrapped around my bones pulled away from what my pastor was saying. I found myself resisting the truth he was speaking with the same furor as I resist putting my hand in a flame.
“Look, Ethan,” he told me, “it seems like you don’t have a relationship with God as much as you do with laws and rules.”
I internally recoiled from his words. I couldn’t be one of those guys.
Could I possibly have become the pharisaical monitor of right and wrong? I love God! I thought to myself. I’m, like, the opposite of a rule-follower.
He proceeded to move forward and deconstruct many of my actions the past few months, for which I am now apologizing to you, my readers. I owe you an apology for being prideful, and worst of all, for watering down the gospel of grace.
See, as insightful as I thought I was, I was still living in a place of labeling certain actions as ‘good,’ and others as ‘bad.’ Today I realized that’s not true.
Because God is not about self-improvement.
He doesn’t want us to slowly pick ourselves up by our bootstraps, and slowly, over the next fifty years or so, to crawl nearer to Him. He isn’t sitting there, checking off columns as He observes our Good and Bad actions.
Robert Farrar Capon puts it more distinctly:
Grace cannot prevail until law is dead, until moralizing is out of the game. The precise phrase should be, until our fatal love affair with the law is over—until, finally and for good, our lifelong certainty that someone is keeping score has run out of steam and collapsed.
I realized that so many of my actions the past few months have been contrary to Christ-like living, even though they were praised as just that.
I went on TV 12 times in one week, nearly every time, mentioning that I am a Christian and I am grateful for what Christ has done for me. But what did this do? It made me more appealing to many Christians, and less appealing to non-believers. It didn’t reflect the weakness that Paul showed, or the humility with which Christ conducted His ministry, but a braggart gospel of power and of myself.
A few months later, I announced a new campaign to talk about pornography, and specifically my struggles with it, which was also lauded with praises of being ‘vulnerable’ and ‘encouraging.’ But it really was just a careful packaging of my sins so as to just be appealing enough: Ethan the humble, broken hero.
“That’s not what confession is,” my pastor told me today. “True confession should make everyone you confess to want to flee the room. Confession is a painful, self-depricating, and nauseating exposure of our true selves. When confession is true, we are exposed; we do not do the confessing.”
I am not a good person.
Therefore, every action I have ever done is not a good one. Confession is letting another human being catch a glimpse of this (because OH! how we use every mechanism in our arsenal to hide ourselves: humor, intellect, godliness and good looks, to name a few).
And if I am not a good person, and nothing I can do will make me such, what am I striving for?
“There are two types of repulsive sinners,” my pastor continued. “Prostitutes and Pharisees.”
“By fighting so hard to quit struggling with pornography, you’re really just trying to convert from a Prostitute to a Pharisee. It’s sin management. You don’t have a porn problem, you have an Ethan problem.”
God is not interested in self-improvement.
He is interested in perfection. Anything short of perfection repulses Him.
So what is my option then? I wondered. Surely God doesn’t want me to keep walking in sin!
“You’re a whore right now. Don’t aspire to be a Pharisee,” he said. “The only option is death.”
I nodded as I detected a whiff of grace in the air.
Grace is not a completion of laws and rules. It is not a mere forgiveness of wrongdoing, but it is setting ablaze the entire law book. It is violently demolishing the systems we have constructed to dictate how life ought to be lived.
In grace, Jesus moves toward us and takes upon Himself our sin and shame. This was a trite phrase until my pastor put it this way: “Ethan no longer has a porn addiction. Jesus does.”
What?! Jesus doesn’t have a porn addiction! Jesus is perfect!
We so often talk about Jesus taking all of our sins to the cross, but when it becomes more tangible than abstract, we shudder. Surely Something so holy cannot move so near to us and take our burdens from us! Surely He can’t be that good!
If Jesus truly comes to us with an offer to trade lives, the implications are huge. It means He takes ALL of our life, and gives none of it back. It means an utter destruction of sin.
It means we die.
Paul wrote, “it is no longer I who lives, but Christ who lives in me.”
If Jesus takes our entire life, what do I get? I get Him. I get His perfect life.
Daily I am tempted to return to the Gospel of Good Works. Shame whispers into my ear that I’m not good enough, and if I just improved a little more, then I’d be okay. Shame calls us back to a god that says just be a little better, then I’ll chill with you.
The voice of Jesus says, I did not come for the healthy but the sick; I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.
So, my friend, are you being scorched by the holy? Is He drawing so near to you that everything else you have bound yourself to has melted away, or are you still clinging to your handful of good deeds like a child holds a mound of sand?
We are a sinful people of weak faith.
And we are approached by a God whose terrible strength extends an open hand and invites us to let Him kill us.
And what a beautiful death it is!
Listen carefully: Unless a grain of wheat is buried in the ground, dead to the world, it is never any more than a grain of wheat. But if it is buried, it sprouts and reproduces itself many times over. In the same way, anyone who holds on to life just as it is destroys that life. But if you let it go, reckless in your love, you’ll have it forever, real and eternal.
John 12:24-25, The Message