A young friend of mine is struggling mightily to overcome a particular behavior that he considers sin. I don't say right out that it is sin because I know that he has a little confusion about the difference between "temptation" and "sin", and of course, if he is hoping to overcome temptation, then he is doomed to disappointment. But that is a subject for another day.
My purpose in writing this piece is to explore what I believe is a common mistake on his part, common because most believers make the same mistake - he has focused his attention and his efforts on obeying Christ rather than focusing on Christ Himself. The difference is subtle, but important.
My friend believes that by focusing on obeying Christ, he is focusing on Christ. I argue that focusing on obedience is self-centered, not Christ-centered.
And how do I justify my point of view? For some reason, I ended up thinking about language. We use language to express our beliefs about ourselves and about God. My young friend is determined to obey God, so his thoughts about the subject at hand could be expressed as:
I will obey God.
Every properly constructed English sentence has at minimum a subject, (the Actor), a predicate, (the Act), and an object, (the recipient of the action). So the sentence "I will obey God" can be parsed like this:
I: the Actor
will obey: the Action
God: the object of the Action performed by the Actor.
In this sentence, the Actor, (my friend) performs the Action and God is the passive recipient of that Action. In contrast, consider these sentences.
Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.
The difference between the two sentences is that "I" am the actor in the first sentence and "God" is the actor in the second. Another way to describe the contrast would be "Law" and "Grace". Under Grace, God is the Actor and I am the passive recipients of His action. Under The Law it is just the opposite, I Act and God is passive.
While we are certainly free as Xians to attempt to obey The Law, we are doomed to be disappointed by our efforts. The Law is spiritual, but we are made of flesh and blood. The Law, though it is perfect, holy and good, kills us. That's why God is no longer playing that game, (and we would do well to quit it, too.)
I know my friend is concerned about being holy, and I guess he believes that unless he gives it everything he's got, God is not going to be able to do His work. This approach to God is known as "Grace plus something else". It has the advantage of making us feel like we are contributing something to God's work, but it has the disadvantage of being utterly ineffective.
I guess some Xians believe that God lowers His standards for behavior once they become believers. They act like they believe that even though they occasionally lust or gossip or engage in gluttony or unrighteous anger, God is cool with that as long as they say "I'm sorry" and promise to try extra-special hard the next time around.
Jesus said that the entire Law was summed up in these two commands:
Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
I know absolutely no one who manages to obey those two laws perfectly, yet they are very simple. Worse, we cannot WILL ourselves to obey because the command is to LOVE, and LOVE is something that cannot be coerced, it can only exist in an environment where it is freely given. My young friend tries to obey God because He fears what will happen if He does not, yet in His fearing, He is failing to obey. How in the world can we escape from this dilemma?
Jesus was asked once, "what must I do to do the works of God" and His explicit answer was, "believe on the One whom God has sent."
God is not now, and never has been, impressed with our efforts. Our righteousness is as filthy rags to him. Our job is not to work hard. Our job is to trust Christ - trust Him in spite of our sins, trust Him in spite of our successful attempts at righteousness. Trust Him in spite of our fear. Trust Him to do what He said He would do. Trust Him to act on our behalf. Trust Him.