Living with two young boys, I’m bombarded daily with stories of good and bad. They love to tell me how they’ve been shortchanged by one another or by friends or at the soccer field or at school. And, surprisingly, they are always the hero of the tale. The one who has done no wrong. The star in the night sky. Oh, how I relate!
I, too, want to be the heroine of my life. The one who saves the day. The one who rescues with all her innate goodness. I mean, isn’t this the story of any classic tale? True, great epics tend to deliver a salivating tale of good versus evil. Two opposing forces working to knock each other out of the game. One in which we can take the side of the hero/ine, championing his or her cause, and cheer them to the end, “Yay! The good guys have won again!”
Truthfully, I struggle with the notion of “good”. For many a year, I have attempted to be “good”, towing the line, doing what is “right”. I have followed the prescribed course of what in middle-class American culture is considered “good”: college degree, married and a home in the burbs. Our family attends church, bills are paid on time and meals are cooked and eaten together. Does this prescribed course of good really mean anything? I am unsure.
Sure, this is all goodness in our life. Yet, what happens in the quieter, smaller setting of relationship when I let people down, cast people out, and gossip? What happens when I get mad about silly things and store up resentment? What about when I insist on complaining about all that isn’t going my way? This doesn’t leave me considering myself very “good”. Rather, letting myself and others down only leads to feeling “bad”. Very very bad. And, having a propensity for “good”, I’ve never wanted to be bad.
No, I’ve never wanted to be known for taking part in “bad” dealings, being cruel or harmful. And, I’ve tended to stay far from people who seep this. Because, when I am my “bad” self, I don’t like myself much and I get pretty low. I find if I’m hanging around “badness”, it seems to rub off on me. And, a veil of shame descends on my being. However, when I am “good”, I can puff myself up and think how great I am. Wow, look at me, being all good and stuff.
Because of this fear of bad and the perceptions that roll with it, I’ve long pursued good. Pursued good through achievement and success. Pursued good through image and attempting to please. I want to “do the right thing”. But, honestly, holding up “good” gets heavy after a while… and, it’s impossible to keep up with. I falter. “Bad” takes the lead and shame comes again. A vicious cycle of burden.
There was a point in time when I thought being good was the point of Jesus. I mean, after all, if I’m doing good things, then don’t I earn his love? And, I wanted Jesus’ love, so, I better be good. There was a point in time when I tried hard focusing on goodness through pious attempts. If I help, then I am good. Noone needs to know that I lose my temper easily upon leaving this place. If I give my service, I get accolades. This feels pretty good and I can forget about my awry ways. Noone needs to know the doubts and fears that plague me.
And, then, an announcement in my life arrived. A huge, earth shattering call. So altering. So shifting. And it was this: the truth I’d been carrying was all wrong. My “good” and “bad” beliefs were total bunk. GRACE was shouted into my life. What is grace? I’m fond of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s definition in her book, Pastrix:
Grace isn’t about God creating humans as flawed beings and then acting all hurt when we inevitably fail and then stepping in like the hero to grant us grace—like saying “Oh, it’s OK, I’ll be a good guy and forgive you.” It’s God saying, “I love the world too much to let your sin define you and be the final word. I am a God who makes all things new.
My sin doesn’t define me. My sin. Well… truth be told, grace irritated me at first. “What do you mean, me sinful? I am good! And, anyway, what about all the really bad people in the world. You mean, God’s love is for them too?” It took me a while, but, slowly, I began to see. I, my human self, is just that. Human. Messy. Broken. Cranky. Sad. Moody. Temperamental. Judgmental. Selfish. Every. Single. Day. I struggle with insecurities beyond measure. My thought life is filled with judgment and anxiety. And Jesus says, “Come bring your broken self and I will make you whole. I will make you new.”
Initially, I didn’t really know what this meant or what being new was about. The trouble was the swinging pendulum of two pulling thoughts. On one end, it was easy to think, “I am so good in my life; I don’t need any help. It’s everyone else who needs assistance.” And on the other end to think, “I am so terrible, how could anyone love this mess?” There needed to be restoration in regards to these swaying thoughts. This is where repentance came in. Again, Nadia, in her book, Pastrix, writes “Repentance in Greek means something much closer to “thinking differently afterward” than it does “changing your cheating ways.”
Now, several years later, I understand this. As I encountered the unfaltering love of Christ, I began to see in a new way. I saw clearer the ways Christ loves humanity. I saw the brokenness of people in the Bible who were still ordained for Christ’s work. I experienced the grace of Christ through interactions with people who came along beside me. I began to take ownership of my shortcomings and was overcome that I was still loved and accepted. Encountering Christ led to repentance and repentance led to thinking differently.
Today I recognize God as the provider of goodness in my life. I cannot do life alone; I need God. Today, I know I am not either/or; rather, I am both/and. I am both good and bad at times. I am learning to live in the tension of this. I’ve often dwelt on the holiness of Christ; attempting to become holier. But, I’ve realized Jesus didn’t come so we would become holier and hold it over others’ heads. Yes, Jesus is divine, but he is also human. I’m taking a closer look at His human ways. This is helping me see my human tendencies differently. Jesus came to show us how to love God and walk with others in their brokenness. Jesus cries at loss. Jesus is angry with injustice. Jesus is prayerful. Jesus is a healing presence. Jesus pours out His merciful love to us in order that we can pour merciful love to others in their brokenness. This is the good news of the gospel. Not that we become “good”, but that we see the goodness of God, even in the mess. In our messy selves. In the messiness of others. And we embrace all of it.
For a while, I was in the habit of holding the moral yardstick over my kids, telling them how good they are, reminding them to “do the right thing.” Now, we are careful about the words “good” and “bad” in our home. Of course, I desire for my kids to make great choices in their life, and struggle when they don’t. But, their “bad” choices give me the opportunity to practice grace, loving them for who they are, not what they “do”. I fail at this opportunity quite often, and then, I, too, can be grateful for the grace I receive from God!
Yes, I know all good things come from God. God is the creator of goodness. So, in essence, any goodness which pours forth from any of us comes from God. This is not of our own doing, this is the Spirit working within. This truth takes the pressure off me being “good”. And, it takes the pressure off my kids having to be “good”. Now, they can be themselves, loved for who they are, good or bad, restored by Christ. And, again, this feels like the path to freedom.
“For it’s by God’s grace that you have been saved. You receive it through faith. It was not our plan or our effort. It is God’s gift, pure and simple. You didn’t earn it, not one of us did, so don’t go around bragging that you must have done something amazing. For we are the product of His hand, heaven’s poetry etched on lives, created in the Anointed, Jesus, to accomplish the good works God arranged long ago.” – Ephesians 2:8-10 The Voice
Take time to reflect on the idea of God’s gift of grace for your life.
To A Child:
How does it feel to be forgiven by a friend?
Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber
What’s So Amazing About Grace? by Phillip Yancey
A prayer of intention, Extending Grace by Ally Markotich