By: Emily Miller
As a little girl I had clear expectations of my grown-up self. I would be tall, weigh a mere hundred pounds, and somehow still be able to take on at least ten strong men in a fight. I would have long, glimmering hair and I would be a Jedi.
My expectations shifted as I grew older: I watched Pearl Harbor and decided to be a nurse in the navy, I read about Gladys Aylward and Corrie Ten Boom and decided that I would adopt children and hide endangered people in my home. I read about the early Christians and resolved to be a martyr. The plot would change but my vision of adult Emily was always of a woman whose stunning beauty was only eclipsed by her character as she bravely sacrificed herself in some awe-inspiring way.
I grew up. Adult Emily weighs more than 100 pounds and has adjusted her exercise goal from fighting gangs of men to getting the endorphins she needs to fight off unwanted mood swings. I have not laid my life down in a grand, awe-inspiring way but struggle with the small, every-day sacrifices of being a stay-at-home mom. I was recently told by a therapist that: “I think you’ve figured out how to clean instead of drinking or doing drugs. So that’s pretty successful.” Adult Emily has needed therapy; and her new standard of success is “not an alcoholic”.
How’s your January going? Did you start off the year with resolutions? Have you kept them? Were you hopeful? Have you met your expectations?
I used to make new year resolutions. I used to see life as a list to check off, as a journey of self-betterment; I used to misread the Gospel as self-improvement.
The Gospel of self-improvement says that Jesus died for me so I should pay Him back, that God’s done His part so now it’s time to do mine, and reduces Jesus to a tool to make me a better person.
The word Gospel means Good News and this was my first clue that I was missing something. How is it Good News to realize that I am a horrible person, a perfect God-man came and did something as over-the-top as die for me, and now I have to be loveable enough to deserve that kind of love? I was seeing God as a nagging mother. “I spent 9 months, hours of agony, and countless sleepless nights and you can’t even take out the trash!” And I was a guilt-ridden daughter. Jesus died for me and I can’t even feel properly thankful.
I was believing a false gospel. And like all false gospels there’s a bait-and-switch. Self-help promises help but leaves you with the burden of being the help you need. Self-love promises love but ignores the fact that love exists only in your interaction with an other. Self-care promises you wholeness and makes you figure out how to care for yourself. Help, love, and care are necessary and good but they come from another and not from within ourselves.
False gospels come with false gods. I had exalted the good desire to be good to my ultimate desire. Jesus was a tool for me to become the person I wanted to be. Improvement is a good thing and a by-product of relationship with Jesus but I had made it my god. My relationship with Jesus was self-centered, not Jesus-centered.
Galations 2:19-21 saved me from my false gospel of self-improvement. “For when I tried to keep the law, it condemned me. So I died to the law—I stopped trying to meet all its requirements—so that I might live for God. My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not treat the grace of God as meaningless. For if keeping the law could make us right with God, then there was no need for Christ to die.”
The Gospel is Good News. I fall short, of my own expectations of myself and of the demands of my perfectly holy Creator. Jesus came, not to make me, a bad person, into a good person but to bring me, a dead person, to life. When I put my faith in Christ I nailed my old desires, my false gods, and my human effort to be good enough for God to the cross and died to myself. I live because Jesus lives, I am lovable because God loves me, and I am good because Jesus clothed me with His righteousness.
Cheap grace is another false gospel. It proclaims that Jesus died so that I can live however I want, that God did something so that I don’t have to, and reduces Jesus to a get-out-of-hell-free card. This gospel leaves you in bondage to your own desires and tricks you into thinking that you have something which you don’t.
“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name.’ But I will reply, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.” Matthew 7:21-23
So in Matthew it says that only those who do God’s will get to enter His Kingdom, and in Galatians it says that we should die to the law. How do these two facts fit together?
“So we have stopped evaluating others from a human point of view. At one time we thought of Christ merely from a human point of view. How differently we know him now! This means that anyone who belongs to Christ has become a new person. The old life is gone; a new life has begun!” (1 Corinthians 5:16-17)
Real faith in Jesus makes us into new people, not better people. We become alive to Jesus, He changes our desires, the Holy Spirit lives within us, and we improve as the result of that transformation. Jesus becomes ultimate, my sins are washed away, temptations lose their shine, and my accomplishments don’t matter because Jesus matters.
We are new creations… being sanctified in a war zone. We have not yet seen Jesus and so we are not yet made completely like Him. (1 John 3:2) We are in a daily fight not to improve ourselves but to keep our eyes on Jesus. He is the author and the perfecter of our faith. (Hebrews 12:1-3) Our job is cling to Him and remember that the true Gospel is not self-improvement but Good News.
I am still not what I want to be, but I am truly free. Yes, I’m weak, but Jesus is strong. Yes, I’m foolish at times, but I have a Good Shepherd. Yes, I’m self-centered, but Jesus is doing what it takes to make me more and more like Him.
I myself no longer live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body – that weighs more than 100 pounds – by trusting in the Son of God Who loved me so much that He gave Himself for me. His grace is not meaningless.
Emily is a mother of two young children and has little time for much else. She began a daily quiet time at age thirteen, and her relationship with Jesus has remained a constant for Emily as she went from being a missionary kid in Mongolia, to working as a barista in Oregon, to marrying and starting a family in Florida. Emily enjoys writing poetry, dancing while doing housework, watching storms, and laughing at her husband, children, and herself.