Struggling with Grace

In the past few years, God’s been teaching me more about grace. Having grown up as a Christian, I took it for granted that I was saved apart from works, to the point that I didn’t really know what it means to live by grace. And so, entering the last few years of high school, I was still struggling with grace, works, and sin, and frankly, my conscience was still bound to a very legalistic mindset.

Recently, I’ve been reading up on Paul’s theology, specifically as set forth in Galatians. The book of Galatians expresses Paul’s surprise and disappointment that the Galatian Christians would so quickly return to a lifestyle bound by the Law after accepting salvation by grace. Hearing that they are considering supplementing the Gospel with circumcision, Paul asks why they would want to “turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world” (Galatians 4:9, ESV). The Law, marked by the seal of circumcision, is powerless to save. For Paul, works cannot justify man before God, and to return to works as a rule of life is to take a step back in redemptive history.

This return to works is still prevalent in the church today. It certainly was my struggle in high school. Sure, I believed that I was saved by God’s grace, apart from any merit of my own. Christ died for me while I was still a sinner. This, I had accepted years ago when I was still a child; yet, for some reason, going through high school, I continued telling myself that I had to do something to prove my self. My faith had to be supplemented by works, by obedience to the Law, by a strict, moral lifestyle. Morality, the Law, good works—these are doubtless all good, but my motive in pursuing them was completely backwards. I was attempting to use these things to commend myself before God, to prove to myself and to Him that my faith was genuine. I was not “being good” out of a heart of love for God, but I was “being good” out of a heart of compulsion. I was, in fact, making the same mistake as the Galatians by turning to works rather than to God’s grace.

Ironically, it was through works that God once again broke me into returning to his grace. He allowed me to struggle with sin, time and time again. Despite my best efforts, I could not overcome even my smallest problems. I am not now referring to sin as a whole, but only to a very specific set of sins in my life, which I thought I should be able to conquer. But God allowed me to struggle, and He allowed me to fail utterly to commend myself before Him. Somewhere along the line, though, it clicked. I began to realize that grace is not a one-time event, but it is an ongoing gift that we rely on not only for our justification, but also for our sanctification. God finally got it in my head that just as works are powerless to justify, so they are also powerless to sanctify.

Grace means that I am already forgiven. It means that I don’t have to do anything to be saved. To continue commending myself before God through works is to take a step back and deny the efficacy of what Christ did on the cross for me. Being familiar with Christian lingo, I was using “sanctification” as an excuse to return to works as a way to secure a peace of mind. Subconsciously, I kept telling myself that I was justified by grace through faith, but I was sanctifying myself through works. But as Paul shows in Galatians, this type of thinking is totally backwards. There is no return to works for one who is saved by grace.

Here, I must insert the customary disclaimer and say that grace doesn’t mean I’m now free to sin. But even in writing this disclaimer, I’m once again tempted to think that I have to obey in order to be saved. Thankfully, the beauty of grace is that it releases us from compulsion so that we are free to live not according to the Law, but according to the Spirit. As Christians, saved by the blood of Christ, we are no longer compelled to fulfill the requirements of the Law, but we are called to bear the fruits of the Spirit. This is where I’ll end tonight, because (conveniently) this also happens to be where I’m at in my walk with Christ. For now, my prayer for myself, for all of us, is that we’d continue in God’s saving grace, relying in Him not only for our justification, but also for our sanctification.

The Afterwards to Come

Just out of curiousity, I picked up a book that tells the stories behind the hymns we find in church – the songs we rarely pick up because we often prefer Tim Hughes or Hillsong.  More than anything, I sought to revitalize my appreciation of hymns.  As I was browsing through, one hymn called “After” really moved me through the story that inspired the author to write.

N.B. Vandall had fought in World War I and survived –  in 1934, he was happily married and the father of two children.  One day, he went out to call the boys to dinner.  This is what happened, in Vandall’s own words:

Rushing down the steps, I saw our second boy, Ted, running toward me.  He was choking with hysteria. I had to shake him before he realized who I was.

“What’s wrong, son? Here’s Daddy.  You’re not hurt, are you? Come on, now, what’s wrong?”

“Oh Daddy!” he gasped.  “I’m all right – but it’s Paul!”

Between sobs he gasped out the story.  Paul, playing between the curb and the sidewalk, ahd been hit by a car, out of control by its driver. It had dragged him up the street.  Paul ahd been covered with blood when taken from under the car, unable to speak.

We found Paul in a nearby doctor’s office, still unconscious.  the docotor had called an ambulance to take the boy to the hospital and was quite hopeless about his condition.  The hospital docotor confirmed his fears.  The boy had a brain concussion, a fractured skull, a broken leg, a shoulder misplaced, the left collar bone broken, and the left side of his head literally scalped and lost in the dirt of the street.

The surgeon, kind but frank, said, “The boy is badly hurt.  We will do the best we can, but do not hope for too much.”

I replied, “Doctor, I am sure you will do the very best you can, but you hold out so little hope.  I am a World War veteran, having served with the Marines for almost two years, and I’ve seen some hard things – they said I was tough. But I’m a Christian minister now, and this is my  boy and you offer no hope.  Please let me stand by and hold his hand and pray while you do what has to be done.”

The doctor looked me over for what seemed an eternity and then granted my request. For one hour and fifteen minutes, I held on in prayer while they cleaned and sewed up the head wounds.  Then we took Paul upstairs and set the broken bones.  No opiates were given because of his heart condition.  The doctor said, “His heart cannot stand any more and may stop at any time.”

Wearily I made my way back to my humble home.  I tried to comfort my wife by telling her that everything was all right, when, in my heart, I had no assurance.

I fell on my knees and tried to pray – words would not come.  I remember only, “Oh, God!”

I am glad that we serve a God who knows our heart’s cry.  Hardly had those words been uttered when God came. I seemed to me that Jesus knelt by my side and I could feel his arms around me as He said, “Never mind, my child.  Your home will be visited with tribulation and sorrow, but in the afterwards to come, these things shall not be.  Your home is in heaven, where tears shall be wiped away.”

Here is the hymn Vandall wrote immediately following this experience:

“After the toil and the heat of the day, after my troubles are past, after the sorrows are taken away, I shall see Jesus at last.

After the heart-aches and sighing shall cease, after the cold winter’s blast, after the conflict comes glorious peace – I shall see Jesus at last.

After the shadows of evening shall fall, after my anchor is cast, after I list to my Saviour’s last call, I shall see Jesus at last.

He will be waiting for me – Jesus, so kind and true; on His beautiful throne, He will wecome me home after the day is through.”

Vandall’s son Paul did recover, though still nervous and with impaired vision.  Vandall offered praise saying “I thank God for His goodness in giving him back to us.  God in His wisdom, through heartache, gave a song that has been a comfort to a vast number of His people.”

Looking back at my first year in college, I feel burdened by the ways I feel I failed, the fear I felt in maybe making a drastic mistake in going to UCLA, my hopelessness in deciding my future, my guilt in not achieving the goals I set, and the backsliding my faith suffered many times.  There were instances where I felt so winded and dizzy from the pressure of college that I could do nothing but lie in bed wanting the day to end before it even began.  The only consolation I could often find was in reading through the Psalms, screaming David’s words in my heart.

Now that I’m in the brief calm of summer, I still do not have the answers to most of the struggles I went through in my first year.  I know in my head Jesus is the answer, but my heart shakes in doubt as I try to offer it completely to Christ.    As Vandall looked on hopelessly at his broken son, I look at the shattered glass in my hands that was my frail pride and worldly aspirations.  In some ways, I feel like Vandall in that I sometimes can only cry, “Oh, God!” in my weakness and fragility.

The realization hit me: as long as I place my hopes in the things of this world, I will never feel safe, I will never feel comforted, I will never feel good enough; if I continue to see death as the end to my worth, my life will be worthless within the century.  As Vandall could not place his hopes upon the chance of his son living, so I cannot place my hopes on the fleeting shadow of worldly success. And all the while Jesus Christ, only Christ, can offer a way out from this prison I built for myself.  What I can hope for is, rather than an end to my troubles, a promise of living eternally in the embrace of the God of galaxies – next to that, nothing else matters, and I shall see Jesus at last.

The Questioning

Human reason vs. the God of Christianity: this is a struggle that began from the moment Jesus made the claim, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).  The Enlightenment of the late 17th Century onward is recognized for its skepticism of Christianity; Centuries later, Nietzsche is remembered for crying out, “Where has God gone…We have killed him, you and I.” Yet despite these and continued modern attacks such as those of Richard Dawkins, Christianity thrives and grows through the direction of the Holy Spirit and according to the divine plan of God.  Human reason, it seems, is not enough to knock down the fortifications of Christianity.

And yet, there exists within the walls of Christianity itself, a reasoning that threatens to quench the fire of faith from within.  I like to call it “Christian skepticism.”  It is the prevalence of human reason within Christianity that questions the methods and means by which God achieves his plan. Questions like “If God knew Satan would tempt Eve, why didn’t He step in” or “why did God bother making a fallen world that hurts Him?” all fall within this category.

As I became conscious of this issue in my life, I started reading through the book of John, and it has taken me through a tremendous journey of re-unraveling the mystery of Jesus as a man and his claim to divinity.  I find myself questioning as the disciples questioned, doubting as the pharisees doubted, as bewildered as the crowds were by Jesus’ parables and figurative language – rather than drawing closer, I felt more distant from Jesus as I read through chapter after chapter of “my time has not yet come” and “do you still not see.”

Finally, I reached chapters 14-16 of John.  After washing the disciple’s feet, Jesus begins to “come clean” in a manner of speaking – he begins to abandon the figurative language, speaking more plainly with his disciples…and with me.

I realize that I have been asking Jesus the same questions the disciples asked Jesus so long ago:

Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” (John 14:8).

Philip’s request resonates with me: I have seen Christians tell nonbelievers that Jesus is the way and the truth and the life (verse 6), but sometimes, I just seek more…proof.

Jesus himself  chastises Philip for this request mainly because Philip has already walked with Jesus throughout his years of ministry – I felt a twinge of guilt myself as I read Jesus’ words:

“Jesus answered: “Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time? Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me? The words I say to you are not just my own. Rather, it is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves.” (John 14:9-11).

When Jesus mentioned the evidence of the miracles, my eyes opened to the light of all the past ministry of Jesus – up to this point of reading John, I secretly felt that Jesus seemed to be aimlessly walking around healing random people, drawing crowds and then trying to avoid them, performing miracles and then being vague in his explanations of them.  Now, it hit me that all along, Jesus was trying to reveal himself to me through his ministry, but I was too skeptical to accept his words – from the beginning, Jesus has been claiming to be from God; his language hasn’t changed throughout his work, but it is my eyes that are beginning to see:  Jesus no longer seems to be “claiming” anything.  Rather, he is affirming his deity, proving himself through miraculous signs.

I imagine Philip hanging his head at Jesus’ rebuke, and I feel like I know what Philip must have been thinking: I’ve spent so much time with Jesus, and I still ask so many questions, and even worse, I sometimes feel unsatisfied the answers…which is why I continue to doubt.

I love how Jesus lifts the head of his discouraged disciple:

I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. (John 14:12).

Jesus gives his disciples a promise to untethered power through God.   To put it in superhero terms, Jesus had powers such as multiplying matter (feeding the five thousand), raising the dead (Lazarus), even alchemy (Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread).

Aside from the promise of eternal life, this promise is the one that gets my adrenaline rushing – maybe it’s because I’ve been watching too many Marvel-based films. But after reading this, I find that I am not questioning the way God does things anymore – at least I get to have supernatural powers! That’s the best idea you’ve come up with yet, God!

Jesus finishes his promise with this statement: And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. (John 14:13-14)

In all my stubborn doubt and now childish excitement, this one truth suddenly holds me still: The power comes in the name of Jesus Christ.

In this passage, God has admonished me and humbled me.  When I was so skeptical about the way Jesus was doing things on earth, God showed me a little part of the plan that he knew I would like (superpowers yay) and I had to shut up.  He made me realize something about myself –  that I question when I don’t like something, and let it slide when it serves me well.  Most human beings are like this, and the more I look at it, the more I realize that I have been justifying my discontent with my circumstances, this swing of emotions, beneath a mask of “educated reason.” And what is infinitely more valuable to me, God revealed what awesome power lies unbridled in the name Jesus Christ.

When the questions rise, when the pride swells, when the heart begins to harden,  the best answer will always be:

Rediscover Jesus Christ.

Unworthy

Looking back on my four years of high school, my biggest regret is the holier-than-thou attitude I tended to have. I didn’t want to talk to those “unholy” Non-Christians. I didn’t want to talk to anyone at school. I looked down upon any Christian who did anything I didn’t approve of.

I had forgotten the gospel. I was not preaching it to myself (in case you missed Helicon’s post on preaching the gospel to yourself, you can read it here).

God reminded me again and again this year that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” – Romans 3:23. He’s given me opportunities to talk to people at my school who I saw as “bad” and “beyond God’s grace” even and has reminded me that I am just as unworthy of God’s grace as they are.

I recently had a conversation with two girls from school. Both of them definitely led sinful lives, but just being willing to hang out with them gave me an opportunity to hear about their stories and their struggles and share about my own struggles. These girls became more than a statistic, but two lives that needed God, just as I need God.

Basically growing up in the church and always being a good Asian student, I had forgotten (or never realized) that without Christ, everyone is equal in the eyes of God. Nothing makes me better than the millions of people who don’t know Christ.

While every Christian would insist that we are saved through grace by faith and not by works, it is easy to forget that “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” – Romans 5:8. I often forget that without Christ, I am a hopeless and unworthy sinner to God, not just a “good,” average person.

God struck down Uzzah for touching the ark of the covenant as he was trying to save it from falling. Our natural reaction to this story is, “How unfair! Why would God kill someone from trying to save the ark?” We forget how dirty and despicable we are compared to God. As George Lim said at winter retreat, Uzzah’s greatest sin was thinking that he was cleaner than the dirt.

We are so unworthy of God and the wonderful gifts and blessings he gives us each day.