The Balancing Act

Weights of justiceMy life seems to be a study in these verses lately:  I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate, I do. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing (Romans 7:15, 18-19). There’s one particular area of my life where I know what I should be doing, and yet, because I’m selfish, and want to decide how I spend my time, I don’t do it. Which leaves me feeling very annoyed with myself, but also wondering, “Why can’t I do what I know I should?” And, “Does the fact that God forgives me make it okay?” Like those balancing weights you used in junior high science–piling weight on one side versus the other–I wonder if God’s grace balances out the fact that I screwed up.

The adult Bible study I teach just finished a study on the book of Galatians, where we really grappled with the balance between law and grace. Grace is the idea that God does not deal with us according to what our sins deserve. God gives us gifts we have not earned. God gives us clemency where we deserve punishment, and wonderful things when we deserve the worst. We cannot earn the love God has for us. But does that means we can live however we want? If that were true, the world would be (even more) chaotic. We should live well. But where does the responsibility to be moral end, and bleed over into, “This is what is required of you in order to be ‘truly’ Christian?” How much weight should we grant to morality vs. grace? Because everyone in class agreed that Christians should live by certain standards. But what should those standards be, who judges whether or not we’re keeping them, and how important is it that we live this certain way? In other words, “Where’s the balance?”

In Reformed thought, all of the weight is piled on Jesus’ side. Grace. There is nothing we can do that would even begin to balance out what Jesus offers us. When we accept Jesus’ free grace, that acceptance will/should flow over into our lives, evoking changes that make us more like Christ. But the reality is so much more complicated than that. It must be, if even someone as well-learned and faithful as the Apostle Paul struggled to live the kind of life he knew Jesus was calling him to.

The fact of it is, neither Paul nor I can get away from our sinful, independent nature and free will as much as we’d like. As Christians, we live in this curious time where  we know that Jesus has defeated the power of sin and death, and sin no longer holds sway over us. Theoretically, this leaves us free to live the kind of sinless life that Jesus lived. And yet I still find myself falling again and again, into the deep, sticky morass of sin. Sin is holding sway over me just fine, thank you. It seems that most of my weight is on the sinful side.

But even if you’re not religious, at some point you’ll still confront this question of balance. Even if it’s in something as simple as, “What’s the measuring stick of my work? How do I know when I’ve done enough/met the obligations?” The U.S. citizen in us–the one who values hard work, the American dream, and pulling onself up by their bootstraps–would say that our work (and worth) is measured in whether or not we satisfy (and many times, exceed) the expectations of our supervisor. No more, no less. But then the question becomes, “If I don’t meet every expectation, does that mean I’m doing a terrible job? How do I know I’m a good employee? What if, no matter how hard I try, my best just isn’t good enough? Will I still be able to keep my job?” (I’m living here more than I’d like to admit.)

From my perspective, this smacks awfully close to the question of balance between law and grace. Only grace can save me. But Jesus also wants to see his likeness reflected in me. That means living a certain way. Doing (or not doing) certain things. I thought I had this all figured out. I’m not so sure that I do. I know that I’m supposed to rely entirely on grace, but do we really mean entirely? What does entirely look like? And the mere prospect of relying entirely on grace, still makes me,–a Christian saved by grace–so uncomfortable my stomach is in knots. I want something I can measure, control, quantify. Something I can put on my side of the scale. Because of the work of Jesus Christ, the law no longer counts as a weight on my side. So all I’m left with is grace. But I’m still called to certain standards. But those standards don’t save me or define me; they will never be enough, even if they do matter. So all I’m left with is grace.

This is a really uncomfortable place to be. I don’t like it. The weight goes from one side of the scale to the other, and I can’t find the balance. Just look at my previous sentences. Honestly, I’ve always been uncomfortable with grace, and it’s not because I’m sitting here judging everyone. On the contrary, I love extending grace to others, but I never offer it to myself, nor do I receive it from others. “It’s okay for you, but it’s not for me.” Everything on your side. Nothing on mine. And yet, grace is the bedrock of my faith. It’s all I’ve got right now. All I’ve got–ever. In God’s reality, there has only ever been grace. Whatever is on my side of the scale is only there because Jesus put it there. I had nothing to do with it.

I think there is a balance between law and grace. But I’m positive I’ve never achieved it, despite the fact that I try very, very hard. When I fall short (everyday), I have to trust that God will make up my lack. And…we’re back on the grace side.

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3 thoughts on “The Balancing Act

  1. You’re so right… this one is a tough one… Because we always get lost in measurements… how much is enough? Did I do enough? How do I compare? Is my best good enough? Our human nature wants balance. But God’s gift defies balance. It’s the same problem we have when we approach God’s sovereignty.
    If God is as powerful and as worthy as I am, then logically, we should share our decisions with Him… 50 – 50. “God, this one is yours… I’ll decide the next one.” But God is so big (powerful, glorious… you name it) that if we were placed side by side He would be too big to see the top of him and I would be too small to see. By that logic, He should get to make all of the decisions, and I would make none.
    His grace is that much greater than my goodness! So the answer is that I never give enough. I’m never good enough. I literally don’t compare. No, my best is not good enough. There is and never will be anything close to balance.
    If God wants me to do something, (and His commandments are pretty clear as a starting place) then my goal has to be to keep them perfectly.
    If I do my best, that’s all I can do. He has already taken care of everything.
    In 2 Cor 8:12, Paul says, For if the readiness is there, it is acceptable according to what a person has, not according to what he does not have. … and believe me, compared to God, we don’t have it!
    Forget the measurements. Forget the balance. It’s all His!

  2. Interesting thoughts Jill. Thanks for sharing them. Yesterday I preached from John 1:14-18, where John writes in v. 17: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth cam through Jesus Christ.” I said that we could consider it like a scale (as in your analogy) with law on one side and grace/truth on the other. Or we could say that God had a Plan A (law) and when that didn’t work a Plan B (grace/truth). Then I turned to Matthew 5:17, where Jesus says: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them,” Therefore, according to the case I made, law and grace/truth are two parts of a whole, a whole that we see most completely when we set our sight on the cross and the empty tomb. Thanks for giving me an opportunity to reconsider yesterday’s sermon before beginning serious work on next Sunday’s.

  3. Jill, my dear friend. I love your prose and your raw honesty as always! And yes you are a sinner. I am a sinner. I do not mean to trivialize that at all. I think all of the different branches of Christianity have their biblical writers they tend to drink most deeply from and us reformed folk drink deeply from Paul. And we tend to readily say with him, “I am chief of sinners.”

    Yet, breathe deep my friend, remember that you are reformed! We drink deeply from Paul! We need to balance that passage from John that Brad pointed to above with a little bit of Romans, “A person is not a Jew who is one only outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a person’s praise is not from other people, but from God.” (Rom 2:28,29) or Philippians, “It is we who are the circumcision, we who serve God by his Spirit, who boast in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh – though I myself have reasons for such confidence (Phil 3:3). Yeah, we also leave out how Paul goes on to recount he himself did not find the law to be nearly so insurmountable or unattainable but rather as for righteousness based on the law, he was “faultless.” We tend to recast him in light of Luther’s struggles with conscience and search for peace and nearly conflate the two.

    But it needn’t matter. Because we are reformed, you and I. And we drink deeply from Paul. We drink deeply enough to forgive him when maybe he boasts just a little too much or when he wishes his enemies would accidentally castrate themselves in the same letter he tells us that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. We drink deeply from Paul and we say with him there is one Lord. One faith. One baptism. We drink so deeply that we even say with Calvin, “The covenant made with all the patriarchs is so much like ours in substance and reality that the two are actually one and the same. Yet they differ in the mode of dispensation (Institutes 2.10.2).

    Unlike our close Lutheran siblings with whom we share in so much of the same reformation tradition, we read The Law after our confession and assurance and not before. The Law is a gift so we might know how to live. It is a a guardian to protect us not a taskmaster or babysitter to guilt or chide us into confession and ultimately grace.

    All of life is a gift Jill! Grace is a gift! The Law is a gift every breath is a gift! The scales are our invention. The scales are about our fragile egos and keeping record of rights and wrongs (our own or others). But love does not do that! Love – true love – love of self and of others, does not dishonor others and neither is it is self-seeking. It is not easily angered. But rather, love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Because love is THE gift and love never fails. The giver and sustainer of the gift will not let it.

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