My 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 I 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.