“It’s a hard-knock life for us.”
In the musical Annie, we meet the young orphan who’s early life is spent scrubbing floors and cleaning the windowsills in the confines of Miss Hannigan’s orphanage. But later, she moves from poverty to luxury under the roof of Daddy Warbucks. But when she arrives at her new home, what does she want to do first? Scrub the floors. Wash the windows. Her new “family” has to kindly explain to her that no, she doesn’t have to do all that stuff anymore. Everything’s changed.
I suspect there’s a certain segment of the Church that lives under the demands of “Being-A-Good-Christian.” I’m not talking about the Biblical call to personal character; I’m talking about the way we turn our faith into an endless series of religious projects and moral duties. It starts when we throw our “secular” music in the garbage and listen only to Christian radio. Then these sorts of demands morph into the pressures of sending our kids to private school and buying the right color minivan (complete with Jesus-fish and stick-figure family, mind you) to drive to our small group.
The reason this condition often goes undiagnosed is that the symptoms I’ve listed above can often be good things. But underneath we’re living as though we’re under the thumb of a God like Miss Hannigan—a God who’s always checking to make sure we’re “busy” with the latest activity.
And we’re exhausted.
The gospel is hardly opposed to pouring ourselves out for the sake of Christ and His kingdom. But the gospel is opposed to turning the Christian life into an endless series of religious projects and moral duties.
This is Paul’s point when he contrasts the believer’s changed relationship to the law. Recall that in the early portions of Romans (chapters 1-3), Paul emphasized the way the law revealed God’s character—and the way each of us fall short of it. But now, by being “in Christ,” God treats us as though we have a perfect record of obedience to the law.
Paul compares this changed relationship to a marriage:
Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? 2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. 3 Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. (Romans 7:1-3)
Do you understand what Paul is saying here? He’s saying that if we think of the law as an actual person, then we should see Christ as a changed set of relationships.
Currently I’m engaged. But if, say, I get run over by a bus, Erica is released from her commitment to me and free to marry someone much more handsome, wealthy, and wise. That’s what Paul’s saying; he’s saying that when Jesus died, our commitment to the law changed. Now our commitment is to Jesus.
Why does this matter so much in a conversation about following Jesus? Because many people live as though they’re still bound by obligations to a moral code. Paul is trying to emphasize—in the strongest words possible—that because Jesus has fulfilled the law, there’s nothing left to do. “It’s finished,” Jesus said from the cross; religious moralism won’t get us any further past the finish line than we already are.
THE SOURCE OF SPIRITUAL GROWTH
Of course, Paul doesn’t neglect that this changed relationship won’t be visible through our personal conduct. On the contrary, our allegiances will invariably produce either “fruit for death” or “fruit for God:”
4 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. 5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. (Romans 7:4-6)
I’ve often heard the law compared to a set of train tracks. They tell you where to go; they connect you back to God. But they have no power to move you down the tracks. Only the gospel provides a strong enough engine to move you forward in your spiritual life.
And that’s just it. The gospel promises freedom from your own efforts to “go down the tracks” by your own efforts. We will grow—yes, even grow in obedience to God’s word—but we must never make the mistake of thinking that this growth comes from anything other than our union with Christ and His righteousness, never our own.
I’ve been deliberately overstating my point in this post; obviously the Christian life is more nuanced than this. But it’s not unusual to meet people who feel lazy—or guilty—for not “doing enough.” Or, in other cases, people who feel guilty for watching TV or listening to U2 when they “should have been” listening to Hillsong. And sure, there may be certain types of programs to filter out, but that’s hardly the point. The point is that if my righteousness does not depend on my hard work, then the gospel frees me from the tyranny of Being-A-Good-Christian.
Christ-follower, if you are spiritually exhausted, it might be that you are still living under Miss Hannigan. But you’re not in the orphanage anymore. The gospel doesn’t condone laziness, but neither does it endorse spiritual work-a-holism. It’s only when we rest in the knowledge of the finished work of Christ that our spiritual growth can truly begin—and only then do we find joy in our walk with God.
So rest easy, dear Christian. The hardest things are not in your hands, but were finished in His hands long, long ago.