Around last Easter, I was feeling lousy about myself, thinking I was falling short of the Gospel admonitions to love others and live an unselfish life. I felt I was caring too much about material things and had begun trying very hard to improve.
Then I had a curious experience while returning home in the crammed rush-hour bus. When my wife and I got on, a couple of young men kindly offered us their seats. Sally accepted, but not me. “No, thanks!” I said. “You actually look tired yourselves.”
I felt quite smug and congratulated myself for doing a good deed, until a girl sitting next to where I was standing tapped me on the arm. “Sir,”—she sounded irritated—“could you please control your bag? It’s been swinging and banging me for quite some time.”
So much for my good manners! I apologized but felt terrible, like Paul must have when he said: “I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway.”1
As Easter drew closer and I was preparing the message I wanted to share with our Bible study group, I was struck by the paradox of feeling condemned for my imperfections when the whole purpose of Jesus’ death on the cross was to save us from our sins and shortcomings, and empower us to love God and one another.
Another day, when watching Jesus’ passion in the movie, Son of God,2 I suddenly understood once again a principle that I hadn’t thought much about for years: at the moment of His death on the cross, Jesus wiped our slate clean.3 For the first time in years, I saw how vain my efforts were to try to live up to an unreachable standard. There He was, nailed to the cross, telling me: “I paid the price for you. Just go and live My new law as best you can. I will help you and work through you.”
The scene was so liberating! Over time, I had lost that simplicity and conviction that it’s all by grace and not by works or struggles and exercises in goodness.4 It was wonderful to be reminded again that only God is good,5 and we are just His instruments.