All people share one thing in common, and that is the mark of sin in their lives. Whether they embrace a Christian moral standard or not, there are times they must feel a sense of sorrow, regret, or frustration for failing to live up to whatever standard they do hold.
But there is one thing that only the Christian can experience – and that is the joy of salvation (Psalm 51:12). Knowing that you are indeed failing and futile in all your best efforts to live the life you want, but that Christ meets you in your need and satisfies your struggle for righteousness. This is a freedom and a celebration that only the Christian can know. All others must continually be trying to be more, do better, attain more – on their own efforts, and in the end, vainly.
“The kingdom of God belongs to people who aren’t trying to look good or impress anybody, even themselves,” Brennan Manning writes in The Ragamuffin Gospel. “They are not plotting how they can call attention to themselves, worrying about how their actions will be interpreted or wondering if they will get gold stars for their behavior. Twenty centuries later, Jesus speaks pointedly to the preening ascetic trapped in the fatal narcissism of spiritual perfectionism, to those of us caught up in boasting about our victories in the vineyard, to those of us fretting and flapping about our human weaknesses and character defects.”
Christ frees us from all of this. Not from the need to be righteous, but from the need to be righteous all on our own merit. Not from the reality of sin and guilt, but from the burden of being hopelessly condemned by that guilt. Not from the enjoyment of spiritual breakthroughs and high moments, but from the feeling of inadequacy when we are in the quiet and routine places of our walk with Christ.
But it can be hard to remember – to make sense of all that Christ has done for us – when we are overwhelmed by the emotions and motions of the world that seem to more closely surround us than does the work of Christ.
Elyse Fitzpatrick mentions this in her new book, Counsel from the Cross. “Yes, perhaps you have heard and believed the message before,” she writes. “But can you tell us how his ascension thrills and comforts you right now? If you can’t answer that question, don’t be discouraged. Most of us have never even considered it. But there is great hope in the ascension.”
We become dulled to the satisfaction of knowing Christ; more fixated with our own sin and failure to attain to our self-expectations. The gospel becomes more about us - what we can do to become good, or our failures therein. We become trapped, revolving around ourselves on the short leash to which our own goodness can extend.
How do we remember to make the connection to God’s goodness, even when we are not good? How do we travel as far as we can in the freedom his redemption gives? How do we revive in ourselves the joy of salvation?
In God is in the Manger, Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s writings and sermons are quoted, and they somewhat answer those questions.
“The remembrance and repetition of what we have learned is a necessary daily exercise,” one part reads. “Every day we must turn again to God’s acts of salvation, so that we can again move forward.”
Another passage reflects on Luke 21:28: “Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.”
“Such a true Advent happening now creates something different from the anxious, petty, depressed, feeble Christian spirit that we see again and again, and that again and again wants to make Christianity contemptible,” read Bonhoeffer’s words. “Look up, you whose gaze is fixed on this earth, who are spellbound by the little events and changes on the face of the earth. Look up to these words, you have turned away from heaven disappointed…Look up, you who burdened with guilt cannot lift your eyes. Look up, your redemption is drawing near.”