When I was in my late teens I seem to remember spending a lot of time praying. There were two main reasons for this. The first was that I rode motorcycles and I didn’t want to become a ‘temporary Australian’. As I look back, I’m sure there was something inconsistent about breaking the speed limit and asking God to keep me safe at the same time! The second reason I prayed a lot is that I kept getting myself into trouble. I’d do things I knew I shouldn’t do, and that I didn’t want to do, and I’d just keep on doing them. Many a night I’d be praying through this long list of things I’d done wrong, just in case I died that night and God still held them against me.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but my problem was that I thought it was up to me to make myself a Christian and to keep myself a Christian. If only I could be good enough for God. I’d try and turn over a new leaf each time I failed – which was pretty often, daily even. Surely, if I confessed the things I’d done to God, and didn’t miss any, then he couldn’t really blame me. To be honest, I now recognise that I was living in fear and insecurity. I was anxious about dying, and deep down I knew I wasn’t at peace with God. Having grown up in a Christian family, always going to church, and having called myself a ‘Christian’, this was a pretty strange place to be.
My problems intensified when I moved away from home. In many ways I longed to escape my past, start afresh, and do everything right from now on. And people wouldn’t label me as a hypocrite because they couldn’t judge me by my past failures. Somehow, I thought a change of environment would make it easier to satisfy God too. The problem was that the environment changed but I didn’t! I failed almost immediately and my new circumstances just provided me new opportunities to stuff up. And so I started to doubt the whole Christian thing. Perhaps, there was no God. Or if there was, then I needed to admit that I didn’t really belong to him. I was a disappointment to myself, to others and to God.
Something happened to change all this. Someone helped me to grasp the difference that Jesus makes. I’d heard the language – Jesus died to save you from your sins – but I hadn’t understood what this meant. It was reading these verses from the Bible that turned my whole life inside out:
8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! 10 For if, while we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:9-11)
The idea of being justified comes from the world of legal transactions. It means to be declared in good standing – with God in this case. The reason for the good standing is that the penalty has been payed and the debt fully cancelled. And the payment here is nothing less than the death of Jesus Christ. In short, God no longer holds anything against me because Jesus has fully paid the price for all my failures by dying upon the cross. Jesus takes the judgment I deserve. It’s like he swaps places with me and is executed in my place. The implication of this, or the how much more argument, is that because the price is fully paid then I can be fully confident of being in good standing with God – now and on the day when everyone is called to give account. Wow!
This was revolutionary for me. This meant that because Jesus had died for me, then my past failures, my present failures, my forgotten failures, my future failures – they are all paid for in full. No judgment to come. Nothing to fear. It’s not about my performance or my penance or remembering my every shortcoming. It’s all about Jesus and what he’s done to guarantee me a relationship with God. There’s no pride in this either, for it’s all God’s work. Once I’d grasped this, I can honestly say that everything changed. It’s not that I became perfect – far from it – it’s that I knew I could rest my confidence in God.
That was many many years ago and a lot’s happened since then – especially this past year. Recent months have presented quite a few challenges to my beliefs and my confidence in God. Being faced with my own mortality has taken things to a whole new level. It hasn’t always been plane sailing. In fact, there’ve been a few times when I’ve slipped back into the errors of my teenage years. What if I stop believing in God? What if doubt gets the better of me? What if I’ve made all this up? What if I’m really hollow, living a facade, and there is no substance to my faith? These sorts of struggles have bothered me in the dark times, but I know that the answer remains the same. It’s not up to me. It’s not my performance. It’s not my good life or the strength of my faith or the sincerity of my confessions that secure my relationship to God. It is entirely God’s gift through the substitutionary death of his Son, Jesus Christ. As I was reading through 2 Corinthians earlier today, I was encouraged also by these words:
20 For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God. 21 Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, 22 set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. (2 Corinthians 1:20-22)
This is my prayer:
Thank you God that you offer failures like me a relationship with you. Thank you Jesus for dying in my place and paying the full cost for all my failings. Thank you God for taking hold of me, keeping me in your care, and giving me your Spirit as a guarantee of life with you forever.