The Good Struggle? 

BY DOMINICK SANTORE

I have to admit, there are times that I'm still completely susceptible to self-serving salvation projects. Even in my writing, I look for good responses from people, and find some worth for myself in them. I guess in some way it's OK. We are writing, and when we write, we hope people respond and it does make us feel good when it's a positive response. We get those same feelings when we do a good deed for someone, or knock it out of the park at work. Whatever it is, there is a little "Rah! Rah! Go Me!", in everything we do. I do think its different from complete reliance on people for your personal happiness.

There are people who do good works for the accolades and acknowledgment. They want outward recognition for their well-displayed abilities. When my wife ran a church food pantry, she came across people who we're more interested in being an outward "face" directly helping those in need, than in stocking shelves in the off-hours. You Know, the job many people never think of. The one that doesn't look "glamorous". This brings me to my scripture reference, and the difference between those who Christ calls righteous, and those who are not:

"Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.'"Then the righteous will answer him, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?'  "The King will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.' "Then he will say to those on his left, 'Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.' "They also will answer, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?' "He will reply, 'Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.' "Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life." -Matthew 25:34-46

Jesus is addressing two groups of people and they both ask essentially the same question: "Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?" It appears both groups were doing helpful works. The crux of the matter is not, "did we serve people?", but, "did we serve Jesus?" Those who Jesus calls cursed are being warned that even as they were serving, they were not serving the people, but themselves as they tried to amass a body of works that could look good outwardly to others or prove to God that they deserve a place in heaven. They looked for the pat on the back, and that is all the reward they may receive. They were looking to their own ability for their salvation, and not Christ's work applied to them. Yet, they were doing things, even helpful things. Here is another example:

Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?' Then I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!' -Matthew 7:21-23

This is work that can still look grace-centered and God-focused. The difference between the two groups of people is not the works, but the emphasis of those works. That emphasis is not, "look at all Christ has done", but, "look at all I have done for Christ!" It is faith in oneself and faith in one's own ability. It is a me-centered, fruit-picking, tower-building, calf-worshiping, wife-stealing, husband-murdering faith that has existed from the moment this world was cursed. It is a faith that says I am the captain of my destiny. It's all these things, and yet the works produced by this kind of faith are still helpful and can still be fulfilling for the people who it was done for. That's why it can sometimes still look (and be) good.

As followers of Christ, through the grace he's given us, we know none of us are truly in a place to judge someone's work. Grace makes us aware that there is almost always a hint (or more) of works righteousness in everything we do. I guess that's why, at least for me, I have to admit at times, "do more" seems to legitimately work, if even just on a surface level. We can all admit, even if we have the wrong attitude, someone is either helped or some task is accomplished. If our best works need to be washed in the blood of Christ, then our worst works probably have to be soaked overnight, and yet, when God is caring for an individual, whether we served out of obligation to do "salvation-proving" works, or obediently serving a gracious God who has given us our best reward already, it has served someone for God's purpose and for that person's benefit.

This reminds me that Christians, "real" Christians get regularly caught up in doing "salvation-proving" works in the same way "real" Christians can sometimes also be prodigals. It's a struggle against the flesh for us as long as we live in these bodies. Heck, we might even flinch at a simple compliment  (I do), because we are afraid that it might give "seed" to pride of self. We should know that struggling is a good thing. Struggling is what brought you to grace from works. I don't know the statistics, but it would be interesting to know how many people who finally started to understand grace, and the message of Christ's finished work were already in Church or had some affiliation with church as opposed to those coming in cold with no Christian experience. Sometimes, I wonder if gospel proclamation is more of a reclamation project then anything else.

Most of the grace-oriented christian people I have had the pleasure to meet and talk with have been in church, and grew up in church, and eventually burned out. If they were like me, before burning out, it was always a struggle, and even now it's a struggle. The focus of that struggle has moved however, from a battle to prove our faith by works, to a battle to remember that Christ's perfect atoning work has found us approved. That's a good battle to have. It's a healthy fight. It's one that can count its losses, but know the war is won. It is convicting, but not condemning. It is not a lost cause, but hope in the middle of what seems to be a never-ending adversity.

Rejoice, because grace has found you and will keep you. It will keep you even when you think your works are a little more self-serving than you'd like. It will keep you because you know this and wrestle with this. Then, when you finish wrestling, rest. Rest in the grace that says, "I have covered you with my righteousness, and paid for your sins." 

One last time, don't be discouraged by what you're doing for others cause you sense something self-serving about it. If anything that should be your encouragement. If Christ had not made you a new creature you wouldn't care enough to be concerned, but instead, you would obliviously and proudly pat yourself on the back and trust in yourself and your abilities.

Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and about which you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. -1 Timothy 6:12

A theological misfit landing in the area of Lutheranism, Dominick has come to deeply appreciate the truth of scripture as defined by the distinction between Law and Gospel. He has found freedom in knowing that Christ is his substitute on even his worst days. He has been for the course of his church life everything from chair-stacker to men's ministry leader. He is blessed with a wonderful wife and two great young men, which he can say without a doubt, he doesn't deserve. He counts among his favorite things: Star Trek, classic superhero comics, movies, Yankees and yes, he admits to it, the Knicks. He enjoys a good conversation and good food. Finally, he is grateful for the opportunity to share the message of God's Grace among all these great teachers, pastors and theologians and hopes he doesn't mess up big time. But then again, that's what grace is for, right?

Twitter: @adefeatedvictor