BY MATT JOHNSON
“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight.” Ephesians 1:3–8
I saw a commercial once that said I just have to do whatever it takes to actualize my best me. And it makes sense, really. Doing results in being, cause and effect. Want six-pack abs? Just buy the right product and give your new, healthy lifestyle 110% for 10 weeks and maybe you’ll see results. Doing makes sense because achievement and results are about us.
But the problem with Just-Do-It Infomercial Guy is pride in his own ability—a pride that oftentimes sneaks into what he thinks he can do for God. On the other hand, broken people are driven to further despair when they just can’t do it.
At first glance, Abs-of-Steel Man and Mr. Sad-Sack-3-a.m.-TV-Watcher-Guy don’t have anything in common. In reality, they have a two-sides-of-the-same-coin likeness. The Reformers called it homo incurvatus in se: the state of being curved in on self—or to put it another way, belly-button gazing. Think of this as a kind of spiritual spina bifida. We’re either self-obsessed with our ability or the fact that we’re stuck. In both cases, the common denominator is our own self and the desire to be do. But neither the comfiest blankie nor a bottomless container of bonbons or pumping your fist to “Eye of the Tiger” fixes self-infatuation or guarantees acceptance. The remedy is to have our spines straightened out in order to see that hope comes from without, not within.
So the Apostle Paul’s Ephesians 1 is an elated, breathless, gotta-wipe-the-sweat-off-his-brow-with-a-hanky-Pentecostal riff filled to the brim with the stuff that we really need. In Christ, you are blessed with every spiritual blessing! The answer is in Jesus, not you. He’s the man who lived the life you have not lived and died the death you should have died so that you don’t have to live for you. Hallelujah—the pressure’s off!
Thanks be to God, Jesus inverts the logic of both “Do” and “Can’t-Do.” In Christ you’re already lavished with forgiveness, blessing, chosen-ness and blamelessness. God doesn’t need an overachiever’s good works; Jesus already accomplished perfection, and now your life gets to be a response of gratitude to him. And God isn’t shocked by the pity partier’s worst failing—it’s already forgiven.
We all have a longing to belong. And both overachieving and self-loathing are prideful forms of penance. But neither makes us acceptable before God: “He chose us in him before the foundation of the world.” In case you missed it, this choosing happened before your do or your can’t-do. You were lovingly adopted before you ever did a single thing. That is really, really good news.
Matt is a husband, father to two little girls, and is an armchair student of theology. He is a freelance writer and editor with a penchant for redemptive snark. Until recently, Matt spent 7 years as an associate volunteer pastor in counseling and recovery ministry. Many moons ago Matt forwent a proper education and traveled the country playing drums in 90 Pound Wuss, Roadside Monument and other bands you've never heard of. He likes long walks on the beach, puppies, and has questionable taste in music.