Since then, I've been trying to live in that grace. And that has been a bumpier road for me, with potholes as deep as my to-do list.
This spring a friend gave a book to me and this quote has been bouncing in my head ever since:
"Grace is opposed to earning; but not to effort."
Nearly 30 years ago it sunk in that I couldn't earn my way to God or to salvation. To try would be like trying to swim to Hawaii. No go. But only this year am I figuring out that whenever I try to earn approval from someone or from God, I step outside of the ways of grace and try to find a security that has already been given in Christ. And only this year am I figuring out that effort, on the other hand, is very much compatible with grace...
A motorhome and houseguests...
I recently returned home on a Sunday evening from an all-school camping trip with my daughter. My husband and boys had remained in the mountains to continue some great Colorado fishing. I had a motorhome to unpack, its kitchen and bathroom and floors to clean, emails and calls to return, a messy house, and guests arriving within 24 hours who would need fresh sheets and food. (A typical day!) I went to work. I put forth effort, actually with gratitude for a great weekend, with a sense of satisfaction in knowing clearly what I needed to do, and with gladness that I had the physical ability to do it. I had joy (really!) in the work, pleasure in seeing the disorganized and dirty become organized and clean, and anticipation for the dear friends about to visit.
And then a thought came to my mind. "Wouldn't my husband be impressed by how much I was getting done?" And the NEXT THOUGHT was: "Grrr, he isn't here to help me. He is off lolly-gagging on a fishing stream while I am working." As soon as I started to perform for him, I stepped out of the realm of grace, and I stopped giving grace. I did the very same work, but with a completely different heart. Gone was the lift of gratitude, peace, and joy of doing the next thing in fellowship with Christ. Instead was the weight of striving, resentment, and the desire to control. "See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up." Heb. 12:15
Thankfully, this time I saw the choice in the moment, and was actually able to refocus my attention to (mostly) move back to the gratitude and grace where I had begun the evening. Here is the holy habit I want to develop: to regularly put forth effort in communion with God, and to stop being motivated to perform by earning approval.
School days and D.O.G.s...
I attended mostly public schools as I grew up in California, with a couple "Christian" schools tossed in. They were pretty much like the public schools, but with God talk and guilt replacing the worst swear words. Same basic behaviorist system in each: you do well, you get a treat (star, sticker, grade, happy chair, etc.); you do poorly, you get punished (demerit, name on board, bad grade, sent to principal). You play the game well and you get patted on the head, a "Good Girl;" you play the game poorly, and you might hide, make up your own game, or quit in truancy.
One school my son attended for a short time even gave "dog treats" when kids were good, and had a "dog house" for when they were bad. This took all illusion away from what was really going on. And the sign that suggested that D.O.G. stood for "Depend on God" did not change students' view of the system; though it may have changed students' view of God. My son came home and asked, "Mom, why are they treating us like dogs?" Good question, son!
I think the answer is fear. How else will children put forth effort if they are not motivated (manipulated) by constantly earning? I wonder if deep down we fear that the materialists are right, that our children are really animals to be controlled? Maybe we have forgotten that they are persons who have God-given desires to know, to explore, to create, to see beauty, to worship in awe, to connect, to ponder, to grow, and to rejoice in a challenging job well done.
Here I would love to insert an observation day at my children's school where students grow to put forth amazing effort, sustained attention, and diligence, without an external "treat" in sight. Work is seen as a gift of God and they learn to "work well, regardless of variables." (Also called steadfastness, a sign of maturity.) They become motivated intrinsically rather than extrinsically, and that motivation goes with them after the scaffolding of school structures have been removed. How they do this is for another blog, but suffice it here to note that effort can and does take place apart from earning. And where effort is exerted under grace, rather than earning based in fear or pride, the stage is set for joy, peace and "the holy emotion of gratitude" to have free play, and little space is left for anxiety.
The grace excuse; the challenge of effort...
"Oh, there is grace for that." "We are under grace, so we don't have to do anything." While grace is opposed to earning, it is not opposed to effort. So I'm also trying to let excuses fall away. When we co-labor with Christ we choose a yoke. We are no longer heavy-laden, but we are also not asleep in the field. His burden is easy when we are connected to him, but he is plowing and he is going somewhere. This passage shows the dynamic tension of unearned grace and good deeds of his choosing:
"For it is by grace that you are saved, through faith. This does not depend on anything you have achieved, it is the free gift of God; and because it is not earned no man can boast about it. For God has made us what we are, created in Christ Jesus to do those good deeds which he planned for us to do." Eph. 2:8-10.
Earning vs. pleasing:
Here is what I'm pondering now...Trying to earn God's approval is an affront to grace, but seeking to please God by my actions is good. Where lies the difference? Earning tries to fill a gaping hole and has fear at its core. Whereas pleasing overflows from gratitude, wholeness and the joy of communion with God. Christ never had to earn his Father's approval; at all times he was the "beloved Son" with whom the Father was "well pleased." Pleasing has the "chivalrous temper of proud submission and dignified obedience." C. Mason
Help me "get it," Lord. I want to walk through my days giving forth effort and bringing pleasure to you; rather than trying to fearfully earn approval or avoid shame from those I meet. May my habit be dignified obedience to You, the Audience of One, the One who has graciously given us grace.