Galatians 5:1: "So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up again in slavery to the law."
Read Galatians 5:1-6
From the time I was a teenager until I was a pastor in South Lake Tahoe, California, I struggled with OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). That’s what Jack Nicholson has in the movie As Good As It Gets, or what the character Monk had in the TV show of the same name.
It’s funny on-screen. But in real life it’s maddening: You might be absolutely driven to switch the car radio on and off exactly 50 times, or to touch the right and left sides of your face a certain number of times to “even yourself out.” Something tells you that if you fail, bad things will happen. Psychologists call it “ritualistic” behavior.
Finally I was able to break the grip of the OCD — but in many ways it just transferred to my spiritual life. I look back now and call it spiritual OCD: my idea that I had to be perfect to please God.
And how did I define perfection? I would decide I had to pray a certain number of minutes every day, and I would — to the minute. Or I had to read a certain number of verses, and I would — precisely.
In fact precision became an obsession: I would even pray over my clothes each morning to seek God’s guidance on the precise things I was to wear. That’s how I attempted to find the perfection I believed God wanted me to achieve — after all, doesn’t the Bible say to “be holy as God is holy”? It all led to a severe case of the “older brother syndrome” I talked about yesterday.
Some of you are thinking Ohhh-Kayyyy… that’s weird. But some of you relate. Your own perfectionistic spirituality has drained you instead of refreshed you. Like other perfectionists, you don’t see any numbers between one and ten; you’re either giving it all you’ve got, or you’re giving up. You’re either working hard at being a great Christian, or you’ve stopped trying at all, and maybe you even resent the Christian life. The term “ritualistic behavior” describes your Christian life a lot better than “relationship.”
I’ve been there! One writer calls it the Christian “manic-depressive” cycle: laboring feverishly for God or, alternately, discouraged you’re such a failure; or experiencing both at the same time!
Of course all of this got exhausting. I was totally dry spiritually, and yet I was a pastor, which just made me feel all the more guilty!
Then one day my whole life changed. I was teaching a Bible study in the book of Galatians. And I read today’s verses. And they went off like dynamite in my head. It was like someone suddenly set me free from heavy chains and let me soar. I finally, finally got it — that the Christian life is all about grace!
Grace is used in the Bible to describe God’s amazing generosity to the undeserving. Suddenly I saw this thread everywhere. I was particularly intrigued with the grace theme throughout the Gospels. Jesus is described as being so “full of grace” (John 1:14) that “from the fullness of His grace we have all received one blessing after another” (John 1:16). John summarizes Jesus’ ministry this way: “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17) Grace was all over the place, the major theme of Christ’s ministry, the subject of so many parables — like this one:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness, Jesus told this parable:
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men — robbers, evil-doers, adulterers — or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.” -Luke 18:10–14a
His point? Be like the second guy. The first one, the Pharisee, tried to justify himself with his spiritual résumé. But Jesus says the only one who went home justified was the one who knew he had nothing to offer. God doesn’t want me to pretend to be perfect like the Pharisee; He wants me to realize my need for His grace, like the second man.
Seeing grace like this totally rocked my world, zoomed me into a new place. I told my wife, “It’s like I’ve been seeing the world in black-and-white and now it’s in color; like I’m born again… again!” I’d been a sad perfectionist but now was on my way to becoming a joy-filled believer. But my biggest surprises were yet to come.
How have you ever lapsed into perfectionism, or legalism — attempting to be perfect and perform religious duties to please God? What happened?
How easy or difficult is it for you to accept that the Christian life is lived entirely by God’s grace?
Pray the prayer of the second guy. Ask God to set you free from performance-oriented religion in the next 50 days! Thank Him for His amazing grace!