Robert's Sermons

Amazing Grace

Part 10 - 'The Deadly Cycle of Self-effort'


Many of us struggle to accept God’s free gift of grace and are not prepared to admit as believers or as a Church that we are not where God desires us to be. We will do the most outrageous things with the Bible to justify what we currently do or don’t believe and do. If we have not experienced the grace of God in any significant way, then to admit that we cannot meet our own standards or improve our performance can be incredibly threatening. The moment we accept that, we are admitting that we need to move from where we are, we need to change or be open to God changing us. When we resist change the power of the gospel of God’s amazing grace will always elude us. As we continue to explore the relationship between grace and law, it helps our understanding to consider how the law works in us from a practical, experiential point of view. I want us to begin by looking at two statements from the Apostle Paul which radically illustrate what happened to Paul when he allowed a full understanding of the grace of God to change his life.

“We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do … So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  (Romans 7:14,15; 21-25)

Paul’s raw confession of his struggle with sin removed him from any pedestal his followers may have put him on and firmly planted him on level ground before the cross of Christ with the rest of us. Paul struggled with sin just like everyone else. But then, in stark contrast, the same man said this in his letter to the Philippians:

 “I can do all things through Christ Who strengthens me.” (Philippians 4:13)

Note that Paul doesn’t say I can do somethings – the easy things; or the things that I’m good at or have been trained to do; or the things I have worked hard at. He says I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. So how did this great Apostle go from Romans 7 to Philippians 4? How did he move from: “The good I want to do I don’t do”  to “I can do all the good I want to do, through Christ who strengthens me.”  More to the point, how do we make that transition? How do we turn from: ”I can’t quite make it.”  to  “I can make it – with power to burn?”  The Bible clearly teaches that it’s the right and heritage of every Christian to live above sin. So how does that happen? How do we break that deadly cycle of trying harder, succeeding for a while, failing and feeling guilty again? How do we get off the merry-go-round of failure to the place of affirming that we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us?

The world and even some Churches teach us that the way to be OK in order to gain acceptance and love is by doing what is ‘right.’ That varies according to which group of people you want to impress or belong to. The guys at the bar or the footy game have one set of rules. The corporate jungle of deals and profit and the market share have another set. Some Churches have a different set of rules. The rules say (or imply) that if you do these things well you’re loved and accepted; and if you don’t there will be consequences – you’ll feel rejected pretty quickly. Whether people intend to reject you or not is secondary – that is always the effect when external standards are given prominence or importance. These Church ‘rules’ state that you’re OK and you gain acceptance and love by meeting certain religious standards. This is the law at work. It may include reading the Bible, praying, witnessing, attending services, giving money, being baptised, becoming a Church member and plenty more. All these things may be very good, and some of them are things that we are instructed or exhorted to do in the Bible.

However if just doing them made us OK as Christians then Jesus didn’t need to come. We would just need a really good self-help program and we’d be right. If trying to do the right thing is all we need then those good little Christians who are working their tails off in the Church doing more and trying harder should be the happiest, most accepted, most victorious people in the world! But they’re not. Human performance as a means of acceptance doesn’t work and it’s certainly not the gospel. As Christians we know that doing more and trying harder never makes us happy and never brings us closer to God. We know from experience, but it’s as though we don’t know any alternative. We can’t find anyone that it’s worked for but we keep doing it anyway. There is a dark real spiritual force behind performance-based religion which masquerades as true Christianity. Flesh can never change or overcome flesh.

Let’s look at an everyday illustration. Suppose you over-eat and you think you weigh too much. That may be a true assessment. You feel bad about it, not just because you’re vain, but because it’s bad for your health and you are potentially shortening your life. Your actions are denying the richness and fullness of the life that God gave you to live. Now the performance answer is: go on a diet, get control of your eating and commence an exercise program. This is what our weight-conscious, ‘slim is beautiful’ society has been preaching to us for many years. But if the ‘do-more, try-harder’ approach ever worked, we would be the skinniest people in the world. However, all indications are that we’re fatter now as a nation than ever before. That is our reality in spite of a pre-occupation with losing weight – doing more and trying harder. It doesn’t work in the world and it doesn’t work in the Church. It actually makes things worse. The Church in the western world has never been as riddled with gross sins like infidelity, immorality, sexual abuse and fraud as it is at present. Why is that the case when we have heard so much preaching about sin and know very well what is acceptable and what is not?  A lot of people say that the preaching is too weak these days – I would agree; but it’s not weak on laying down the law and loading expectations on us. All that guilt about not doing enough has made us Christians even more inactive and guilt-ridden. Why is that so? Well let’s analyse this.

There’s no argument about the great worth of Bible study and prayer. Christians who neglect either will be poorer in their life. But what happens when you realise you are not reading the Bible or praying as often as you feel you should? You feel bad about it and when you finally feel guilty enough to address this bad behaviour, you make a resolve to set a schedule for Bible study and prayer. It starts well and God meets you in those quiet times of reflection. But eventually you miss a few days and get down on yourself. The further you punish yourself the further you seem to slip away from the discipline, until finally you crash in a heap and give up. This cycle of good intentions, trying harder, succeeding, failing, feeling guilty and trying again is something that many of us know all about and it is doomed from the start. Let me explain why.

This cycle begins with your feelings of guilt or shame because you are doing something you shouldn’t do; or not doing something you feel you ought to do. These feelings build up to where they are strong enough (listen to this language) to motivate you –  to spur you into action. You want to eliminate the shame and the guilt. You’re ready to do something about it. So you make a resolution – you re-dedicate your life; you commit yourself to the Lord’s work again; you make promises; you come forward for prayer. You do what ever you need to change your behaviour. At this stage you’re full of energy. You can spot this ‘do-more, try-harder’ cycle by the levels of energy you have at the various stages. At the beginning stage, after a long time of feeling guilty, you’ve got hope, energy and discipline. It can even be a little intoxicating. “Maybe God’s going to do it this timemaybe He’s going to be pleased with me THIS time; maybe it will work THIS time and I’ll never have to go through that horrible cycle again. Maybe I’ll know the power of the Holy Spirit THIS time; maybe THIS time if I JUST TRY HARDER – God will be there for me!”

As a result, your prayer life becomes regular, or you watch what you eat, or hit the gym again. You get whatever the bad behaviour is in tow. Everything you felt guilty about, you now feel master of. One week, two weeks pass – you feel great. But why do you feel great? Because of your good behaviour!  Hello out there? Reality check … what do we call it when we feel OK because of our performance? The victorious Christian life? No. We call that SELF-RIGHTEOUSNESS! So when you feel OK before God because you’re finally doing things right – you turn into a Pharisee! That’s why God hates religion more than you’ll ever know. Religion is this lying, horrible, deceitful, cruel hoax which tells you that you’re not OK because you don’t perform properly. When you do, it turns you into one of the people for whom Jesus reserved His most savage criticism! Anything that you put faith in to make you OK, or to restore self-esteem, or to quieten the guilt – anything you do, or any power you appeal to – is your idol. Religion is an idol. It can properly be seen as an addiction. Some people take alcohol to ease the pain of life. Some take drugs, or run marathons, or get lost in pornography or sexual sin. There are lots of ways that people deal with inner pain, guilt, shame and inadequacy. Christians just have a more respectable, but far more dangerous idol – it’s called religion.

The inescapable lesson that we must learn sooner or later is that self-help goodness is not the Christian life and it doesn’t work! The world’s terms of living: obsession with money, looking out for No.1, putting confidence in possessions etc., is called living according to the flesh. Am I right?  Well, being good, going to Church, reading the Bible, praying, serving on committees, being baptised, singing Christian songs etc., may be just as much living according to the flesh, depending on your motivation. The only difference is the audience you are trying to impress – one is outside the Church and the other is the Church or, in realty, God Himself. That’s right, we are deceived enough to think God is impressed by our performance. It doesn’t matter whether you do good things or bad things from God’s perspective – if you’re trying to earn His favour and be accepted by Him in any way, it’s useless. It’s also an insult to God and an offence to the cross of Christ.

This is why Jesus told the Pharisees that the prostitutes and criminals He hung around with were actually closer to the kingdom of Heaven than any of them. Ouch! What a low blow to a Godly, passionate, committed Pharisee. Jesus said that because we are either all the way in or all the way out of the kingdom of God and the only way to be in is through the finished work of Jesus Christ. The Pharisees thought that if they lived better lives than the sinners around them they were closer to the kingdom of God. But Jesus said that only takes us further away, because our self-righteous ‘good’ behaviour was harder to confront than the sin of those we look down on. They’re more likely to repent than we are. Hello?  Did you get that? It’s easier to get the world to repent of its worldly behaviour, than it is to get the Church to repent of its religious behaviour.

Now let’s see exactly why this cycle of self-effort is so deadly and doomed to fail. You may go for one, two, even five weeks – cranking out the good behaviour and feeling really good about your performance. Now, if you were initially motivated to perform by guilt and shame, what motivates you six weeks later? Answer: nothing! The law can produce guilt, anxiety and shame in you or it can produce pride – but it cannot produce spiritual life or genuine, Godly fruit. So if guilt and shame was the basic motivation to get you off your backside to do more and try harder – then you are setting yourself up for certain failure. Because the moment you start performing better, the guilt and shame will start to disappear and sooner or later you lose the motivation behind your performance. You slack off and before you know it you’re at the bottom of the roller coaster and the deadly cycle starts all over again. The distance between your highs and your lows can be breath-taking.

Some Christians spend their whole life in this cycle. So when preachers talk about the victorious Christian life, they may as well talk to the wall. Most of the people listening have no idea how to get off this religious roller-coaster and back into reality where God loves them unconditionally and is ready, willing and able to fulfil all those disciplines and more in their lives in His strength, not theirs. Others catch on a lot sooner and realise that this is a dead-end street and it’s never going to get any better. So they stop doing more and trying harder and just leave the Church. There are hundreds of thousands of people in this nation who were once involved in the Church but aren’t anymore. Why? Because all they encountered was religion – they never embraced the transformational new-covenant gospel of Jesus Christ. These people need to hear the true gospel at least once before they die. They have not rejected Jesus – they just never got to meet Him in their experience of Church. Let me demonstrate the grace of God in action by telling you a story.

A father had two sons. Both of them were good boys – they were performing well. But one day the younger son said: “I’m tired of all this do-gooder stuff, I want to go off and be bad.” So he got his inheritance, got permission from daddy (who knew that if his son didn’t want to be there, then he wasn’t really there anyway) and the boy left the family farm and travelled a very long way from home and from the love of his father. As planned, he lived like hell. He was as bad as he wanted to be. He got to do all the stuff that was in his heart and eventually he hit a wall going really fast in the sin lane and woke up one day on his face in a pig pen. He then realised that this father’s servants were treated better than him, so he decided he would go home and strike a deal with dear old dad to hire him as a servant. At least he would have a roof over his head again and some real food! He thought, “I really blew it – I have disqualified myself from being a son. I’m no longer acceptable because of my bad behaviour, so maybe I can live as a servant and repay my Father with my good behaviour.”  

So he headed home and his father saw him a long way off. Why? Because he was looking for him and had been looking and longing for his son since the moment he left his side! The father ran to the boy, his heart beating in his throat with excitement as he welcomed him home. Just as the boy started out with what some people call repentance (but it really has nothing to do with what biblical repentance is) the father overwhelmed him with an avalanche of love and grace and unbridled affection. In effect he cut off the boy’s sob story and confession and stopped the pathetic plea to buy the favour of his father again and said:

You don’t understand son. Your behaviour has nothing to do with whether you are my son or not. You are my son because you are my son! Bring the robe, bring the ring, bring the sandals – here is full and free restoration of your sonship. All the symbols, all the power, all the reality of total, unconditional re-instatement, acceptance and love are yours, in spite of your behaviour, in spite of your bad choices, in spite of your sin. May acceptance of you has nothing to do with your performance – it has everything to do with ME and MY character.”

Brothers and sisters, you have just seen how to be OK with God and how to feel OK with God when you’re feeling shame or guilt or you don’t measure up in some way. How do you break the deadly cycle of self-effort? First, you come home and receive God’s free grace, love and acceptance as you are, where you are with no exceptions. Come home in your sin, rebellion and stupidity and just be loved by your heavenly Father. You need to feel OK on His terms. Don’t make any promises. Don’t do anything. Just bask in His grace and love until that has its effect in you. The father in the story wouldn’t listen to any promises or resolutions about the future, he just restored his son again – totally, completely and unconditionally. That is exactly what your heavenly Father will do for you every time you come to Him. Then as that wave of love and grace saturates you, the gift of true repentance is birthed deep within you and your life is never the same again!

I came to God almost 50 years ago now, full of sin and desperate for mercy and grace, and He just gave it to me and I will never outgrow that humble dependence on a saving God. Our dependence on His saving and empowering grace never ends. As believers, sin doesn’t break our fellowship with God, it just fills us with shame and we turn away from God. He never turns away from us. So the solution is always to turn back and head for home. That’s the only place to go when you feel bad – when you need to be loved, forgiven and accepted. The writer of Hebrews says it best:

“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin … Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence (KJV says let us boldly approach the throne of grace) so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” (Hebrews 4:14-16)

You can approach the throne of God’s empowering with confidence and receive mercy every time, You don’t deserve it: but you get it anyway. But not just mercy – alsograce– God’s empowering presence. Do you want power to do better next time? Here’s the power – go for it! You want mercy? Just ask for it and it’s yours! Do you see why the true gospel rips the heart out of works-based religion? You have to take it for free or you don’t get it at all. God’s mercy, love, forgiveness and acceptance are not bought at any price – except the blood of Jesus. God’s grace – the empowering presence of God Himself – is also not bought at any price. It is freely given to those with the sincere belief that it’s theirs for the taking. Can you see how religion doesn’t fit here at all?

Look again at the cross of Christ – at the blood streaming from His murdered body. Keep looking until you’ve got it – until you know that there is nothing you can do that will ever make it OK – Nothing!  And you stay there, totally forgiven in the loving embrace of your compassionate Father. When that hits home; when you come face to face with His amazing grace; then you will say: “I don’t want to live like this anymore. Give me the grace to live a real life. Get me off this religious roller-coaster and give me the power to become like Jesus. I want to do what I do because I love you. I want to live before I die – not just play out a role that has no reality in it.I want to live by Your grace and for Your glory, Lord.” 

OK It’s time to respond. That’s what is expected when the truth is proclaimed. Millions of sermons will be preached across the world this very day and it’s all a complete waste of time if the hearers or readers fail to respond or make any choices in light of the truth that was just proclaimed. So how will you respond today? Perhaps you’ve identified with this deadly cycle of self-effort recently and you need God’s empowering presence to lift you off that roller-coaster. Maybe you’re tired. You’ve been at it a long time – serving the Lord – but the glow has left you. It’s become more of a habit or lifestyle than a living relationship, and so little things become big things and crush you. You need to be brought out of the rut and given new purpose, direction and power to travel a new road. Perhaps you are one who knows all the right answers about God. You’ve grown up in the Church and heard hundreds of times about the real, authentic Christian life – the Spirit-filled, powerful life that makes an impact in the Church and in the world. You’ve been exhorted to press on and know God better, but you wonder if you really know Him at all. Maybe you lack the power to deal with a particular problem – relational, financial, spiritual, emotional, physical. If you want the power of God for healing in any area of your life, then prepare to enter the throne-room of God now:

I want you to imagine you’re standing before a huge, thick, heavy door. It’s the door to the throne room of grace – the place of God’s empowering. You’re nervous and you wonder if you even have the right to go in. ‘How could a Holy God even look upon my sinful face, let alone give me what I need?’ Just when you’re about to turn away, gripped by shame and inadequacy, you feel someone’s hand on your shoulder. You turn to see who it is. It’s Jesus, standing right there next to you. His eyes are filled with indescribable compassion, love and understanding. He leads you gently towards the door and says: “It’s ok, don’t be afraid, I’m with you. Our Father knows you’re coming, He’s expecting you. I’ve already been in and cleared the way for you. You have nothing to fear.” With that He just walks towards the door and opens in His presence – like it knew He was coming. As you enter, you see the Father seated on the throne of grace. His look of love and acceptance melts your heart and all your fear vanishes. You feel like you could ask Him for the whole world and He would give it to you … so you pour your heart out to him:

“Father, I love You and I stand in awe before You. I cannot understand why You would go to the lengths You did to bring me into this throne room today. I am overwhelmed by Your love for me.You have promised me so much – things I am too fearful or ignorant to claim. Among those promises is the one You’ve given me again today – that I may boldly approach your throne and ask for mercy and grace; for unconditional forgiveness and the power to change and become the person You always new I could become.”

Now, in the quietness of this moment – tell God what you need. Tell Him what burdens you right now and ask Him to strengthen you to face that challenge or remove the challenge all together if that is possible. Lay all your burdens at His feet now . . . . and watch as Jesus picks them all up one by one and takes them upon Himself. That’s what living in Christ, through Christ and for Christ really means. You give Him all your burdens, all your guilt, all your shame, all your shortcomings and He gives you His strength, His life and His resurrection power.  Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!

Friends, until we are set free from the religious expectations of the law by a proper understanding of God’s free acceptance of us, we will engage in an endless cycle of futile human effort. We simply need to return to our loving heavenly Father and accept His love. When we turn to Him we find all that our heart has ever desired, given to us freely and without condemnation. When that happens, and only when that happens, we will experience true repentance, radical transformation and all those expectations we used to beat ourselves up trying to fulfil to please God will begin to emerge in us as the fruit of the gospel – as the life of Christ is released deep within us. All that we ever hoped to be and struggled to achieve will become a reality in Christ, through Christ and for Christ.

May it be so, Lord. Amen.