Earlier this summer I was shooting hoops with my neighbor. He’s young, trying to figure out life like all of us. As we were playing he said, “I feel like I’m unique, like I was made for a purpose. I feel like I have abilities that others don’t, and somehow have something to prove.”
We talked for a while about these feelings. I’m a pastor, and so it served as a pretty easy entry point into sharing with him about Jesus — most notably about how Jesus isn’t interested in us impressing him, but instead how love covers a multitude of sins. But, like so many conversations and relationships in life, this one “tilted the mirror” toward me and I found myself staring right back at my own image, that is, my own insecurity about having something to prove. I want to believe I haven’t felt that angst since I stood in his teenage shoes, but here we are.
The good news of the gospel is about what Jesus has done for me, and not what I do. I find that really freeing. But, if I’m honest, it creates tension in me. I’m a doer. I have a Coach Carter kind of work ethic. And, that’s nothing to applaud, because it comes out of a desire to prove I deserve to be a starter. It comes out of a desire to hear my mom say she is proud of me. At the age of 10, I remember busting my behind to clean the house at my mom’s request. Sweeping was the litmus test. I thought I rocked it, but she came home and said, “There is still dirt on the floor. I can feel it under my feet.” Despite the floor being spotless by my account. I was determined, hell-bent even, to prove her wrong next time.
And this is where things get projected onto my relationship with God. Even if I don’t think (at my core) that he’s that type of taskmaster, my first instinct most days is to depend on my floor-sweeping efforts, so to speak. I often still want to prove I’m unique. Instead of proving to coaches, parents, or other people that I deserve their affirmation of me, I now find myself working for God’s affirmation of me.
What we do is relentlessly connected to who we are. However, here is the tension: What if there is one who did everything I needed to do in order to be accepted and affirmed?
That’s the better word of the gospel. I no longer have anything to prove. Through Jesus, I have a spot on the “team.” The work has been accomplished by God himself. He did what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do (Rom 8:3), so that now I see that I am accepted by grace, on account of love, not performance.
What do I do then if what the gospel says of me is true? Absolutely nothing.
That’s the most freeing news in the universe in a time in my life where I feel like I have to do (and be) a lot of things, when I’m spinning the plates of being a husband, a father of 4 kids, a friend, and a pastor of a one-year-old church plant.
What at first looks like a tension within me, is actually my very undoing. My need to prove myself is being brought to an end, which brings with it surprising relief and renewal. I need it. It changes how I relate to God and the way I relate to people.
When Jesus was carrying the cross up the hill of judgment, he wasn’t just carrying the weight of my sins. He was carrying the weight of my insufficient work. He was carrying my inability to do enough to please the Father. And, through Jesus’ own hell-bent efforts on the cross, affirmation was both purchased and displayed. He was “showing love” (Rom 5:8), through work, rather than demanding work from us.
So, do I really do nothing when I rest in what the gospel says of me?
Of course not. But I need not do anything, and this is the most freeing part of it all. I am free to approach life differently. To approach things and people with less selfish ambition and conceit. I feel as though I’m finally able to truly live without the incessant worry of needing to prove myself. Take your performance out of the equation, and you might even find yourself at times even doing more, but with less anxiety and fear attached to it. And much more smiles and laughter, even at your own expense.