There is a ironic paradox that is created when we exercise our free will in submission to the will of God. With any given list of options, one could imagine that they might be sorted in order from best to worst. Let us presume that some criterion exists which perfectly distinguishes any option as better or worse than any other. We often make choices based on what seems best in the moment or based on emotions or peer pressure or convenience, but seldom do we make the best choice because we can only see so far. In every decision, it would be ideal to pick the best option according to that perfect criterion. There are two ways to progress towards that ultimate state: 1) that the decision maker becomes familiar with that perfect criterion and selects the best option through reason or 2) that the list of options is narrowed by removing the inferior selections until only the best remains. If both of these happen simultaneously, then the decision maker fully embraces the best and only option. But does he really have a choice anymore? Do you have to have more than one option in order to make a choice? This paradox that can be really confusing in Christianity. As God transforms us into His likeness, we become familiar with what is best for us. We exercise our free will by choosing to submit to His will. This submission removes all other options so that the only choice left is God. You could argue that at this point, you have lost your ability to choose. In reality, this is choice brought to perfection.
Righteousness is often associated with the law or a certain fixed moral system. While this association is not entirely inaccurate, we commonly make the mistake of attempting to be righteous through obedience of the law. It is indeed possible to achieve righteousness by following the furthest extent of the intent of the entire law in thought, word and deed. In fact, it has been done before by one person: Jesus Himself. He came to fulfill the law. This means that beyond strict obedience, He defined the intent of the law through His very being. “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.” (Romans 10:4) This is great news for believers, for no longer do we pursue righteousness through the law but through the person of Christ! Because we have severed our identity from the image of God, it is impossible to achieve righteousness through the law. “And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (1 Corinthians 1:30) He is righteousness to us and for us. “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21) Our righteousness is a gift of grace through the necessary work on the cross. “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Galatians 2:21)
As mentioned previously, Jesus blesses those who hunger and thirst after righteousness with the promise that they would be satisfied. The pursuit of righteousness finds fulfillment in becoming righteous. Some may have the expectation that there is a reward for righteousness other than righteousness itself; and to them, other means better. But if Christ Himself is our righteousness, what reward could be more valuable? George MacDonald writes: “Let no one start with dismay at the idea of a reward of righteousness, saying virtue is its own reward. Is not virtue then a reward? Is any other imaginable reward worth mentioning beside it? True, the man may, after this mode or that, mistake the reward promised; not the less must he have it, or perish. Who will count himself deceived by overfulfilment? Would a parent be deceiving his child in saying, ‘My boy, you will have a great reward if you learn Greek,’ foreseeing his son’s delight in Homer and Plato–now but a valueless waste in his eyes? When his reward comes, will the youth feel aggrieved that it is Greek, and not bank-notes?”
As a peripheral comment, righteous anger is a concept that often remains undefined and loosely used to justify certain actions. Various violent actions of judgement by God and old testament prophets are relegated to this realm of controversially permitted conduct. With Christ as the definition of righteousness, any transgression from His nature is unrighteous and reprehensible. It certainly makes sense that these sins warrant the wrath of God. But we as mere humans fall drastically short of the definition of righteousness. Righteous anger is only justified in response to a direct infraction against the definition of righteousness itself, which is Christ Himself. It is natural to feel dismay in reaction to the misdemeanors of others, but it is not justified to act in anger in response to malice even against ourselves. It is appropriate to feel anger when someone clearly deviates from the righteous standard of God, but every single one of us is guilty of that. As soon as we condemn others, we condemn ourselves. James reminds us that “the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God.” (James 1:20) While anger may indeed be warranted, it is easy for us to overlook our own offences in judging other. The deplorable condition of the world should lead us to sorrow and lament as we ask we pursue the righteousness of Christ.
2 Timothy 2:22 encourages us to “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” Fleeing and pursuing both involve intentional and prompt movement. The exhortation suggests that these movements are identical in purpose and execution. To flee with no pursuit results in aimless wandering incited by fear and resulting in emptiness. To simply flee youthful passions without the pursuit would be to rejoice over an empty cup in a dry desert because it has no sand in it while as yet there is no water inside to quench your thirst. This is not to say that we should disregard the flight, but it is easy to become motivated by fear, anxiety or self-righteousness instead of calling on the Lord from a pure heart. Jesus proclaims that those who hunger and thirst after righteousness are blessed with satisfaction. In a sense, the pursuit of righteousness is itself righteous and deserving of blessing. We are to strive for righteousness, faith, love, and peace in that order in accordance with the ordinance defined by God. It is encouraging to know that there are others who we can flee and pursue along with.
The verse “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” is quoted by Jesus Himself when He was being tempted by the devil. This verse is commonly interpreted to mean that as Christians, we need spiritual food in addition to physical food for survival. This is certainly true, but I think there is more to be said. Bread is a staple of many cultures, but seldom do we eat bread alone. Jesus shared wine at meals, desired figs from a tree and even cooked fish for breakfast for his disciples. These foods provide enjoyment in addition to nourishment. While the word of God is dense with spiritual wisdom, it is also seasoned with joy. Reading scriptures is not only essential to life with God, it is desirable and enjoyable.
I believe it is generally understood that freedom is not free. The general trend of patriotism in the USA recognizes the costly price of the lives of those in the military who have defended our country. Similarly, our spiritual freedom comes at a high expense. Jesus gave His own life so that we may die to ourselves and live with Him. We must consider the cost of laying down our own lives in addition to the sacrifice of the life of Christ (though His life is worth infinitely more than ours). And the freedom that we gain is found by submitting to God’s authority, not by becoming rulers of ourselves. Any form of government (except, arguably, a monarchy or dictatorship) persists on the presumption that the subjects are submitting to authority. (In a sense, the subjects have given authority to the government, which is rather paradoxical) Choosing not to submit to authority causes chaos, and choosing not to submit to God’s authority leads to death. Some people like to say that it is because Jesus died that we can live. This is not correct. It is because He lives that we can live. Because He died, me must die too. This is the cost of discipleship, but it is totally worth it!
“For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1 ESV) For freedom Christ has set us free? This statement sounds somewhat redundant. What is Paul trying to say here? With regards to the law, there are two extremities: irreverent transgression and pious servility. In reality, no one is capable of keeping the law, for to fail at a single point is to be accountable for the entire law. Thus obedience seems futile yet disobedience is facetious. Faith in Christ alone is capable of setting us free from this predicament. We must be reminded that we are no longer slaves to sin nor to the law. Having been released from the law, we are not at liberty to sin, and having been released from sin, we are not constrained to the law. Both the liberty to sin and the constraints of the law are yokes of slavery, but by God’s grace we are released from both. It is for freedom that we are set free!
If you have not read the post titled Love Yourself, make sure you do that before continuing to read this. Have you noticed how God always sets the example for us whenever He gives us a command to follow? God has commanded us to love others as we love ourselves. Implicit in this command is the idea that we have to love ourselves. Analogously, God’s love for us extends from the love that He has for Himself. This is quite a remarkable concept to comprehend. God does not need anything external to Himself to define His value or purpose. He has no need for anything from anyone. It is from this limitless love for Himself that He is able to love us through creating us and saving us from ourselves. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4:10 ESV)
As humans, we strive to know ourselves better – to evaluate our strengths and weaknesses in order that we might grow and improve. This is all with good intent, but it often leads to efforts to improve ourselves apart from the saving grace of God. We are made in God’s image and He defines who we are, or rather who we should be. Learning how to improve does not come from knowing ourselves better, but from knowing our creator and savior more fully. As created beings, we only know ourselves to the extent that we know the one who created us. “Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator.” (Colossians 3:9-10 ESV)
It is commonly suggested that a person must learn how to forgive themselves. But can we actually do that? Only God has the power to forgive sins. So what does this phrase actually mean? We are held back by expectations and contingencies that we place on ourselves. We stubbornly refuse to accept God’s forgiveness and vainly strive to win His approval on our own. Not only does this lead us to further depravity, but it demonstrates our lack of faith. Oh if we would only believe that God is and does what He said He is and will do! He promised that there is no condemnation for those who are in Him and are called according to His purposes. Lord, we believe – help us in our unbelief!
Jesus said that we should love our neighbors as we love ourselves. This sounds simple enough, but why are we so bad at it? Some people might say that they love themselves too much to love others. But what if we don’t even know how to love ourselves? What we desire and pursue so often is not what is actually beneficial to our own well being. We think that we know what is best for ourselves, but our own fleshly desires get in the way of seeking the things that God has for us, which are better beyond comparison. We don’t love ourselves correctly because we don’t love God enough, and we don’t love God enough because we haven’t fully accepted His love for us. We try to earn love, but we as humans can never deserve love. The truth is that God loves us in spite of who we are. And this is where love all begins: love for God, love for ourselves and love for our neighbors.