I memorized quite a lot of scripture growing up. After the prerequisite “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” and ” Be ye kind one to another,” two verses that were early ingrained in my mind were Ephesians 2:8-9. “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast.” It was explained to me that no matter how good I was and no matter how many good things I did, it would never be enough to save me. I had to accept God’s grace and ask Jesus to save me, knowing that my best efforts here on earth could never measure up to a perfect God. To a child’s uncluttered, innocent mind, this was wonderful news. I gladly accepted Christ as my Savior and understood even then how unworthy I was of this precious gift.
After I was saved, I started hearing a lot about “fruit” of salvation. This teaching explained that you would truly know if someone were saved or not by their fruits, or good works. I quickly internalized that the more people saw me doing good things, the more they would think of me as a good Christian. This was reinforced by the adults around me. I heard things like “Well, you know, Susan only goes to church on Sunday morning so she probably wouldn’t be a good choice to teach Sunday school” or “I’m pretty sure he just keeps his Bible in the car so he won’t forget it for church. I guess there’s not a whole lot of Bible-reading going on there.” I still believed that salvation was a gift, but that works were also really, really important. Maybe salvation didn’t necessarily depend on your works, but if you didn’t have a lot of good works to show for it afterwards, perhaps you weren’t really saved.
Take, for instance, reading your Bible. I sang “Read your Bible, pray every day” with great fervor in Sunday school class. I heard quotes like D.L. Moody’s “The Bible will keep you from sin, or sin will keep you from the Bible.” It quickly became a matter of great anxiety for me. What if I weren’t reading enough? What if I missed a day? It became all about the doing, all about the act. I read my allotted verses or chapters each day, and that was it. At college, I made sure that I did my Bible reading in a place where others could see me. I didn’t want them thinking that I wasn’t spiritual. Then, I heard a preacher talk about mature Christians. He said that when it came to Bible reading, you should be reading more and more each year. He mentioned that he himself was reading ten chapters a day and was hoping to increase that to twenty chapters a day soon. I felt deflated after hearing that sermon. Here I was, struggling to read even one chapter a day. I had babies that were getting up several times during the night and a toddler that certainly wasn’t going to allow her mother to sit and read for even a few minutes unbothered. I was trying to read through the entire Bible in one year. If I missed a day, I felt defeated and frustrated and tried desperately to catch up. It was a losing battle. At three chapters a day, two days missed meant I was trying to cram nine chapters into one day. There was no room for the Holy Spirit to speak to me through God’s Word. I was simply trying to get the work done.
And let’s not forget church attendance! From the day of my birth (literally!) I attended church for Sunday school, Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night, and any other special services that might be scheduled during the week. We were always at church. The Bible said “not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is,” after all. Pastors interpreted that as “you ought to be at church every time the doors are open.” I heard my parents and others speak derisively and even condescendingly of those who only attended our church on Sunday mornings. Worse yet were the folks that went to “that liberal church that only has one service a week.” There was no good reason to miss church. If you were sick, you had better be on your deathbed to miss church. When I became an adult, I was afraid to miss a church service. What would people think? If I did not attend a service, almost certainly someone would bring it up at the next service. In a question masked with “godly concern,” they would inquire “Were you sick? We sure missed you last week!” I wondered what they would say if I just blurted out, “Nope. I didn’t feel like coming last Sunday night. The Sunday morning service was great, and I just didn’t feel a need to be there again Sunday night.” But I never had the courage or audacity to say it.
So, if you were reading your Bible faithfully and attending all the church services as much as you could, it would seem that you were a pretty decent Christian. Sorry, but that was not enough. Fellow Christians always wanted to know what else you were doing for Christ. Were you singing lovely Christian songs in the service to bless and encourage others? Were you serving in the nursery to help some poor, stressed-out mother hear God’s Word that day in church? Were you witnessing and telling other folks about Jesus every week? Were you teaching in children’s church, or Sunday school, or VBS, or preferably all three? Were you tithing and giving at least ten percent of your income to the Lord’s work faithfully? The Lord really wouldn’t be able to bless you if you weren’t, you know.
It was a truly exhausting way to live. I did all of the above and still felt like I WAS NOT DOING ENOUGH. The gospel for me (and a whole host of other Christians around me) had changed from “not by works, lest any man should boast” to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” It would take me a long time to realize that Christ did not suffer death on the cross just for me to continually worry about what I was doing for Him. Breaking that mindset would be incredibly difficult. Until then, the frustration and feelings of complete inadequacy while trying to appear to the rest of the world that I was “happy and busy for Christ” would continue to build until I just literally would not be able to take it anymore.
To be continued…