“For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. ” Ephesians 2:10
Lots of times I come back to the balance that Christian faith demands of its followers — to think ridiculously highly of ourselves, but also to maintain a right kind of lowly opinion of ourselves. It’s a battle with culture, too. On the one hand, even since Jesus’ day, human-centered thinking tries to convince us of how very special each of us is, how very important we are, how much humankind can accomplish, and how much we deserve. I’m a child of the 80s — Sesame Street, Mr. Rogers, Disney Channel and the like — so I was weened on this message. And it still continues today, check out Will.I.Am:
I’m thankful for that; we all need to understand our enormous value and be called “special.” I appreciate that children today get real care and attention out of our society at large. I appreciate being drilled with the idea that I could do or be anything, and so could any other child, by willpower and hardwork and the creativity born in me. But of course I don’t appreciate this sentiment when it goes wrong. Taken too far, and forgetting to include God, makes humanism a mighty force for: self-centeredness, individuality-turned-isolation, an unconscious obsession with entitlement, and Messiah/Superman (and woman) complexes. With an over-reliance or over-glorification of the human being, it’s just so easy to minimize God and God’s action on our behalf.
In the early church, and today, that creeps in on how we see our own redemption. It’s like we cannot help but treat our standing with God as a Visa reward points program, where, yes, in our sinfulness we make massive withdrawals and build up insurmountable debt, but we expect to earn bonuses for good behavior that make up a little bit for our total balance. Our culture has a firm grip on the idea that, for whatever ways we screw up, there’s always a chance to say or do something to “totally redeem ourselves.” Take Harry and Lloyd’s example:
Now, any idiot will say that it was a terrible trade for Lloyd to give up the shaggy dog van for this “hog”; any of you with the experience knows that credit card bonuses are a joke compared to credit card pitfalls/penalties. Redeeming ourselves is tricky business; Christian teaching calls it impossible. Paul dealt with it here, trying to be sure to let folks know that whatever new life they had been born into in Christ, it was the work of God and God alone. We were literally “created in Christ” as this translation goes, which leaves no room to take credit for the process.
On the flip-side of this balancing act, however, is to not forget that what we do matters. That, especially in my tradition, humans do indeed bear a freedom of choice that has great consequences. That, while the grace of God in Christ is free to all, God will not force it on us, so to speak. Our faith matters. The good works Paul describes follow after our being set free, and it’s terribly important. So while we should certainly back off from worshiping the conquests and greatness of every human being, we must never beat ourselves into the dirt, or cling too tightly to the guilt/shame that calls us worthless, or consider anyone including ourselves beyond redemption, for any reason, ever. If the first half of Paul’s message goes like this: “God chose you and rescued you even though you didn’t deserve a lick of it, not even a second glance; it was all God’s doing, so don’t even try to take any credit.” Then the second half says: “Hey, wake up, didn’t you just hear me. God CHOSE YOU. God RESCUED YOU. That was good and pleasing to God because you are of infinite worth in God’s sight.” There was no mistake or accident; indeed, from the very beginning, we have always been the prized piece of Creation in the sight of God. God “prepared beforehand” that we should have life and life to the full, in intimate connection with God.
Today, consider where in this balance you’re struggling right now. It changes for us all. You might need to do better to hear from God and think more highly of yourself today. Or…you might be in a place to need being “put in your place” spiritually, to stop resting on your own abilities and efforts and “righteousness” in exchange for God’s grace. Feel it out, and balance things out.