I suppose I've always felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation at that number, because it is historically believed that Jesus went to the cross at age thirty-three. I don't make a big deal out of numbers, but for some reason I've always felt like this age should mean something. After all, by this age Jesus had fed tens of thousands of people, healed hundreds (if not thousands), preached to massive crowds, and brought many, many people to repentance. I feel like something significant should happen in my life during this year. But this year has been a year shaped by struggle, defined by discontent. My own heart has been in a bad place. I have been anything but Jesus-like.
Today in the shower I was mulling this past year over. I have two days left of being 33. And while I haven't had any Elijah-and-the-prophets-of-Baa
What is this miraculous new revelation that is bringing about so many changes in me? Two words. The Gospel. The Gospel? You mean, the same Gospel that saved me as a young child? You mean the same Gospel that drew me to Christ in college? The same Gospel I profess to share with others? You mean the same Gospel that I have taught about numerous times? That Gospel? Yes, that Gospel.
Does this surprise you at all? Because it sure surprised me. In my usual self-righteous, know-it-all way, I have always understood the Gospel. The Gospel, in a nutshell, is that God created man to be perfect and to be in perfect relationship with Him. Man messed up and sinned and broke that perfect relationship. In order to restore that perfect relationship God sent His perfect son, Jesus, to die on the cross for our sins, MY sins. After three days He rose from the dead to prove His power over Satan and death. If I believe in all of this, I will be saved and live for all eternity in the presence of God!
I've always understood this. I've believed it. I still do believe it. But I've always left the Gospel right there, at the moment of my salvation. That is what the Gospel is for, right? The Gospel just sort-of “happens” to you and you get saved and then you live the Christian life. The good Christian life. The sort of Christian life that means that you are involved in a good church, you read the Bible, you pray, you tell others about the Gospel. But the Gospel has always been past-tense to me. It is something that happened before. I just figured I had it down and I could move on with just continuing to pass it on to others.
I have been, to borrow a line from Paul, a Pharisee. If I were to write Philippians 3:4-6 about my own life, it would go something like this; “If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh—I myself have more: Born into a Christian home, to zealous Christian parents, memorized hundreds of verses, went to church religiously, a Christian of Christians; as for zeal, leading many mission trips, working with kids, doing anything asked of me within the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless.” I've been a good influence. I've doled out lots of “good,” Christian advice. I have prayed for people. I have prayed with people. I have shared my faith often. I have had the label of “missionary.” And I have been self-righteous about it all, but I have always tempered that self-righteousness with a healthy dose of wannabe humility. I have served. I have done menial jobs. I have sacrificed. Yet even in my “humility” I have seen pride's ugly face. I have taught about the Gospel so often that I had reduced it to a formula.
This is NOT what the Gospel is. Yes, the Gospel happens at the moment of salvation. But it also happens before the moment of salvation, when God is drawing us to Himself. In fact, it happens before the foundations of the world. And it doesn't just reach backward into time, it reaches forward into time. The Gospel doesn't just save me, the Gospel defines me. It is who I am. The Gospel crushes my self-righteousness and my pitiful attempts to please God by my works. The Gospel annihilates my silly idea that the measure of grace that I need is somehow less than the measure of grace that someone else needs. I am shocked at the realization of just how dirty and disgusting my heart really is, and how good I have become at disguising its true state. I have put so much cover-up on my heart that even I truly didn't know how gross it was (is) under all the layers of “prettiness” I have caked on there. The Gospel is tearing all of that away from me and I am seeing for the first time that the measure of grace I need is enormous...exactly the same measure that you need. The same measure that the drug-abuser needs. The same measure that the child-abuser needs. Wow.
I am reminded of the scene in C.S. Lewis's beloved The Voyage of the Dawn Treader where Eustace has turned into a dragon because of his greed. Aslan comes to Eustace and tells him to tear off his own skin. Eustace claws at himself and tears off a layer of skin. And another. And another. After realizing that his own attempts to remove the dragon skin from himself are going to fail, Eustace allows Aslan to do it. Eustace retells it later: "The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know -- if you've ever picked the scab off a sore place. It hurts like billy -- oh but it is such fun to see it coming away."
I am in this process right now, and God is tearing away so much ugliness from my heart right now. It is an uncomfortable process...actually, it is downright painful. But I am learning about what the Gospel really means. I am learning what it means that I am a daughter of the King. I am learning what it means that I am covered by Christ. I have not “arrived” and I will NEVER again make the mistake of thinking that I have. God is not done with me yet, so you had better believe that this story will be continued...