October 30, 2014

“Getting Better” Is Not the Goal

Tree planted by streams of water, Agnes Leung

“But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.” (2Peter 3:18, NIV)

“Just as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so go on living in him—in simple faith. Grow out of him as a plant grows out of the soil it is planted in, becoming more and more sure of the faith as you were taught it, and your lives will overflow with joy and thankfulness.” (Colossians 2:6-7, Phillips)

• • •

Getting better doesn’t matter. That’s not what living as a Christian is all about.

“What do you mean? Of course getting better matters!

“Okay, so maybe it does, but caring that it does will make you weird. And even if you get better and you know it, you’re probably not really getting better. Not only that — if you make getting better your goal, you’re in for a boatload of trouble.

“The gospel of free sins makes getting better sort of irrelevant. In fact, the constant pressure to ‘get better and better, every day in every way’ is driving people away from the truth of the gospel. It’s not about getting better.”

• from Three Free Sins: God’s Not Mad at You
by Steve Brown

One of my favorite chapters in Steve Brown’s new book about grace is called “When Getting Better Doesn’t Matter.”

In it, he sets forth an extremely important point, that most of us forget: “Almost everything of importance is found while we’re headed somewhere else.” That is, the goals we really want for our lives — love, joy, peace, meaning, significance, security, wisdom, maturity — will most likely be achieved when we don’t pursue them directly. They are by-products of important relationships and experiences in life.

This is contrary to our American obsession with goal-directed achievement and success. As Steve writes,

While setting goals is a good thing and setting laudable goals even better, if you get neurotic about it, you probably won’t achieve your goals, and you’ll make yourself and everybody you know miserable in the process. Christians, by and large, are neurotic about purity, obedience, and holiness. It is probably the main reason we’re not very pure, obedient, and holy. And in order to maintain our witness, we have learned to fake it.

So, relax! And let me join Steve Brown in carrying on Luther’s legacy by offering you some free sins to help you.

If you read the verses at the top of the post, you can see the emphasis of the NT. We “grow” in the natural/supernatural soil of grace and the knowledge of Jesus. In other words, the goal is not growth. Growth is the by-product of the regular reception of grace and getting to know Jesus better. You know, like Paul said: “That I may know him” (Phil. 3:10) — that’s the goal.

The Phillips paraphrase of Col. 2:6-7 makes this even clearer. Just as we first trusted Christ, relying not on ourselves and our works for salvation, so we are to grow in Christ. Sending our roots more deeply into him, we grow and overflow with the fruit of the Spirit. Growing or “getting better” is not a matter of reaching for the sky or climbing the ladder toward perfection. It involves resting in the soil of grace and developing a more deeply rooted relationship with Christ.

Steve Brown makes four points about all this we would do well to remember:

  • You don’t have to get better to get God to love you or to be counted holy in his sight.
  • You will get better, and you won’t be able to help it. Focus on being yourself and living with God and it will happen.
  • If you get better, hardly anyone will know. None of us really know what is in each other’s hearts, and we’ve gotten pretty good at wearing masks that are virtually indistinguishable  from the real thing. So stop worrying about trying to impress everyone! You’ve got ‘em fooled already!
  • If you do get better, you probably won’t even know it. Not only are you good at fooling others, but the Bible says we’re all pretty good at deceiving ourselves. So relax. God loves you, his grace is there for you, and Jesus is calling you to walk with him. Just do it.

For a couple of centuries now, religion in America has gotten all mixed up with our can-do, myth of progress, technological culture of invention and achievement. Revivalism and pietism have become the default position for many Christians and churches. It’s all about my decision, my commitment, my dedication, my re-dedication, my obedience, my progress, my growth.

I wonder what Bible we’re reading sometimes.

How about we call off this relentless “self-improvement” project and go take a walk with Jesus down the path of grace?

 

Comments

  1. Chaplain Mike, could you please stop posting about exactly what I need to hear? It’s getting disconcerting. But I suppose that as this is what everyone needs to hear, it isn’t personal

  2. “How about we call off this relentless “self-improvement” project and go take a walk with Jesus down the path of grace?”

    Exactly!

    God forbid that anyone be able to relax, in Christ Jesus.

  3. Joseph (the original) says:

    my sense of actually ‘arriving’ into the rest God prepared for us (Heb 4) when i realized i could not transform myself no matter how sincere i was…

    it became clear to me that i was living a lie if i thought i could perfect sin management to the degree of relaxing into it. my attempts only made me paranoid, uneasy, repressed, focused on the ‘sin that so easily entangled me’…

    i have no guilt now. i am relaxed. i accept my failings without agonizing or hand-wringing…

    do i desire to be a better version of myself? certainly. i do want to be more like Jesus. and compared to the person i was just a few years ago i can say i am a changed man…

    not perfect. but being perfected. not by my piety, self-control, 12-step program adherence, or other things that i had put my hope in. i remember simply giving up trying, understanding it could never really be enough…

    i was set free that day. entered into a realm of freedom & rest i only knew of theoretically. and as i continue on my journey of faith, by faith in the One that began a good work, i now realize that it is He that will perfect it…

    thank you Jesus… :)

  4. “You will get better, and you won’t be able to help it. Focus on being yourself and living with God and it will happen.”

    You mean John 15 is true? ;^)

  5. Kerri in AK says:

    I am so going to have to buy this book! It seems that I end up collecting books that I might not need to read at the time of purchase but will find I *need* to read them at some future date. And then those books will be exactly what others find they need to read even later. Well, I am a librarian after all…

  6. Our evangelical focus on “getting better” is inextricably connected to our understanding of the Gospel merely as forgiveness of sins. If all we ever preach is the narrow, judicial-language gospel of substitutionary atonement, our attention will naturally be focused on avoiding sin, because we’re preaching as if that’s all that matters.

    The only way I’ve found to get away from a “getting better” mindset is to rediscover the older and more Biblical understandings of salvation. That includes the “Christus Victor” proclamation of Christ’s victory over “sin, death, and the Devil.” It also includes the good news of “theosis” – the lifting up of humanity into God and our participation in the nature and power of God through the incarnation of Christ (2 Pet 1:3-4, etc.). And, it includes broadening our understanding of Christ’s substitutionary death so that we can believe that not just our sins, but our sinful nature itself, and the scars left on our hearts by the sins of others and by the fallenness of the world and of our society, _all_ died with Christ.

  7. Final Anonymous says:

    Mike, this post almost brought me to tears.

    Even while I decry it, I am still stuck in that relentless self-improvement project. Recently I thought to myself, “What if I just decide now to fail at everything?” (“fail” meaning “not reach my goals for each and every thing in my life”)

    I was completely shocked and unprepared at the first thing I felt — RELIEF. Utter relief. And an inner peace and happiness I don’t think I’ve ever experienced, before or since.

    Of course, in the next few minutes I was back to my perfectionist-driven ways. I haven’t quite figured out to reconcile everything. But this post — wow. Makes me feel like I don’t have to get it all figured out, I just need to keep seeking God, and He will be with me just the same.

    Thank you.

    • I can almost imagine all the different ministers, pastors and crowd from the churches I once attended scremaing.. “HERESY!!!!” “HERESY!!!!” “HERESY”

      Got to love the fundys. Of course getting better is all about the other person, never yourself. Becuase when you are fundagelical you are not the sinner. No the sinner is the other person…never you. That’s why accoutanbility, and a million other programs lead to control, dishonesty, facades and propagnda machines that would make many communist propagnada masters envious.

      Man I can just imagine the the folks I knew at some of the mega churchs and Crusade screaming…”HERESY!!!!”

  8. This book sounds great! I like one of the comments I read at Amazon in a review of the book: “When we think that God’s love for us is determined by our performance, we qualify as heretics.”

  9. I think a lot of the motivation behind the notion that we have to always be progressing towards something – reaching another spiritual plain, overcoming a particular sin, etc. – stems from our American ideals, or even more broadly, Modernism. Progress is always good, after all, isn’t it?

    While certainly growth is a good thing, that’s not necessarily the same thing as progress. We can’t really make ourselves grow. We can try to put ourselves in a place where we can grow, but no amount of effort on our part can bring to bear actual fruit.

    I think a lot of the preaching you hear, though, is along the lines that with enough effort, we can pull ourselves up. If we are sinning, we simply are not doing the program correctly. In other words, a lot of it can be boiled down to “the beatings will continue until morale improves”.

  10. My favorite blogger, Fr Stephen Freeman, keeps on repeating:

    “Christ did not come to make bad men (people) good, but to make dead men live.”

    This is all so far beyond “Christ plus nothing”, and “preaching the law and preaching grace”. Luther had a lot going for him, and at the same time istm that he could see the whole “salvation issue” only through his own experience, including his own deep psychospiritual need for assurance (with which I can relate – was a huge problem in my past, too), and the western theological understanding of the late medieval period. Peace to my Lutheran friends.

    Joanie is right: Michael Z has a good understanding. The dominant understanding of the early church was Christus Victor: “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.” (Troparion/hymn of the Resurrection, sung at Orthodox Pascha over and over again, and in as many languages as possible for any given congregation.)

    The only thing in which I would disagree with Michael Z is that I don’t believe – and I came to believe this even before I was received into EO – that we have a “sin nature”. We have a human nature, because we’re human beings; that didn’t change when the first humans turned from God. The notion of “sin nature” came from a misunderstanding/mistranslation of the term “flesh”.

    Forgive me, a sinner.

    Dana

  11. “…caring [that getting better matters] will make you weird”.
    Not sure what to do with 2 Peter 1:5-15 after reading this.

    • Isaac (except when I'm Obed) says:

      Make sure you go back to the beginning of the passage (verse 1) and see the whole argument. Starting with Verse 5 makes it look like the focus is on us and our efforts. If you go back to the beginning of the passage, however, you’ll see that this is not the case. Whatever we do flows out of God’s work and promises and the way he’s changed us and allowed us to partake in his “divine nature.”

      Good rule of thumb: whenever a passage you’re reading or quoting starts with “for” or “therefore,” you need to back up lest you take it out of context.

  12. “How about we call off this relentless “self-improvement” project and go take a walk with Jesus down the path of grace?”

    Forget about it. Because I’m not old. For those of us who are still young and full of piss and vinegar, we still have large dreams of who we’d like to become. I recognize success is going to be limited, but for me, Jesus gives hope that today is not my best. I honestly don’t think Jesus is interested in his disciples not growing. I’d like to think he’s there to bring healing for the bumps along the way.

    For me, it seems that no matter how hard I try to abandon self-improvement and “the gospel of try harder,” I find myself right back on the treadmill the next day. Getting off the treadmill has now become the one spiritual achievement I am ultimately incapable of. Obviously Jesus didn’t come to be my “personal trainer,” but I need one who will come beside me when I can’t give up on running. I HAVE to grow and get better, and I don’t know why, but I’m simply incapable of not trying. No matter how bad I screw up, I’m not gonna call it quits, and that’s ok. Jesus isn’t trying to sideline me, but he does get me back up on my feet again.

    • “Getting off the treadmill has now become the one spiritual achievement I am ultimately incapable of.” It’s like being legalistic about not being a legalist, or having a works righteousness where the work that earns salvation is killing my own legalism. Thanks be to God that there is grace–even when the sin we most need it for is that of the Pharisee.

    • This is where I am. In the tradition I’ve aligned with, we consider grace to be God himself working in us to change us to make us better. I think the problem that a lot of people fall into is taking the whole “sin as a debt” illustration too seriously. If sin does accrue a debt with God, and Jesus paid that debt on our behalf and that is all grace is, then sure, calling off the self-improvement project makes sense. On the other hand, if sin is something that binds us, something that we need to be delivered from, and Jesus came to conquer sin and death and deliver us from them, I’m not sure how we can dismiss “self-improvement”, though self-improvement is really a misnomer since it is a cooperative act between us and the Trinity. It is somewhat akin to learning to walk: being able to walk gives us freedom we would not have otherwise. We can’t learn to walk on our own, nor can our parents learn to walk for us—we both need our parents’ guidence and have to cooperate with our parents’ promptings. We most certainly don’t learn to walk to earn our parents’ love, we had that already, and if we stumble, our parents’ are not angry with us, we just have to get up and try again. I think that thinking about it this way avoids the whole performance complex people fall into while resisting the tendency to just resign from the race.

    • petrushka1611 says:

      I think this is where being “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” comes into play. You can’t try not to try, because then you’re still trying. I gave up over and over again for years, and all my giving up did no good…everything got worse, in fact. The hearing of the gospel for Christians was what saved me (For the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us WHICH ARE SAVED it is the power of God).

      It took an act of being conformed, an act done by God in his time, to get me off the treadmill. I waited patiently for the LORD; and he inclined unto me, and heard my cry. He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. I’d been crying for this for years before He dug me out. Every time you hear the treadmill start up, remind yourself of something Christ has done for you, regardless of whether or not it gets you the expected results right away.

  13. I personally found this earlier Internet Monk post to be much more helpful:
    http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/no-stinking-up-god’s-place-or-“how-to-be-perfect-like-god”

  14. Randy Thompson says:

    From my experience, “getting better” is an ever increasing sense of how profoundly screwed up I am and an ever increasing sense of how good God is, and how patient. To know who God is and who I am is a great grace, and, somehow, in light of that, wondering whether I’m “getting better” or whether I’m getting “spiritually mature” doesn’t much matter.

  15. I am anxious to read the book. I have checked out Steve’s website and can appreciate where he is coming from.
    It makes a lot of sense from what I see in Scripture. But I need some help in understanding Luther. He appeared to have some serious issues that turn me off. I agree with what he said but some of his viewpoints and lifestyle showed little agreement with the gospel. His anti-Judaism really bothers me. Anyway, I need some help here……

    • Bill ~ I think the “beauty of Luther” is that he was a totally human man called by God to start a much needed revolution. He himself was a first step. Many, many others continued what he began. I too find his anti-Jewish stance appalling. But he is also a hero of mine. He was used by God to re-ignite the Biblical truth of the Solas – grace alone being one them. That was such a threat to the Catholic Church’s power and grip on the people that it began a movement that in many ways continues to this day. He is a perfect “show and tell” of exactly what today’s post is about as I see it. He wasn’t sure, he doubted, he “smoked danced and played cards” and drank beer and had a terrible temper and on and on. It wasn’t about him – it was about bringing it back to grace alone and churches of all denominations have fought that ever since. As Eagle says, heresy. But with all his flaws and human- ness Luther is me, and you and all of us really. God mightily used him IN all his humanity.

      • Thanks, Adrienne, I get what you are saying about Luther’s human-ness and how we are like him. I guess I expected more growth is such a great man. He seemed to become more bitter and hateful as he got older. From what I read his anti-Jewish stance really became worse when he “realized the Jews would not convert to Christianity.” I guess I need to pray and study some more. Thank you again.

  16. It may be a stretch, but I heard a similar theme in David Grohl’s acceptance speech last night: it’s not about being perfect; it’s about singing into a microphone and learning to play an instrument. God works through us through our vocation, but he also works in us through that same vocation. There are so many similarities between pietism/revivalism and the shallowness of American culture in general: both reduce us to wearing masks and putting on appearances, rather than actually being something. Grace isn’t about how you look or how you appear. It is about living honestly and transparently. Grace says, I’m sorry; I will do better next time by the grace of God, and sets out to learn and grow. It is about practicing and honing this craft called life in a very imperfect manner, knowing that through faith we are already accepted by the finished work of Christ upon the cross and the empty tomb. Along the way we do grow in the likeness of Christ, day by day. Revivalism gets it backwards, teaching that we do a better job when we are attempting to earn acceptance, rather than a work of love based upon the assurance that we are already accepted. Carrots and sticks never work; they produce just enough for one to get the carrot or dodge the stick.

  17. Been enjoying these posts.

    I believe righteousness is found exclusively in the act of confession, which is traditionally a part of the act of communion (or Eucharist)

    I need to be in a state of honesty before God. A very real me connecting to a very real God. Pretending is something other. I believe in spiritual disciplines like prayer and contemplation and sharing the faith, and that sort of thing. but i think the confession part is primary.

    Here’s a passage that keeps me sane

    “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

    There is something at work beneath the surface that has nothing to do with me. this has to do with the kingdom of GOd in the world, but also the kingdom of GOd forming inside my own soul.

    • Dennis, I love your thoughts here. Christianity often, unfortunately, becomes a cultural hiding game, where we cover ourselves with fig leaves, in hopes that we might appear holy.

      What God desires, though, is a contrite spirit, a broken heart. I think you sum where we should all be perfectly by saying “righteousness is found exclusively in the act of confession…I need to be in a state of honesty…a very real me connecting with a very real God.”

      Far too often the faith is mistaken for a behavior modification program. There are some things I left behind when I began to follow Him, but there are also sins I have picked up along the way, which more than make up for the ones I abandoned, I’m sure. I tell folks all the time that we do not pursue goodness and right action because we believe we can impress God; instead, we pursue it because we are infinitely impressed with God. I think we could substitute the words “transparency and honesty” for “goodness and right action”, and the idea would come across with equal power.

  18. I think that there is some “word games” going on here. “Getting better” is just being replaced with the term “growth” or “Maturity”, and that is scary, because growth in Christ and maturity does matter. Self-discipline is part of the fruit of the Spirit as is goodness, gentleness, etc. Scripture is very clear that God gets all the glory for our faithfulness, but that doesn’t at all negate our choices to be faithful. (Luke 11 etc. etc.).

    My question is: how does it work in life? I see an opportunity to obey (or to disobey) by God’s grace and power I choose to obey. God gets the glory for it, not me, but at the same time I can choose to disobey and to go against God. Is that no big deal? “God’s grace teaches us to say “no” to sin”.

    Let’s not take a limited view of God’s grace, by portraying it as only something that washes away my sins, but God keeps us from making sinful decisions as well, and He leads us where He wants us to go.” Maturity does matter for the very reason that God brings it about in our lives.

  19. Yes, Grace comes from God. It is a gift we don’t deserve. I hear people say,”I hope I’m good enough to get into heaven.” No one is.Grace will change us if we let it, but in my seventy odd years of life I still have doubts. Does that mean I have failed? Yes, But Jesus stands between God and me.He says,”My grace is sufficient for you.” That keeps me going. Lord help my unbelief!

  20. I have found that it is most often through those things within ourselves that we judge to be negative that we are most able to be a vessel of God’s healing love and compassion in the world. As the Psalmist reminds: “Darkness and Light are But One.”

    Lauri Lumby
    Authentic Freedom Ministries
    http://yourspiritualtruth.com

  21. I can see where wisdom is looking the finished work of Christ, and not my own works or accomplishments, or progress (or lack thereof); at least as a starting point, as a foundation. Obviously, as a place to return to, again, and again and again.

    But I see these, at least for today, as over-statements, and over-reactions to all the self-help gospels that there are out there.

    1) Our growth is mostly irrelevant and “doesn’t matter”.

    2) Our growth/progress will be unseen to me.

    3)Our growth/progress will be unseen to others.

    You can make a case for all three in light of what Christ has done for us, but I think all three are a bridge too far, and when taken too far, they are not helpful, and do not reflect what I see in the NT: our choices and actions, though not meritorious, seem to matter a great deal, and are often (though certainly not always) visible, and assumed that they will be visible.

    The over-all post might be mildly helpful as a corrective to the “6 Easy Gospel Steps to…….” but I still see this as an over-correction. At least @ 12:47 on Tuesday morning 2/14 I do…. you know how that goes…

    • I do not know where the balance is here. And maybe what I am about to say is contrary to the article, but I think he has room for what I think.

      In my years as a Christian I have seen people get better. My experience has been that Jesus Christ does make a difference, and when people come to Him for grace, he changes their hearts. If I try to change on my own without his grace, I have limited success. My good works/self help programs don’t seem to do much.

      However as I have learned to submit to Him and His grace, I do get better. I have witnessed this in the life of countless people. I think Paul referred to those things as the fruit of the spirit.

      • maybe a restatement of your last sentence includes: the fruit of the spirit is not “our job” , per se, but it is nonetheless real, discernable (at least, I”d posit, usually), and matters quite a bit. The fruit is neither vindication, or identity producing, but I’d say far from “irrelevant”.

        • Getting better is not the goal. Relationship is. Focus on the relationship. Let God focus on the fruit. Start focusing on the fruit and it immediately becomes about you rather than about Him. It’s ALL about Him.

          • Looking at this “big picture” , I couldn’t agree more; but I still stand by what I wrote: the NT NEVER points to specific “fruit” of obedience ?? Yes, position in Christ is primary, and who we ARE is the soil of what we are becoming. But the statements in the post above, to me, still read like overstatements, and hence, are less than helpful. We don’t need more Steven Covey , IMO, but let’s not over-correct either.

            When I think about it, asking us to not “think about getting better” is kind of unhuman. I think wanting to “get better” is wired into us. Is that just sin, or is it a desire to get back to the garden ? Is there anything redemptive in those longings ???

            Thanks for the reply
            GregR

  22. I’m a couple of days late in catching up with this, but this is a true gem CM (not that you need my affirmation). Keep ‘em coming!

    (John from down under)

  23. I was in a Barnes and Noble today to look for Steve Brown’s book. As I entered the “religious” section I noticed a man reading from a book which I recognized as the Koran as I got closer. I nodded to him, heading for the aisle I thought Brown’s book would be located. He said something I did not understand, so I stopped and said “yes?”
    He put the Koran down, asked me if I have read it. I answered in the negative, having only read a couple of lines in the past. He looked disgusted and said it was trash and that it was about works-based religion. He seemed upset so I decided to continue on to look for the book. He spoke again: “I will be glad when Jesus returns to the Mount (of Olives, I guess) and kills them all with a word from his mouth.” I started to respond but decided not to as he scared me a little. Now, I don’t know what this has to do with Steve’s book, but this type of believer turned me off from Christianity until I was 28. I am still repulsed by this type of thinking. Anyway, I got Steve’s book and hope I can get past this incident.