Many people know just enough of the gospel to sound as if they're fluent, but like my Japanese they don't know enough to have a really good conversation. Many believers speak catchphrases without knowing how the gospel applies to the everyday stuff of life. They have been given the truths of Jesus as the answer for going to heaven, but have little knowledge of how Jesus gives a better answer for what they do in this life. God wants us to be able to translate the world around us and the world inside of us through the lens of the gospel. What follows is a personal example of what it looks like when the truths of Jesus Christ influence the everyday stuff of life.
As I sat at the computer scanning my Facebook newsfeed, I read about a school teacher who had written six mathematical equations on the board. The class was laughing, as one student pointed out the first equation was incorrect. The teacher responded by saying, ‘This is how the world will treat you. I wrote five right answers, but none of you gave me any recognition for that. You laughed and criticised me for the one wrong thing I did. The world will not always appreciate the good you do, but it will put you down for the one mistake you make.’
This was one of those ‘he finally came to his senses’ moments. By homing in on my wife’s short-comings I was behaving like the world; becoming angry, jumping to conclusions, focusing in on a problem and believing I deserved better treatment. My self-pity was sucking the thankfulness out of my heart, affecting my ability to see God, and causing my wife to feel condemned. My wife was responding by making an effort to please me. But when her efforts were still not enough to satisfy my standards, she became angry (recalling my failures as a way of levelling the table). We became two people repaying evil for evil.
I knew that rejecting the impulse to feel sorry for myself would not be easy. My natural response was self-protection, which often resulted in self-pity. However, my studies led me to Galatians 5:16, where I was reminded that I can choose to ‘walk by the Spirit, and… not gratify the desires of the flesh’. The more I meditated on the fact that I have a choice, the more empowered I felt. This led me to breakdown my struggle into two options: if I choose entitlement it leads to disappointment and self-pity, and if I choose gratitude it leads to thankfulness and forgiveness. I began keeping a record of things to be thankful for within my marriage. Working here would be a small but significant step in the right direction. This simple exercise produced a number of benefits. It helped to counteract the feeling of losing out, and provided me with a list of positive statements I could interject into everyday conversation.
On one occasion, whilst my wife was away, we agreed to chat over the phone before bedtime. I watched the clock, determined to make our conversation a priority, but instead of a phone call I received a simple ‘good night’ text. Again, I associated this with broken trust and a failure to meet my expectations. But this time, instead of responding with the same ‘good night’ — which my wife would have recognised as offended behaviour — I expressed my care and appreciation. She responded with the words, ‘I know’. Expressing appreciation for one another is an important part of any relationship, but we don't always think deeply about its impact on others. Over the coming weeks I noticed that each statement of appreciation not only reinforced my own sense of gratitude, but also gave us confidence that despite our weaknesses we were still capable of pleasing one another.
The next step was to bring God back into the picture and deal with the issue of self-pity. My studies revealed that self-pity was related to self-centredness, and that each time I indulged in self-pity I was elevating my importance in my own eyes. Thinking too highly of myself was allowing life’s hurts and injustices to dictate my emotional state (Romans 12:3). Scripture tells us not to ‘quench the Holy Spirit’ (1 Thessalonians 5:18-19). Instead, we are told to ‘give thanks in all circumstances’. It is impossible to give thanks while clinging to self-pity, because by definition a self-indulgent attitude is not focused on gratitude to others. Whilst Facebook had highlighted my worldly behaviour, it was through two passages of scripture that the Spirit awoke my conscience to the fact that I was breaking the first commandment (Exodus 20:2-3/Romans 12:3). Originally, I had little idea as to what was hijacking my heart, but now I was beginning to see it was the idea that I deserve better. The idea that my standards of love, attention and appreciation must be met in order for me to feel good about myself.
Problems are complex, and more than a few times I failed to respond to situations with grace and gratitude. Yet, as I worked through Romans 12:3 and 1 Thessalonians 5:18-19, I became aware of two things that were happening simultaneously. I was growing in awareness of my own sinfulness, and at the same time I was growing in awareness of God’s holiness. This had surprising consequences. Each failure brought me back to the cross and reminded me of the distance between God and myself (which for someone who is thinking of themselves more highly than they ought, is not a bad thing). Each failure presented me with a choice: Do I focus in on the perceived offence and continue to circle from entitlement to self-pity? Or do I embrace the cross and progress forward?
Jesus lived in the same world I live in. He faced disappointments, but remained free from self-pity. Jesus sympathises with my weaknesses and understands my struggles. He was tempted like me, and yet remained without sin. He died for me, who typically fails when tempted. He is tenderhearted towards me, giving mercy and grace. Retelling these basic truths provided a bridge between my sinfulness and God's holiness, and seemed to empower me to make the right choice. My failures were acting as reminders of God’s grace. The more aware of my indebtedness to God I became, the less entitled I felt. The less entitled I felt, the more gratitude I expressed to God for His mercy and grace.
The key to moving forward became the regular reminder that Jesus Christ has satisfied God’s wrath (1 John 4:9-11); therefore, I am deeply loved by God. I was connecting the dots between change and choices, and realising I can drink from the Father’s perfect love instead of demanding it from an imperfect human being. At the same time, my conversations with God and acts of repentance were reminding me that whilst God directs my life, He also gives me the freedom to make my own choices: To walk towards Him, or to walk away from Him. I was not giving this same freedom to my wife and she was feeling there was no room for failure — in her words, she felt ‘trapped like a bird in a cage’.
Despite knowing marriage is about giving, we can still enter marriage with certain expectations and easily forget our spouse owes us nothing but chooses to give us everything. As a sense of entitlement had grown in my heart, so my focus in marriage had shifted from giving to getting. I was shocked to realise how, over the years, my heart had filled with a list of entitlements. The more entitlements I created the more apprehensive I became about any failure to fulfil them. It was only as scripture met with grace that I received the assurance I needed to confess my sin to a Holy God, and to have an honest conversation. This process helped to re-orientate my heart through; a growing awareness of my sinfulness, a growing awareness that God’s grace reaches out to me despite His holiness, and a growing confidence that I can trust Him to meet my inner needs.
It is one thing to take responsibility for our sinful actions, and another thing to take responsibility for the consequences of our actions. The Spirit was leading me to not only take ownership for my own behaviour, but also for the negative impact it was having on my marriage. I could see how over the years I had changed from rejoicing in the things my wife does for me, to viewing these things as entitlements. The moment I took ownership of the problem, whether five percent or one hundred percent, the ball of blame stopped passing between us.
Progress was not as far away as I expected. Being a perfectionist means I often set the bar too high, but because I was no longer demanding perfection small steps became significant steps. In the past I had been demanding perfection from myself, and had missed the growth I had already experienced in regards to initiating reconciliation with my wife. This is a significant step when it comes to encouraging others on their spiritual journey. I look back and wonder how many small steps I missed celebrating, within counselling situations, because I was only focused on a major victory. This has implications when it comes to both counselling and preaching — there is value in breaking down the perfect example and highlighting the smaller victories which will eventually contribute to our eternal perfection.
My fear of failure continued to compete with my perfectionism. The temptation to demand perfection from others, whilst telling myself — if I don't aim for anything, I can’t miss anything — lingered on in the background. However, over the years I have learnt to break things down into manageable pieces. My heart is learning to rest in the knowledge that God will one day make right all wrongs. Rather than diminishing my desire to grow and change, this truth has empowered me. The hope of seeing Jesus face-to-face, and knowing that this hope is certain, adds some sense of sovereignty to these seemingly small situations. As I look forward to sinless perfection, I am inspired to grow today into who God has guaranteed I will be in the future.
The joyful retelling of the gospel story, to myself, has helped me to ‘press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me’ (Philippians 3:12). It has moved me from seeking to quench my idols in my own strength, to resting in and responding to that which Jesus has already accomplished. Even in the hard and messy, God is in it and He is up to something good. There is good news and great help for absolutely everything in life in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This kind of gospel does not come about in a classroom, only during Sunday services, by passively listening to a sermon, or simply by reading a book — it is about immersing the everyday stuff of our lives in the truths of Jesus Christ. It is about realizing the gospel is everything — the beginning, the middle, and the end of our new life in Christ.