I serve on the team of the curriculum "FaithLink" (cokesbury.com/faithlink), and recently a Facebook friend in Kansas asked if I'd contribute something to her church's Lenten devotional. As Curly used to say, "Coitainly!"
May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! (Gal. 6:14-15).
Hard words to live by! Our faith can become behavior-centered and focused upon requirements. At the Galatian church, the issue was circumcision; Jews had practiced it, but these Gentile Christians thought that they, too, should adopt that rite as a requirement for salvation. When I was young, I associated Christianity with “don’ts”: don’t play cards, don’t mow your lawn on Sundays, don’t swear, don’t drink, and so on. Christian faith can also seem like a list of accomplishments: I’ve been on this-many Emmaus walks, I tithe, do mission trips, serve on church committees, keep the Ten Commandments, and so on. Pastors, concerned about increased volunteerism and financial giving, can unintentionally encourage this behavior-centered kind of faith. The Lenten season also can become self-focused: I gave up chocolate (or whatever) for Lent, and now I feel very faithful.
Not that it’s a bad thing to be faithful, giving, and conscientious! In fact, faithful living is a big part of the “new creation” of which Paul speaks. But faithful living is no excuse for boasting about our supposed righteousness, because our achievements and personal righteousness don’t earn us a relationship with God, nor eternal life! Remember Jesus’ wonderful story in Luke 18:9-14: the blatant, hopeless-feeling sinner was embraced by God instead of the respectable, blameless person. The whole point of the Gospel is that God does for us that which we cannot do for ourselves, which is to love us undeservedly and to save and transform us.
How liberating to realize that God knows our imperfections and pretenses (Ps. 103:14) and loves of fervently. How wonderful to know that God meets each of us, not at some imagined place of greater saintliness years in the future, but at the place we are right now! That’s why Paul held to the unchanging cross of Christ and not to any human effort.