by Stanley Voke
‘Jesus, Thy blood and righteousness
My beauty are, my glorious dress.’
A small boy came home one day from Sunday school and said, ‘Mum, we had
a new hymn today. It said that Jesus knows all about our struggles.’ Then pensively he added, ‘You know, that isn’t right. We don’t struggle. Only snails struggle.’
This reminds me of a caption I once saw in a missionary magazine. It showed a snail crawling and a bird flying, under each of which were the words, ‘What are you—snail or bird?’ Some African Christians, blessed at a convention, were seen going home singing, their faces shining with joy. Others said, ‘Look at those Christians—they are like birds flying.’ But they themselves knew how different it could be when their hearts were not right with Jesus. Then they could be like snails—earthbound, selfbound, struggling instead of soaring. If we see only the plumb line putting us in the sinner’s place so that we remain in the state of feeling sinful, we shall be like snails—struggling. Seeing sin does not set us free—we need to see Jesus. For every one look at sin, said Murray McCheyne, take then looks at Christ.1
THE STRUGGLE FOR RIGHTEOUSNESS
J.B. Phillips translates the fourth verse of Romans 10 by saying, ‘Christ means the end of the struggle for righteousness,’ thus throwing light on the Authorized Version: ‘Christ is the end of the law for righteousness.’ There is in all of us a struggle to get and keep our own righteousness, which is why it is so hard to come to the sinner’s place. This struggle is as old as Adam and Eve who, when charged with sin in Eden, at once put the blame on one another and finally on the serpent, while at the same time they made garments of fig leaves to give themselves some sort of covering from the holy eyes of God. By the time of the New Testament, the struggle was well under way, for the whole Jewish religion was a developed attempt to achieve righteousness by works. Of the Jews of his day, Paul said they were ever ‘going about to establish their own righteousness,’2 rather than submit themselves to the righteousness of God.
We are all the same. Have you ever watched children build a sand castle on the beach before and incoming tide? Frantically they heap up their walls, patting the soft sand into solidity and reinforcing it with sticks and stones only to see it washed away at the last. So we go round and round to establish our defenses against the waves of other people’s criticisms. For some of us life becomes one long struggle to be what we know all too well we are not.
THE STRUGGLE FOR ATTAINMENT
One phase of this battle for our own righteousness is the struggle to reach a standard of perfection. We have seen how the plumb line of God holds us to a perfect standard and the danger is that life may become a prolonged attempt to reach it. We become Christians under law instead of grace, so that instead of living in peace, we are torn with tension. Sometimes we set the standard ourselves by picturing the kind of Christian we ought to be. We follow an ideal image in our minds. It is as though we see the man we ought to be standing on some lofty height urging us on as we struggle vainly up the slopes, yet he never lends a helping hand.
Of course, other people set the standard for us as well. Everyone can tell us what we ought to be. We hear sermons and read books showing us the kind of Christians we should be, which only makes us feel guilty if we are sensitive, and self-satisfied if we are not. People put us on pedestals expecting this and that of us until life becomes one long struggle to be what others demand. So we live on under law trying to keep up to standards, while behind us is God’s relentless law never letting us off, never lifting us up. Are you a Christian living under law? Living under continual condemnation because you feel all the time you ought to be a better Christian, who prays more, does more, gives more? You are chained to a moral yardstick. You live under a yoke and a burden when all the while Jesus wants to give you rest.
THE STRUGGLE TO KEEP OUR REPUTATION
Another aspect of this struggle for righteousness is the fight for reputation. We are all reputation-conscious. Some of us have a reputation—it may be for piety, efficiency, leadership, preaching, housekeeping, anything! Others of us wish we had a reputation. Once acquired, or assumed, it can haunt us, dog us, browbeat us, wear us to shreds. Bondage to reputation can be sheer slavery, and yet did we but know, it is only a form of struggle for our own righteousness. We are unwilling to be known as failures along any line.
THE STRUGGLE FOR APPEARANCE
The struggle for righteousness consequently becomes the struggle for appearance which simply means that somewhere we end up being dishonest about ourselves. I once heard a man speak to children about eggs. He had three of them with labels attached. Once egg was stale and it told us it was not what it used to be. The second was half-hatched and it announced it was not what it hoped to be. But the third was rotten and although it looked good, was honest enough to tell us it was not what it seemed to be. Is it not true that we seem to be what we are not, like the Jews whose struggle for righteousness led them inevitably into hypocrisy? The trouble with success is that we dare not be failures, for if we are to keep our reputation we cannot admit to ignorance or sin. That would be to collapse the sand castle before the tide had even come in. It is better to struggle on even to breaking than admit some need that would mean others knowing us as we really are.
The tragedy of all this is the idea that we find favor with God by reaching standards. This is precisely where we are wrong. Again Phillips’ translation helps us in Romans 10:5: ‘The man who perfectly obeys the law shall find life in it’—which is theoretically right but impossible in practice. If we could attain God’s standard we would be blessed. But we cannot, so we end up by being cursed. The very law that was designed to give us life has become the means of death, not because there is anything wrong with the standard itself, but because we sinners are unable to reach it.
CHRIST THE END OF THE STRUGGLE
What a relief it is when we see Christ as the end of all this. He is the end of the struggle for righteousness since He not only fulfilled the law for us, but was cursed for us as well. He has not only attained our perfection but atoned for our imperfection. There is nothing more to struggle about, for He has done all for us and God asks nothing now but our repentance and faith.
All the fitness he requireth
Is to feel your need of Him.
How beautifully Joy Davidman puts it: ‘The only way to get rid of sin is to admit it, for without honesty, repentance, forgiveness and grace are impossible. The Christian does not go around all the time feeling guilty. For him sin is a burden he can lay down for he can admit it, repent and be forgiven. It is the unfortunate creature who denies the existence of sin in general and his own in particular who must go on carrying it. The way to freedom consists in honest confession and repentance that can open our hearts to the Comforter.’3 To open our souls to God’s grace means He not only saves us from being the people we are, but changes us into those we ought to be.
How easy it is! The only way to get rid of sin is to admit it! Why is this so hard? Surely because it means letting go of our own righteousness which is the very thing we do not like doing. Yet how can we have Christ’s perfect robe of righteousness if we insist on wearing our own? It is impossible. Jesus is our perfect righteousness. When we come to Him we need no other. The struggle for righteousness is over and He becomes our reputation and glory. We need not fear to come to the sinner’s place, for when we do, it is to cease from our own works, to stop trying to be what we are not and admit instead what we are. At the point we accept Christ’s own righteousness, we are justified before God and enter into peace. This is God’s basic blessing for us, and the only true way of peace and joy.
Cast your deadly doing down,
Down at Jesu’s feet.
Stand in Him, in Him alone,
1Memoir and Remains, p. 252
3Smoke on the Mountain – Joy Davidman