Balancing Right Doing
“God gives special needs kids to special people.”
This statement makes my skin crawl and my stomach do flipflops inside. Mainly because I am nothing special - and I know full well how little I deserve to be called that.
I know that people mean well, and I have learned to graciously accept their compliment in the way they mean it, not in the way I hear it. I know that phrase is much like saying “I’m sorry” or “Thank you”; it never seems to be sufficient to really capture what one wants to say. It's not completely true. The people who say it know it, and I know it – but we arrived at this truth from different paths (mine, a bit embarrassing to admit).
There was once a time in my life when I felt a certain sense of accomplishment and pride in caring for my kids whose needs exceeded every typical caretaking framework I had ever known. I went without sleep, without a break, without extra helpers. I rammed myself up against every barrier I found – whether in the physical, spiritual, mental, educational, emotional, medical, or therapeutic realm. I was the epitome of the idiom “If there’s a will, there’s a way.” My “will” to take care of my boys started in love – the kind of love a mom has for her children: unconditional and strong. But, it eventually devolved into a less loving motive, and more like a harsh task-master. My actions never changed: I still rammed through the barriers, beat the odds, served, supported, and protected. But something in my heart had changed: my acts of care and love became a means of validating my abilities, or a sign of strength and capacity.
It took a 2 year bout of physical impairment that left me in bed for months, unable to even pick up my own head off the pillow, for God to open my eyes to my self-deceived heart. As I listened to the Bible read aloud, I heard this verse: “…and I will pile their lifeless bodies before the lifeless idols they have served” (Lev. 26:30). In an instant, I saw my own limp body stretched out underneath a statue of myself. I was so profoundly affected by this bizarre image that I remember feeling disgusted and ashamed of the utter insanity of such a scene. How absurd to think that anything about myself would be worth worshipping, especially since I know the Truth of God and the ineptness of my own humanity. Somehow, along the way, I had forgotten. From the outside, nothing about my actions would indicate anything had changed, but in that moment, I knew and God knew: my actions had become my own inner idolatry of self.
I found pride in having my schedule packed with all the good things one can do: exercise, healthy grocery list, vitamins, Bible reading, prayer lists, church attendance, leading Bible studies, all while doing all the “stuff” that comes with parenthood, with a good deal of “extra” piled on top having kids who needed special care. I was happy and productive. I felt accomplished, and I saw returns from my own investments. I hosted dinners, met my husband’s coworkers, managed our budget, and somehow still had time to take a shower and fix my hair.
Nothing in these things is inherently “bad” or “sinful”. In fact, they are all “good”. Like, really really good. Even “Insta-worthy”, perhaps. However, the moment my heart tallied these things up into a list of “accomplishments”, they became destructive to my heart. The lure of self-reliance is that it’s always with us – in our “self” – which means, we will always be capable of choosing our own measuring rod instead of choosing to simply be faithful.
It seems that we all have this uncanny, inevitable ability to only care about whether we can check all the boxes that seem important at any given time. It appears like a simple mental equation we use to prove ourselves, but we don’t admit that it isn’t mental math – it’s spiritual idolatry. Literally, since the Beginning, we’ve tried to “do” right. But, as Adam and Eve learned, doing right has never been the goal anyway.
God wants us to be with Him. To walk with Him…talk with Him…experience who He is. And our ability to do the right things has never been the way to accomplish that. Being with Him has always been dependent on our relationship with Him. It has always been about Him, yet we often make it about us – our sacrifice, our decisions, our good works – even as we tell ourselves that we are doing for Him.
This is why “doing right” never works. It NEVER works. It is a one-way road towards making this relationship with God all about us. So, after we’ve done all we can do to check all the “right” boxes, we are actually disqualifying ourselves from being in relationship with Him. Solomon knew this, and wrote: “Do not be overrighteous…why destroy yourself?” (Ecclesiastes 7:18).
Why does Solomon assert that being overrighteous will destroy us?
Because Solomon knew that our righteous acts are the very thing that will cause us to assume that we are in relationship with God, only hiding the truth that our hearts are far from Him. Doing *for* someone is not the same as loving them. But, at surface level, it certainly looks the same, and our busyness is simply our version of tying fig leaves together to try to hide our real nakedness. When we assess our commitment to Christ, we often cite our time in prayer, how many verses we have memorized, the amount of money we give, how many meals we’ve made for others, and the times we chose not to willfully sin. However, Paul explained that this is nothing but a form of spiritual delusion:
One[a] should think about us this way—as servants of Christ and stewards of the
mysteries of God. Now what is sought in stewards is that one be found faithful. So for
me, it is a minor matter that I am judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not
even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not
acquitted because of this. The one who judges me is the Lord. So then, do not judge
anything before the time. Wait until the Lord comes. He will[b] bring to light the hidden
things of darkness and reveal the motives of hearts. Then each will receive
recognition[c] from God… I have applied these things to myself,…so that through [me]
you may learn “not to go beyond what is written,” so that none of you will be puffed up in
favor of the one against the other. For who concedes you any superiority? What do you
have that you did not receive? And if you received it, why do you boast as though you did
1 Corinthians 4:1-7
In essence, Paul is reminding us that to lay claim of anything as if it is a measurement of our own goodness is to defile the mysterious gift of salvation of which we are simply stewards. We are only asked to be faithful in our stewardship. But, what exactly are we to be stewarding? The Gospel. And this Gospel says: “There is no one righteous, no not one.” “All have sinned”. “Saved by grace alone.” To self-validate ourselves based off our ability to obey is antithetical to the Gospel, because the Gospel says I cannot be good, I cannot save myself, and I am unworthy to judge, even my own motives. The minute we call our actions “righteous” is the moment that our act – no matter how selfless or “right” it may seem – becomes destructive to our souls. By assigning righteousness to our actions, we are stepping into the role of God, usurping the only Righteous Judge. We are behaving as Adam and Eve; we have decided that our way of reaching perfection is better than simply being His.
The other extreme of overrighteousness, is to excuse ourselves from doing good when there is good to be done! And that is not at all what Solomon or I am suggesting. There is, of course, the responsibility to obey the call of God. But, for us, it is about Him, not us. It isn’t about what we do; it is about who He is in our hearts and our personal assessment of ourselves in the process.
When we obey in our stewardship of the Gospel, there must be, for us, a “holy amnesia” which is borne out of the bliss of being in relationship with the Father. A natural flow of being His that produces kindness, service, joy, love, and compassion which cannot be summoned, forced, or barely even noticed by ourselves. We possess a heart humbled by salvation that saw our deadness and breathed into us the breath of Life; and from this great gift, all that we have received is from Him. All of it.
According to Jesus, our Father in heaven will never reward the person for acts done to receive praise (and that includes any self-validation we would hope to gain from our own self-assessment). Instead, we are to remain oblivious to our own righteous deeds. As Jesus instructs, “when you give…do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Matt 6:3). (AKA - “holy amnesia”.)
Finding the balance between the extremes of doing nothing good for the Lord versus being overrighteous is an exercise in humility. It’s seeing and assessing accurately the gift of salvation, accepting this position as a child of God, and responsibly engaging in the stewardship of what we’ve been given. Humble acceptance of both the gifts and the responsibilities of the Gospel keeps our hearts in a place to engage in the world with grace and goodness, knowing we ourselves are unworthy. Then we can respond to our worthy King, like Jesus instructed in Luke 17:10: “And so you also, when you have done everything that you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants. We have only done our duty’”..