The gospel vs. self-reliance

March 16, 2009

Both the gospel and the epistle for this week include passages that are
almost annoyingly familiar. There's John 3:16, memory verse par
excellence, and Ephesians 2:8-9, the battle cry of the Reformation:

For
by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own
doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may
boast.

These are foundational verses of our faith, but the
faith cannot live on a couple verses alone—so we should maybe dig a bit
deeper this week.

Since we're in Lent, I'm wondering about the
writer's mention of "death" in Ephesians. Could it mean that we were
dead through our self-centered relationships, through resenting our
ex-girlfriends or through bowing to the rulers of the airwaves? We were
dead through self-loathing and overeating and driving a Hummer and
pretty much fill-in-the-blank?

The sentence really could end
with, "you were dead through sin." We were dead through sin, curved in
on ourselves—our desires, our needs, our pocketbooks, our own
well-being—and thus unable to be turned to God. In this convex posture,
we foolishly (albeit predictably) trust ourselves rather than God, and
so can't hear the beautiful, crazy "yes" of God.

We don't trust
that we really are what God has made us, because we are "self-made"
people—autonomous, independent, self-reliant. We don't really need God, except maybe when we're desperate or in the midst of personal tragedy. Then we rub the bottle for our magic-genie God.

If
we think of the biblical text as simply a story of who God is and who
we are, then this plot line of turning in on self—of human sin and
lacking trust in God—is our dominant character arc. God's character arc
is to seek relationship, to always come down to us. But we say, "No
thanks, we've got it covered." This is one way to see original sin: our
unwillingness to let God be God.

I hostess a monthly "theology
pub" in downtown Denver, an open conversation covering a variety of
topics. "Gee, Nadia," someone said recently, "for a Christian
progressive you sure do end up making every theology pub, no matter what
the topic, be about sin."

Yes, sin is one of my favorite
subjects. But as I reread the Ephesians text, instead of seeing how
wicked and sinful we are, this time I'm seeing these words: "rich in
mercy," "great love," "immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness
towards us."

I also see the word "gift." We'd rather be self-made
through our own efforts than be what God has made us, but we are gifted
by God for good works. We are subjects of not only God's grace, love
and mercy, but also of God's gifts. Sometimes we even say yes to God's
yes, which is when the gospel is unleashed in our lives and challenges
our self-reliance. This is when things get really exciting.