I once worked for a woman that I feared. She expected her employees to work tirelessly without making mistakes or needing positive feedback. She took whatever I was willing to give and gave nothing in return, aside from the occasional silent glare as evidence that I’d disappointed her.
Despite all this or perhaps because of it, I desperately wanted to please her. I gave that job all my energy, creative juices, and best efforts. But I was really giving it all to her as if it were an offering, hoping she’d notice and approve, and at the same time hoping I’d avoid her wrath. However, because fear was the ultimate motivation for my work, I grew to hate that job I would otherwise have loved, and I flamed out in brilliant fashion.
I didn’t realize it at the time but my relationship with my employer was a telling microcosm of my relationship with God. I had grown up with an incomplete understanding of the gospel. I rightly believed that my salvation came through faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection, but I wrongly believed that my sanctification–everything after salvation–was up to me. I had to resist temptation through my own efforts. I had to conjure for myself the love, joy, patience, and forgiveness that God commanded in Scripture. I had to forever try harder and make positive steps forward.
The result? I feared God, not in a biblical way but in the same way I feared my harsh employer. I worked hard and then worked harder. I gave Him my best efforts, not as an offering, but almost as a request I was sure would be denied: Please love me. Please approve of me. Please reward me for what I’ve done for you. To me, God seemed as distant, disengaged, and disapproving as my boss had.
I couldn’t understand why I felt so trapped or how to break free from the cycle of pride and self-condemnation. All I knew is that I wanted to please this God that I feared, but I never felt that I could get it quite right.
At a time that felt appointed, God used the book of Galatians to reveal my incomplete understanding of His gospel. He specifically used 3:3: “Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” My Christian life had begun when I placed my faith in Jesus and the Holy Spirit regenerated my soul. Why would I think my spiritual life would revert to self-effort after that?
Trying to understand this, I began soaking my thoughts and beliefs in Scripture and a load of dirt rose to the surface. I’d always feared God, but I hadn’t always understood His love for me. In fact, I’d pushed it away because I felt unworthy. As I soaked in it, His love finally broke through all my self-effort and self-condemnation. I realized just how far He’d gone for me, that He’d not only taken care of my sin but He’d taken care of my sanctification too. By giving me the indwelling Spirit, He’s given me everything I need for life and godliness. That’s the explosive, comprehensive nature of His grace.
The best part? His love expelled the unholy fear I’d lived with for so long. That fear had spoken so many lies to me, whispering that I’d never be enough, that I’d never be loved by God, that I was failure. That fear had me running a race to nowhere trying to earn what I had all along.
God’s love brings so much freedom. He’s freed me from feeling as if I have something to prove. Instead I’ve discovered His love is a catalyst toward good works and righteousness, but now the work is not motivated by fear. Work underwritten by God’s love comes from a place of gratefulness and worship.