For four days a week the last two weeks, I’ve been taking my daughter to swimming lessons. Yesterday was extra special, though, since it was the end of the two-week “Tadpole” course (also known as Level 1), and we got to find out if she would pass and be eligible for Level 2, the “Guppy” course that begins next Tuesday.
Well, after a last half-hour of dead man’s floats, alternating arm actions, leg kicks and water safety rules, she received a certificate with the words “GREAT JOB!” written across the top in red pen by her swimming instructor. Yep, she passed with flying colors. So after she changed and we were heading to the car for the trip home, I asked her, “So, Guppy, did you have fun?”
“I’m not a Guppy,” she replied matter-of-factly.
I was nonplussed, but continued, “This certificate says you are.”
“But I haven’t started the Guppy classes yet,” was her rejoinder, in a tone of voice that implied I really didn’t understand the fine distinctions involved. (I see law school in this girl’s future.)
So I took the time to explain to her that when she passed the Tadpole Level, that automatically made her a Guppy if she planned to continue on (which she does), just like passing second grade automatically made her a third-grader even though classes don’t start until mid-August. She seemed to accept that, though I can’t be sure she totally bought in. It can seem too good to be true when someone says you’ve achieved a particular status when you don’t yet see the evidence.
But then, I later realized, I’m in the same boat. Only instead of the state of my swimming prowess, it’s the state of my soul that’s in transition.
See, when we surrender our lives to Jesus and recognize and accept that His self-sacrifice on the cross has cleaned away all the sin that separated us from God, we become part of His family. We become saints, the Bible tells us – literally, “holy people” who are connected with a holy God. That’s why the message of Jesus is called “gospel” – good news. What could be better news than the loving Creator and Ruler of the universe has adopted you into His clan and removed any wall of separation between you and Him?
The problem is, even after such an event, we tend to keep doing things that aren’t what He wants us to do (that’s sin in a nutshell). If we have really made the commitment we say we have, really intended to give our lives to Him, we’ll find that we don’t want to sin as much as we did before – because we love Him and want to do what pleases Him. But sometimes we don’t know any better, and sometimes we act first instead of think, and sometimes we just can’t help ourselves. And we sin.
Thankfully, the door of repentance is always open, and we can ask God to forgive us for every time we sin, no matter how many times it happens. But at some point, the thought is bound to hit us: Wait a second, I thought I was delivered from this! I’m supposed to be a saint, why am I acting like I’m not?
And that’s where we all are, every Christian who walks on this earth. Put simply, we are not yet what we will be.
This has been a very hard idea for me to accept. Not to understand – I realized early on that Philippians 1:6, which states “that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus,” meant not only that God will keep perfecting me, but that He won’t be finished perfecting me until Jesus returns. But deep down, my perfectionist, Type-A personality wanted me to be perfect right now – what Brennan Manning once called “push, pull, click, click, one saint right quick.” And I could be absolutely vicious with myself when I wasn’t. Until I really internalized that truth: we are not yet what we will be.
We can run into a lot of difficulties when we forget that. Like me, you can beat yourself up over the gap between God’s desires for us and our own performance. But the point of following Jesus isn’t to do everything right, it’s to keep following, keep trying to do better (not because we have to, but because we love Him and want to do what He likes), with the knowledge that He will make up the difference in the end. Because, after all, we are not yet what we will be … but someday we will be.
Many other people, finding themselves still falling short after repeated trips to God asking for His forgiveness, give up hope of ever being “good enough” for Him to love, and abandon trying to follow Jesus altogether. But Jesus doesn’t love us because we’re good – He loves us because He’s good. As Paul stated it, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). He loved us before we did anything right! He doesn’t love us any less when we screw up, and He’s pleased when we at least try, just as any Father would be when His children make the effort. He knows, often far better than we do, that we are not yet what we will be … and He doesn’t expect us to be yet.
And then there are others who try to pretend that they’re perfect, holding themselves up as superior and wagging their fingers at anyone who doesn’t measure up. Sometimes they aren’t even willing to acknowledge their own struggles to themselves. And often, those people’s lives blow up on them in gory and public ways, because God never built us to live a lie. He knows that (referencing Paul again) “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and will remind us of that the hard way if that’s what it takes to snap us out of our delusions. Because we are not yet what we will be … and it’s silly (not to mention damaging to others) to act as if we were.
One of the books I’ve been reading lately is called Adventures in Missing the Point by Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo. I don’t agree with everything McLaren (a leader in the Emergent sorta-movement) and Campolo (a standard bearer of the evangelical Left) have to say, but I can’t deny they make very good points and back up their arguments well. Yesterday morning (while my daughter was taking her swimming lesson, ironically), I read their chapter on sin, which mostly deals not with what specific things are displeasing to God, but with our own weakness and how we should recognize that we are as prone to fail as anyone else.
I wrote several weeks ago about how I found myself unable to condemn Amy Grant for abandoning her husband and marrying another man because I know I’ve lusted too, and (according to Jesus) committed adultery in my heart. I’m not perfect, not even close. I need the grace of God just as much as Amy, or Ted Haggard, or Mark Sanford, or anyone else on planet Earth. As Campolo puts it in that chapter, in response to a woman who told him that she didn’t think he was much of a Christian, “if I was as rotten as she suspected I was with Jesus, could she imagine what I would be like without Him?” We’re all works in progress – we are all not yet what we will be.
Folksinger Derek Webb addresses this dichotomy, and how we should deal with it, in a controversial song called “Wedding Dress.” (Funny thing, I never knew the song was controversial until it came up on Michael Spencer’s blog yesterday – I’d accepted its basic premise as being rather obvious, and was surprised to find myself in the minority.) The tune is told from the point of view of a less-than-ideally-faithful fiancee, who is seeing if her groom is still willing to accept her, failings and all. Of course, the analogy is to the church, the bride of Christ, and her Bridegroom. The chorus goes:
I am a whore, I do confess
But I put you on just like a wedding dress
And I run down the aisle, I run down the aisle
I’m a prodigal with no way home
But I put you on just like a ring of gold
and I run down the aisle, I run down the aisle to you …
Some people have apparently gotten worked up about the reference to the church as a “whore,” most of them not realizing that Derek is quoting St. Augustine on that score. But others may simply be rejecting the idea that the church (and by extension, them) can have imperfections, or could be accepted by God with those imperfections. And yet God doesn’t care what they think. He’s God; he can do what He wants. Scripture and history have amply shown that what God wants is to accept anyone who runs to Him, no matter how screwed up they are. I could cite a hundred examples, but you probably know many of them already. He wants us to come, even though we are not yet what we will be … or maybe because of it.
So we keep trying. We keep learning what things make our Savior happy, and we work on doing those things. We try to find out what doesn’t make Him happy, and we work on breaking those habits. We survive, to use McLaren’s preferred term, and we grow. We won’t get there under our own steam, but the effort, combined with the things God’s Holy Spirit is doing in our hearts and minds, is causing some improvement. We are not yet what we will be … but we’re heading in the right direction. And in the end, He will get us there – He promised.
Come Tuesday morning, my daughter will be swimming in the Guppy class – because she’s already been declared a Guppy by her instructor. And someday (probably not Tuesday morning, but you never know), I will be truly and fully a saint, from the top of my halo to the tips of my imperishable toes. For now … I’m not yet what I will be. But I’m working on it, and so is He.