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Gospel Guardrails for Spiritual and Relational Health

May 4, 2020
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Photo by Karsten Würth on Unsplash

When it comes to helping people understand how the good news of Jesus transforms us personally and guides our relationships, I often use the illustration of guardrails on a highway. The gospel provides two critical guardrails to keep us faithful and fruitful in life: the sinfulness of sin and the sufficiency of grace (cf. 1 Tim. 1:15-16). In other words, sin really is sinful, because God really is holy. And grace really is sufficient, because Christ’s blood really is enough.

Emphasizing both of these realities in our lives and relationships helps us live faithfully before God. It frees us to deal honestly with sin (both our own sin and the sin committed against us) because we have an adequate solution in Christ. Lose sight of either guardrail, and your life and relationships are likely to end up in one ditch or another.

To illustrate what’s at stake here, think about what happens when we lose sight of these guardrails. In fact, there are at least eight painful and destructive ways to land in the spiritual or relational ditch when we miss or minimize just one of them—either the sinfulness of sin or the sufficiency of grace.

The first two come from losing sight of my own sinfulness:

1. Prideful self-sufficiency. The motto of prideful self-sufficiency is: I can do this on my own. “I don’t need the gospel, because I have the strength and strategies to make the Christian life work on my own. I’ve read the right books; I know the right methods. I’m certainly not as bad as those people—look at all the ways they compromise their faith. I’m sure glad I’m not like them.”

This is self-righteous pride. I minimize my sin and maximize the sin of others because my view of identity is still caught up in how well we all perform for God, rather than our union with Christ. I can’t acknowledge or even see my own sin, because then I won’t look as good to God or others. This is a prideful heart that, regardless of what the mouth says, doesn’t really believe it needs the gospel.

2. Shameless self-indulgence. The second way that minimizing my own sinfulness can lead to spiritual and relational carnage is by giving myself to shameless self-indulgence. Here the motto is: It’s not that sinful. “I don’t need the gospel, because my heart and my actions aren’t really that ugly. How sinful is it, really, to prioritize my job over my wife and kids?” “Everyone else looks at porn every now and then; isn’t God’s grace sufficient for that? After all, God made me with sexual desires, and at least I’m not sleeping with someone. It can’t be that bad, can it?”

And so we justify our sin. I tell myself it’s not that sinful, because I still like doing it. Or perhaps because I can’t bear the guilt and shame of admitting that I’m doing it. Either way, I disregard the holiness of God and take my eyes off the first guardrail, which will eventually destroy my relationships by making everything about me.

There are two other spiritual and relational dangers that come from losing sight of sin, this time the sinfulness of someone else, whether it’s my spouse, children, parents, colleagues, neighbors, or friends:

3. Naïve over-regard for someone. The motto here is: They can do no wrong. “They never do anything wrong, or at least nothing that I can’t handle.” “My friend would never say that.” “My children would never do something like that” (i.e., “because if they did, that means I’m not as good a parent as I think I am”).

These are the rose-colored glasses of love and admiration for a mentor, hero, or someone in whom we find our identity. We have some vested interest in protecting the pedestal we’ve placed them on, which of course only sets them up for failure down the road when they do in fact do something hurtful and come tumbling down. We hold onto false expectations, putting our hope in someone who can’t deliver what we want from them (since only God can). Moreover, we deprive them of the opportunity for transformation, which comes from having to deal with one’s sin, however painful or dislocating it may be.

4. Evasive disregard for someone’s sin. This is second tragic result of overlooking someone else’s sin, and the motto again is: It’s not that sinful. “Their sin isn’t so bad”—the pornography addiction, the alcohol abuse, the constant cutting words. “Everyone is just overreacting; it’s not that big a deal.” “My marriage isn’t that bad; so we have a couple problems, nothing we can’t handle.” “My children aren’t that bad; sure, they could be making some better choices, but they love God . . . I think.”

Here, instead of justifying our own sin, we justify the sin of someone else in effort to escape the reality and weight of it. Perhaps because we don’t know how to address it, or because we can’t imagine bearing the pain and shame of it. Perhaps because the results would be too damaging if word got out.

But as with every other attempt to downplay sin, in time it will be found out. Moreover, when we minimize sin, we necessarily marginalize grace. If we can’t be honest with how ugly our own sin is, or the sin of those we love, then we will withhold from both the very means of change God has given us—the grace of the gospel.

So what happens when we lose sight of this second guardrail—the sufficiency of grace? Again, we see two possible results of minimizing grace in our own lives:

5. Legalistic performance. Here the motto is: I’m a sinner, and I have to make it up. “I’m fully aware of my sin, but God’s love and favor for me are contingent on my being good enough,” whether it’s loving my spouse well enough, having my daily quiet time, obeying my parents, going to church, or telling others about Jesus. “If I can just stop doing certain bad things and start doing other good things, I’ll grow in my walk, and God will be happy with me.”

This is to miss the essence of the gospel, that Christ has done for us through his life and death what we couldn’t do under the law, and to turn our relationships and love into a cold duty, rather than a warm delight.

6. Hopeless despair. The second (and inevitable) result of overlooking God’s grace for oneself is hopeless despair. The motto: I’m a sinner, and I can never make it up. “I now realize that I will never be good enough. I will never measure up no matter what I do or how hard I try; and so why try any longer? I give up.”

So we turn inward in depression, or maybe outward to other things that we think could fill the void—the things I can conquer, like food, pornography, romance novels, internet relationships, adultery, entertainment, eating disorders, any variety of addiction or abuse which destroy us and those we love.

But just as deadly for our relationships is losing sight of the sufficiency of God’s grace in someone else’s life. Here again we see two tragic results:

7. Vindictive manipulation. The motto here is: You have to make it up to me. “You hurt me and let me down, and now you have to make it up. You have to work your way back into my good graces. But I’m always going to hold the bar just an inch or two higher than you can reach, so that I can keep you in debt to me and make you feel the pain you’ve caused me to feel. Don’t worry about performing for God, I’m the one you have to worry about. And I will withhold forgiveness and peace until I’m convinced on my terms that you deserve it. And just in case you try to do the same thing to others, I plan to warn them and tell them what you did. To protect them, of course, and so they can pray for you. And (if we’re honest) so that you suffer.”

This is vindictive manipulation. Instead of extending to others the grace we have received from God, we set ourselves up as judge, jury, and executioner.

8. Unforgiving resentment. The other way to withhold grace toward others is to take the passive aggressive route of unforgiving resentment. The motto is: I won’t say anything, but I’ll never forget. “I may not make a big deal of your sin. I may not even tell you that you hurt me. But I will not forget it. I might smile and nod when people praise you to me, but I know the truth. I simply add each new offense to that secret list of grievances that I’m carrying around in my pocket, until one day, when you really blow it, the whole thing is coming out.”

This is cancer for human relationships. It slowly and secretly eats away at trust, affection, and devotion, often without symptoms, until it is (humanly speaking) too late. Moreover, these last two examples take us full circle, back up to downplaying my own sinfulness. I can only stand in judgment over someone who has sinned against me if I believe that I’m a far less sinner than he or she.

But what happens when the framework stays in place? How does a constant awareness of the sinfulness of sin and the sufficiency of grace guide and guard our spiritual health and relationships with each other?

It doesn’t mean we will see less trouble or conflict. In fact, we will likely be more aware of and sensitive to it, as our eyes are opened to our own sin and the sin of others. But it does supply us with the resource we need to deal with conflict and sin, rather than managing it or sweeping it under the rug. The only resource that can actually bring lasting humility, repentance, forgiveness, and health—the grace of God through the finished work of Christ.

Let the gospel be your guardrails for spiritual growth and relational health: sin really is sinful, and grace really is sufficient.

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” (Tit. 2:11-14 ESV)

 

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