Years ago in a performance review, an employee said to me, “There are givers and takers in this world. It makes you Christians feel good to give. So, I am here to take.” I was so shocked that I had no comeback. But since then, those words have caused me to ponder why I try to do good.
I traced the origin back to my childhood where I was told by my parents that if I was a good girl, I would go to heaven. I interpreted that to mean monitoring my behavior to do good things and treat people well. But, scripture exposes that premise as false: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9 not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph 2:8-9) Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross singularly secured our salvation by believing in Him. But in terms of how we live as Christians, James brother of Jesus, teaches us that, “In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.” (James 2:17) So, James is saying we don’t earn our way into heaven, but we demonstrate our faith through our actions.
Combining these truths as an adult, I wanted my actions to reflect the fact that I was a Christian. The Bible is replete with suggestions, so I made sure I gave regularly to the church, volunteered at homeless shelters, schools, community events, etc., and donated food and clothing (among other things). I continually checked the list to see what else I needed to do. Then I read Isaiah 64:6, “All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags”. What a shock!! Isaiah was speaking to the innate human condition: apart from Jesus, even the most altruistic deeds we do are tainted because they are of human origin, and there is nothing pure about man. If man were pure in any form, we would not need a Savior covering us with His Righteousness so that we could even be in God’s Presence.
Paul shines a light on what is truly of God in his letter to the Thessalonians where he is thanking God for, “your work produced by faith, your labor prompted by love, and your endurance inspired by hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thess 1:3) Faith, love and true endurance all speak of God’s Nature and Character. To the degree we live IN JESUS, His God-qualities flow through us and what we do becomes a natural by-product. Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” (John 15:5) When we are in the vine, we do not labor to produce fruit by our effort or determination. It grows effortlessly from the nourishment of the vine. Paul’s thankfulness was because the deeds of the Thessalonians were rooted in Christ, and therefore carried His power and anointing, so that the world saw Jesus through them. Without Jesus as our Source, our witness is faulty, our deeds are hypocritical plastic fruit, and we’re unable to go the distance in loving consistency.
Because most of us who have been Christ-followers for any length of time have been well trained in the art of good deeds, how do we determine if they are our good ideas or inspired of God? Asking ourselves one simple question can be quite revealing. Who is in charge?