One sunny Sunday afternoon, Leah and I stand on the sidewalk in front of our house. Gripped in my left hand rests a well-worn wrench. In my right, a pair of bolts, some washers, and a couple of nuts. At my feet like a pair of exhausted watchdogs, my daughter’s training wheels.
The time has come.
Well, the truth is that it’s been time for a while. Leah’s had her training wheels on for too long. But, you know how things go. She was comfortable with them, and I always had other things to do. So, we just never quite got around to it. But now, she’s getting a little self-conscious. None of her friends use training wheels. And she’s tired of being the only one who can’t ride on her own. The next phase of childhood has arrived.
So here we are. Training wheels off, helmet on, heart pounding with both excitement and fear.
She’s ready. She just needs a little push.
So, with my hand on her back and my heart in my throat, I help her get started. And that’s all it took. She was so ready, one little push was all she needed to be off and going, riding down the street, wind rushing through her hair, smile stretched across her face. I ran alongside for a bit to catch her in case she fell. But she didn’t need me. She was doing fine.
She just needed a little push.
As a parent, that was a great moment.
As a Christian, that story represents one of my most fatal flaws.
I understand perfectly well that I could never have begun Christian journey by myself. Like everyone else, I was dead in my sin, separated from God. And, dead is dead. Dead people can’t make themselves alive again. That’s just not how it works. So it was only because of God’s grace and mercy that I am able to live again, resurrected and forgiven through the power of the cross. I knew that I was stuck and I praise God for giving me a huge push so that I could ride freely into his kingdom.
I get that part. My problem is with what comes next.
After I gave her a push, Leah knew that the rest was up to her. For this to work, she needed to pedal. Otherwise, she’d just fall down. She knew, of course, that I’d be there to pick her up if she fell, with kisses, hugs, encouragement, and a little help to get going again. But, the real work was up to her. She had to keep pedaling.
That’s how I often see the Christian life. God gave me that big push I needed to get started, but after that it’s pretty much up to me. I know he’s nearby to help if I fall. But, if I’m going to get anywhere on this bike, it will be because I kept pedaling.
Thanks for the push, God. I’ll take it from here.
So, I start pedaling as hard as I can. Read my Bible, pray, go to church, tithe, volunteer, whatever. That’s how it works. That’s how you make “progress” as a Christian. Just keep pedaling.
I’m a fool.
That’s how Paul describes people who think like this (Gal. 3:1-6). It doesn’t make any sense! This has been a story about grace from the very beginning, from Genesis to Revelation, from the creation of time on into the endless spiral of eternity—God’s unfathomably amazing grace. So, what would make us think that the story somehow changes after we respond to the Gospel and enter the kingdom? Do we think that we’re going to find less grace the closer we get to God? Do we imagine that he would draw us near and then leave us on our own? That’s foolish. It’s like I’m someone who had been a zombie until I was miraculously cured and restored to true human life. But, instead of living like a human, I continue to stumble around at night with my arms stretched out before me, groaning loudly and slobbering on myself at every turn. Why would I do that? It doesn’t make any sense.
But we do it all the time.
We constantly want to change the story, turning from God and his grace so that we can again trust in ourselves and our own works.
The truth is that we enter the kingdom by grace through faith, and we live in the kingdom by grace through faith. I don’t make myself more like God through hard work and self-discipline. God makes me more like him through the power of the Spirit, transforming me, and re-creating me in the image of his Son, so that I can again be his image bearer in creation as he manifests his glory through me.
None of this means, that any of the things that I mentioned above (Bible reading, prayer, church, etc.) are bad things. Each of them is a gift from God for his people, things to be cherished and enjoyed. And, as such, we should pursue them diligently and faithfully, just like we would any gift that a loved one has generously offered us. But, they are gifts to be received and enjoyed, not things that we should grasp greedily for ourselves, seeking to walk on our own, earning our way toward Christian maturity.
Don’t pedal harder. Enjoy the ride.
(You can read the rest of the posts in this series on the Gospel Book page.)