Outward Checkmarks, Inner Rest

“You can enter God’s Kingdom only through the narrow gate. The highway to hell is broad, and its gate is wide for the many who choose that way.  But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it.”

Matthew 7:13-14

Our pastor, Ethan Crowder, taught through Matthew 7 several weeks ago and it floored me. (you can listen to the sermon here.)

It wasn’t new information, but he put it in a new light. He reminded us that when Jesus mentions the “many” who choose the broad road, He wasn’t primarily referring to the many people who live horrible, sin-filled, evil lives. He was talking about the vast number of people who are working so hard to live outwardly good lives, but do not have true, inward righteousness.

Few trust in Christ. And He is the only way to be inwardly clean.

Few understand that God is not interested in all the outward effort and appearances and trying to keep up and trying to be good enough. He wants fruit that flows from the inner life, from a heart that knows only Jesus was ever good enough. He’s looking for people who walk the difficult, narrow road of placing all their trust in Him, step after step after step.

“The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

1 Samuel 16:7

I already know that my best attempts at a good life are not enough. I know I need the cross. I grasp that without Christ, there’s a chasm between God and I that I could never reach across. What I find myself wrestling to grasp is that the cross not only bridged the chasm, it moved me to the other side of it. Out of death and striving and failure; into life, wholeness, and favor. I know it, but I forget it. And I get stressed all over again when I don’t think I’m doing a good enough job.

In his message, Ethan said, “It’s easy to look the part…but genuine righteousness is always inward before its outward. It’s always a matter of your heart before it’s a matter of your life…If we check all the boxes with how we live but fail to have a heart that’s changed by the Gospel, then we’ve missed the point…God doesn’t want you to be Jesus. He wants you to TRUST Jesus.

This wrecked me because, for a year, I have been trying so hard to keep up with what is expected outwardly while I’m grieving, churning, wrestling, and fearful on the inside. But I could have dropped all the outward things, the pressure to be enough and to be good for other people. Jesus is enough. I don’t have to be Him. I can just be the person who’s clinging to Him. What God wanted was inward. He had to do some work on the inward. And I couldn’t speed it up.

My trust and confidence were mangled and not functioning and I wanted to think rightly about God and have all the outward flow from being in a good place inwardly but I didn’t know how to get there any sooner. I wanted so badly to do well and to make good choices even if it took a while for the emotions to catch up, but the emotions also had to be processed. I think what stood out to me in this sermon was the relief of pressure: there is no pressure for me to be good enough. I cannot be. But Christ is – and He produces good in me as I keep coming to Him.

One of the most surprising things I felt this year was the urge to avoid church and fellowship and the attention. I couldn’t figure out why I wanted to get away from the very people who care so much for me and my family, but I think I understand now that it was the pressure. I perceived expectations that I couldn’t meet. To be their missionary and their small group leader and their helpful church volunteer and their mentor and their enthusiastic Vacation Bible School teacher when I was also a traumatized post-partum mom recovering from eight months of hyperemesis gravidarum, three hospitalizations, heart complications, moving suddenly across the Atlantic with only 5 suitcases worth of belongings, and facing the scariest days of her life as she waded through a flood of scans, appointments, and treatment recommendations for her tiny baby’s swollen brain.

I tried so stinking hard to have something to offer, but I think I could have just let it all fall. I could have just been exactly where I was, processing what I was dealing with, and if it was messy, I think they would have just loved me. Just like the Lord does.

And Oh, I need that love.

While I’m still trying to be enough, I will feel strain, distance and disappointment that don’t apply to me. I am on the other side of the chasm because of the cross. I have been showered with affection, approval, warmth and welcome because of the work Jesus finished. And it is not meeting the outward checkmarks that will finally ease that heavy pressure. It is resting in this unearned love – love that has been lavished upon and given whole-heartedly to me. Only out of that can I walk forward and have something to offer others. Something that is sincere and full of life, not forced and wrung out of a tired, collapsing shell.

Oh Lord,

May I find my rest in this love. May I learn to wait on you and let you produce the fruit. Help me to clear away the outward pressure and performance and let life make its way out – however small and humble its baby shoots are. Work the fruit of patience in my life, especially as I gauge what needs you are asking me to step into and what needs I should yield to your mighty hands, which can hold them all. Teach me to wait on the careful, inward work you are doing to produce true righteousness in my heart, especially when I’m tempted to rush it because I don’t see satisfying results yet.

Curb my perfectionism by killing my pride. Help me to drop those high, high expectations of myself and instead set all my expectation on you. Show me how to be at ease with learning, with interruption, with unfinished, with messy, with life as an imperfect disciple and a growing parent.

Remind my heart that it doesn’t please you to buckle down and strive with all my might outwardly while my heart is despairing. You are near the broken-hearted and you bind up their wounds (Psalm 34:18, 147:3). You lead gently those that have young (Isaiah 40:11). Good Shepherd, perhaps part of the difficult, narrow road is the difficult work of trusting you when I need to rest and recover, because I believe you when you say you are gentle.

Let your roots grow down into him, and let your lives be built on him...”

Colossians 2:7

“I pray that from his glorious, unlimited resources he will empower you with inner strength through his Spirit. Then Christ will make his home in your hearts as you trust in him. Your roots will grow down into God’s love and keep you strong. And may you have the power to understand, as all God’s people should, how wide, how long, how high, and how deep his love is. May you experience the love of Christ, though it is too great to understand fully. Then you will be made complete with all the fullness of life and power that comes from God.”

Ephesians 3:16-19

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