Last night, I was telling a high school guy in my youth group the story of Benjamin Franklin. Well, at first, I wasn’t sure if it was him or Jonathan Edwards, but he corrected me. Anyways, at one point in his life, he decided he was going to try to live virtuously. So he constructed a list of 13 virtues: temperance, silence, order, resolution, frugality, industry, sincerity, justice, moderation, cleanliness, tranquillity, chastity and humility. I’ll let a post from the website Art of Manliness tell the rest:
In order to keep track of his adherence to these virtues, Franklin carried around a small book of 13 charts. The charts consisted of a column for each day of the week and 13 rows marked with the first letter of his 13 virtues. Franklin evaluated himself at the end of each day. He placed a dot next to each virtue each had violated. The goal was to minimize the number of marks, thus indicating a “clean” life free of vice.
Franklin would especially focus on one virtue each week by placing that virtue at the top that week’s chart and including a “short precept” to explain its meaning. Thus, after 13 weeks he had moved through all 13 virtues and would then start the process over again.
He never got a clean sheet, but, apparently, he became more and more virtuous.
I think a lot of Christians, including myself, would admire this tact. But I think we struggle sometimes because we try to work on all 13 at once, and therefore get discouraged.
If you look at the whole of the New Testament, there are a lot of commands. One listing has 1,050 separate commands for Christians to follow. That’s a lot of things to be aware of. A few:
- Be mindful of prophecies and commandments (2 Peter 3:2)
- Do good to them that hate you (Matthew 5:44)
- Let not sin reign in the body (Romans 6:12)
- Do not pray as hypocrites (Matthew 6:5)
- Walk in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16)
I think a lot of us have the approach to these things as that website does: “If obeyed, they will bring rich rewards here and forever; if disobeyed, they will bring condemnation and eternal punishment.” Even if we believe in the Gospel, we can be so petrified that we’re letting down God that we fear punishment and condemnation for not doing everything perfectly. So we try to do all 1,050 right at the same time and inevitably get discouraged.
What we forget is that sanctification is a process. It always has been and it always will be. I love what Brennan Manning says in his book The Ragamuffin Gospel:
Often I have been asked, “Brennan, how is it possible that you became an alcoholic after you got saved?” It is possible because I got battered and bruised by loneliness and failure, because I got discouraged, uncertain, guilt-ridden, and took my eyes off Jesus. Because the Christ-encounter did not transfigure me into an angel. Because justification through faith means I have been set in right relationship with God, not made the equivalent of a patient etherized on a table.
When you become a Christian, you’re not instantly perfect in your obedience. Your relationship and standing with God is made right, but your behavior is not. And it will not be until you reach eternity with God. Just because we disobey God’s commands doesn’t disqualify us from receiving that eternal reward.
After I became a Christian at some point before or during my freshman year of high school (not sure when exactly, my testimony is here if you want more details), I began what ended up being an eight-year quest for perfection. It wasn’t what I was intending at the start. But my thought process was something like this. I’m a Christian –> Christians obey God –> if I don’t obey God, I’ve failed –> (I sin) –> I’ve failed God.
One of the things I’ve learned about the greatness of grace and the Gospel is that it opens me up to have a lifelong sanctification process. And, like Ben Franklin, I think it allows me to take things one at a time.
An example: for the last year, I haven’t been worried too much about how deep or consistent my Bible reading is. I also haven’t been too worried about my prayer life. That’s not to say I haven’t given up on those things. I still want to do well. But I don’t lose my mind when it’s not how I want it to be.
What I’ve really been focusing on is believing the Gospel. For a long time, I knew the Gospel of grace was true, but I had a really hard time accepting it belonged to me, that it applied to me. With that, I had a hard time accepting myself and loving myself.
So about a year ago, I set my mind to learn more about grace, learn more about the Gospel, learn more about what it meant to be forgiven. I looked at Scripture. I read books like One Way Love by Tullian Tchividjian, Abba’s Child and The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning, and The Search for Significance by Robert McGee. These books have helped me grasp the greatness of the Gospel, what it means for me, what I need to believe.
And I’ve grown in that area tremendously! I’m believing the Gospel more and more every day, I’m understanding its freedom and I’m living out of its forgiveness and God’s love for me! It’s refreshing. Has my Bible reading “suffered” because of it? Maybe. I don’t know. But I’m working more on applying the Bible instead of just reading it, and it’s awesome.
I think I’m beginning to move out of that stage where I’m focusing on grace because there’s sin in my life I need to deal with in a real personal, intentional way. And perhaps I’ll work to spend more time in prayer in this upcoming season. But that foundation of grace and the Gospel has been helpful in that area of my life too, and it will continue to support me throughout this next season.
It does us no good to try to do everything at once. There’s nothing wrong with taking your time. Obviously, we can’t use that as an excuse to ignore the other good things we can do to obey God. But just as there is a time to be born and a time to die, there’s a time to focus on prayer, a time to focus on loving, a time to focus on giving.
You’re not a failure if you don’t get everything right. You’re just human. Rest in that. Rest in grace. Rest in the hope that the Gospel provides that means you don’t have to be perfect at any time in your walk with Christ.
Just take steps day-by-day. You’ll get there one day, I promise.