Olympic swinging, and why my effort isn’t enough

I had a lot of problems getting friends as a teenager, but as a kid I had a system.

It was called impressing them.

My friends and I played a game called “Olympic swinging”.  We would grade the form of the swinger, the landing of the swinger, and–most of all–the height from which the swinger jumped off said swing to stick the landing.

I was no good at form.  And I was no good at landing.

But I was good at jumping high.

I got automatic tens from almost all my friends because of my bravery.  I would leap from where they would not, over and over and over.  The one time I had a friend jump from the same height I had, I immediately broke my old jumping record and became more daring than ever.

I had almost no fear.  I was so excited to know I would get another perfect ten, I would leap from great heights, heights so high that I couldn’t possibly land on my feet (well, that and my coordination).

I loved this game.  I loved it until my mother looked out the window one day and saw my Olympic jumping.  We had a long discussion about Olympic jumping, in which I gave a moving argument for why taking away Olympic jumping would basically shatter my dreams, ruin my career, and destroy my life, in a nutshell.  We agreed to compromise.  I would still jump from a bit higher than my friends, but no more extreme jumps.

I have to grin thinking back on those days, because I revealed something very real about my personality through my Olympic swing jumping.  I knew I wasn’t coordinated.  I knew I wasn’t graceful.  I knew I wasn’t athletic.  But I knew I could be brave (or fool-hearty, depending on how you look at it).  I was willing to take risks with myself that others weren’t, and they paid off.

In other words, I could earn 10’s for myself with sheer effort.

It was this very thinking that caused God and me to have problems, right from the start.

I knew I couldn’t keep the Ten Commandments.  I knew I couldn’t even get close.  But I thought that maybe I could make an appeal to God that was so perfect that He would forgive me.

Sometimes tens or maybe even hundreds of times a day, I would pray for salvation.  I would pray and pray.  I kept trying to form a prayer that was good enough that I could earn a perfect 10 and be saved.

But I always ended up with less.

And not just less, but less and less.  My prayers seemed to be getting worse.  I went from an 8.0 to a 7.6 to a 7.9 to a 6.5 to a 6.8 to a 5.4 to a 5.9 to a 7.0 to a 3.2 to a 4.6 to a 4.4 to a 3.9 to a 4.1 to a 3.8 to a 3.4 to a 1.5 to a 2.5 to a 3.1 to a 2.6 to a 1.2 to a 2.5 to a 2.1 to a 1.9 to a 1.7 to a 1.8 to a 1.7 to a 1.4 to a .5.  And pretty soon, my prayers didn’t seem to be counting at all.  I didn’t seem to be making any scores.

I think I made a pretty common mistake when it comes to understanding salvation.  I was so focused on my effort in asking for salvation that I forgot nearly all about God’s grace in saving me.  This has to be a little like applying on Extreme Makeover for a free house and being so intent on your appeal that you forget the power is in the hands of the management team at E.M.

Still, though, that’s a deceptive analogy, because the better your plea, the more likely it is you’ll get chosen by the E.M. team.  But with God, salvation is a free gift, and not one that is limited in its availability (i.e., E.M. only usually fixes one house a week on their series, and this is not even every week in a year).  Salvation is also not based on merit (or assigning value to how much effort is put forth in the asking).  Jesus makes it astonishingly clear that everyone who asks will receive.

“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7-8, NIV)

With the management team of God, God, and God alone, decides who receives salvation and who doesn’t.  As much as most of my friends were impressed by my high jumps, God is not impressed by our boldness in trying to please Him.  God does want people to be bold in seeking Him, but the problem is, boldness or bravery or daring just isn’t going to come close to being enough for salvation.  That’s something like saying a brave heart surgeon is enough to insure the success of the surgery.

If the surgeon knows nothing about hearts, or always messes up when (s)he tries to operate on hearts, no amount of bravery is going to save the operation.  In the same way, no amount of bravery alone is going to save us from our sins.  We need a perfect sacrifice.  We must count on Christ.  Not only is Christ able, but He is the most brave person ever, and He was willing to die for us.

But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8, NIV)

Earlier I said that God and me had problems because of my Olympic swinging.  That is a very startling way to talk about the God of the galaxies.  There is no irreverence meant here, instead a very astonishing discovery I have made about God[1]: He wants to help us.

But I discovered something I found rather challenging about God.  He does not compromise.  I have not been able to convince Him that salvation should be at least 90% my effort, or 50%, or even 10%–and I’m so glad.  Because if I had, I would never be saved.

Because even if it was just 1%, I’d never get the perfect 10 in asking for salvation.  I’d never have the perfect heart to do so.  That would be like being able to bake a cake without any ingredients.  I have to have a perfect heart before my effort can even count, and I can’t have a perfect heart without the 100% mercy of Jesus Christ.

“I will be merciful to the person I want to be merciful to, and I will be kind to the person I want to be kind to.” Therefore, God’s choice does not de­pend on a person’s will or effort, but on God himself, who shows mercy. (Romans 9:15b-16)


[1] Yes, it’s true that others have made this discovery before me, such as Eve, Noah, Samson, David, and Daniel.

Photo by Quinn Anya (Quinn Dombrowski), profile on http://www.flickr.com/people/quinnanya/

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Published in: on March 25, 2012 at 5:46 pm  Leave a Comment  
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What is Easter? What, really, is Easter?

For some people, Easter is about wearing the best outfit to church.  For others, it’s about going to church, annually, or maybe Christmas, too, and paying homage to a nice man who died because He was nice.  For others, it’s about giving up a certain kind of food.  For others, it’s hunting for brightly colored plastic eggs that hide candy.  Still others try to combine all this together and make it a religious holiday with secular benefits.  Maybe filling Easter eggs with mostly candy, but putting crosses in a few.

Bunnies?  Chicks?  Tulips?  Baskets?  Chocolates?  Easter eggs?  ‘Sunday best’ clothes?  An hour in a church?

Or a Man on a cross?

Which one doesn’t belong?  Bunnies, chicks, candies, new clothes, even a trip to church—it could all be a spring holiday.  But there is no way to force into that story a Man on a cross.  He does not, and cannot, belong with the others.  You can turn from the cross, you can move away from it, but you cannot put bunnies or brightly colored eggs around its foot.  There is only blood and forgiveness there.

I have to ask myself a hard question.  A question I can’t answer without digging down past what I think, what I feel, and uncovering my very soul.

What does Easter mean to me?

At my heart, is Easter about new blades of grass growing, birds chirping, rabbits hopping?  Is it about new dresses, new jewelry, new shoes?  Is it about singing a few songs about a nice man?

Or is Easter the linchpin of my life?  Is it the ground on which I walk, the breath in my lungs, the beat in my heart, the rhythm in my pulse, the spine in my back?  Is it everything I have ever needed to know who I am and who God is?  Is Easter my escape, my plan with no fallbacks, my sword, my shield, my fortress, my island, my Heaven, and the nailed palm that carries my soul?

Not if Easter is about anything except the Man on the cross.

Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” (Matthew 26:38-39, ESV)

Again, for the second time, he went away and prayed, “My Father, if this cannot pass unless I drink it, your will be done.” (Matthew 26:42, ESV)

he went away and prayed for the third time, saying the same words again. (Matthew 26:44b, ESV)

So they took Jesus, and he went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha. There they crucified him, and with him two others, one on either side, and Jesus between them. (John 19:16b-18, ESV)

When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. (John 19:30, ESV)