As Christians, why do we do what we do?

Are we trying to earn God’s favor . .

. . or are we giving God permission to do whatever He wants with our lives?

“Earning God’s favor” sounds good–in theory.  In reality, it is one more death knell in the coffin of so-called “self-righteousness”.

Martha had an unoriginal idea.  She would please God by doing something.  For her, it was cooking a Martha Stuart banquet “for Jesus”.  The problem was, she was so wrapped up in folding the napkins and testing the hors d’oeuvres, she missed out on what Jesus was teaching.  Oops.

It sounded good: honor Jesus with a dinner.  The problem was, Jesus wasn’t looking for a fancy dinner.  He was looking for an open heart.

Martha missed out because she was responding to a demand she had made up in her own mind, and only imagined that it came from God.

What a mistake, but there’s no room for finger-pointing at Martha.  See, I have the very same deception in my heart.  Earning God’s favor looks so good to our hearts, like a recipe in a magazine with one of those full-page photos advertising just how delectable it will be to make.  But earning God’s favor always comes out so disappointing for us, a complete disaster and nothing like the promised result.  In short, we are duped time and time again by the lie that we can somehow please God in and of ourselves.

Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:8, NIV)

The Bible makes it clear: our earning God’s favor = impossible.

Suppose that pleasing God on our own ability would be like earning a 10.0 on every single Olympic gymnastic routine.  Hard to do?  Actually, very easy compared to the problem we really have.  Because we are utterly tangled up in sin, we would be like an athlete totally bound up from head to toe trying to dance across the balance beam, perform a powerful floor routine, volley triumphantly over the vault, and flip gracefully across the bars.

I know this reality in my heart: I can’t please God in and of myself.  But there is still a part of me that acts like a bound athlete, fumbling towards the gymnastic equipment, eager to make a total fool of myself in front of an audience.  (It’s at times like this that I damage my reputation before other Christians and before the world.  I’m identified as a follower of Christ, yet I’m attempting my own show without Him.)

Martha didn’t fare much better than I do.  In the middle of her dazzling preparations for lunch, God Himself gently rebuked her.

“My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:41b-42, NLT)

We know we don’t want to be like Martha.  We don’t want to try to earn God’s approval in our lives.  We want to give Him permission to do whatever He wants in our lives.

But how do we know when we’re striking out on our own to earn a perfect score . . and when we’re genuinely open to God’s leading?  Although the contrast between these two is night and day, I think it can be very difficult to tell which one we really are doing.  Observers can’t always tell.  We and God might be the only ones who know where our heart’s at and, many times, God is the only One who knows–we don’t even know ourselves!

The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?
 (Jeremiah 17:9)

Here are a few suggestions that might help as you look at your life and ask, Why am I really doing what I do?

  • Ask God to reveal to you when you are trying to earn His approval.
  • Ask God to take away motivations that don’t honor Him, and to give you a right heart before Him.
  • Ask God to give you clarity.  Then ask yourself, “Why am I doing this?”  Are you doing what you need to be doing, but with the wrong focus?  Do you need to abandon a project altogether?
  • Ask God for forgiveness when you try to be ‘an Olympic gymnast tied with ropes’.  Remember that God delights in you because of your relationship with Christ, not because of what you offer Him.

We’re not told what Martha chose that day.  She might have gone back to polishing the silverware and frosting the cake.  Or, she might have given it all up, left the pots on the stove bubbling and the tiramisu in the refrigerator, and gone to sit at the feet of Jesus, too.

Because of Christ and our faith in him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God’s presence. (Ephesians 3:12, NLT)

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