Building a tower to God
You’ve probably heard people talk about their personal relationship with Christ, but have you ever asked them to flesh out what they actually mean?
I have a bad relationship with shopping. I particularly dislike buying furniture and other large-ticket items. I have fickle tastes, you see, and it takes me a while to find a thing I really like. Then, shortly after my husband and sons haul whatever I bought up the deck stairs, through the patio doors, into the dining room and then possibly through the living room, down two flights of stairs and into the basement, I typically don’t care all that much for my purchase anymore.
Not so long ago, I met a very nice lady who told me that, while she was baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran church, she had spent most of her life not being a true Christian. “I believed that Jesus died to take away my sins, and I went to church and everything,” she said, “but I didn’t have a personal relationship with Christ.”
Furnishing my own grace
It was probably the confused expression on my old Lutheran face that urged her to continue, “I didn’t understand what it meant to give my life to the Lord until I actually spent some time in a Bible-based church.” I was still confounded, so she explained even further, “I wasn’t passionate in pursuing Him, and as a baby, there was no way I could have chosen to show my love for Jesus by being baptized!”
“And he said, ‘What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.’” Mark 7:20-23 ESV
And one by one, the unfortunate sofa choices that have defined the questionable decorating style of my life passed through my mind. There was the pub back three-seater with the multi-colored geometric design on its loose-weave upholstery, a style that went out in the late 80’s (and which I bought new in the early 90’s). And I still wince to remember the unremarkable brown reclining model that followed, which ended up droopy and pill-dappled, like wool knickers at the end of winter. And there is the gray sectional with the cheap cardboard armrests and flimsy velveteen fabric, which began to emit a strange odor once I brought it home ─a smell that can only be described as “languished for months on a slow, moldy boat from China.”
I was quite in love with these sofas when I purchased them, but it didn’t take long for the shine to wear off and for me to begin to wonder if there was something else out there that would have better suited my needs. How could one like me then, with a heart so prone to discontent that I can not furnish a house without wondering if I could have done better, ever be certain that the tower I have built has finally brought me close enough to God that He would reward me with salvation?
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” Jeremiah 17:9
The God of my disapointment.
If my furniture has taught me anything, it’s that I can’t put too much effort into the game if the paybacks aren’t great, because I end up disenchanted. So, what does this mean for the personal relationship with Christ that I’ve worked so hard to pursue?
What if God disappoints me? What if I chase Him down and lavish Him with my love and praise, but He still doesn’t stop bad things from happening to me or the ones I love? What if I lose my job, my husband or my home? What if I discover I have cancer and face leaving my children behind without a mother? What if I am bereft, left weeping for my son at the foot of his grave?
What happens, then, when I’m frustrated with this omnipotent God who rules the wind and the waves, but who will not help me master my finances or my addiction? What will I do when I’m sick to death of being dedicated to a God who, frankly, does not seem to be returning the favor? Is it even possible for the God of my joy to also be God of my disenchantment? Not if it depends on my fickle, sin-filled heart to make it so.
By grace alone through faith alone
Thank God He doesn’t work that way, and I don’t have to live my life trying desperately to make a connection with Him. Jesus is not some wraith whose existence is measured by the depth of my emotions; He’s right here, exactly where He promised He would meet us, in our joy and contentment, and in our illness, our grief and our brokenness──in the Word, in Baptism, in Holy Communion and in Confession and Absolution. These are His faith-strengthening gifts to us, not my gifts of devotion to Him.
Without any worthiness or merit in me
It’s not Martin Luther nor the Lutheran church that have saved me from believing that I must build a tower and sing praises and offer prayers that remind the Lord of all of the things I do for Him (“I lay my life before you! Jesus, I praise you! I trust you! I am seeking you!”), it is He who has called me saved and the church which rightly delivers His gifts to me. The uncertainties, anxiety and fears over my salvation, and my disappointment or anger with God for the pain I feel, signal not my unbelief, but God working faith in me. And, thanks to His Word, I know where to find Him.
So, it matters little if my relationship with God feels fresh and exciting to me or droopy and pill-dappled, like wool knickers at the end of winter; it only counts that He sent His son to atone for my sins and He meets me, still, with faith enough for the journey. Could there exist a more personal relationship with Christ?
Lord, I confess that I cannot come to you by my own reason or strength, for left to my own, my tower will fail. Thank you for coming to your people, through your Word and Sacraments, to accomplish your will. Remind me to look to you and not to my emotions as the source of grace and strength that I need to put my feet on the floor and meet another day. Your grip on me is far tighter than my grip on you could ever be. Until Christ returns, Amen.