Until my late twenties, I spent the majority of my Christian life striving — striving for perfection, for God’s favor, for the approval of others, and for the joy and freedom that the Bible spoke of yet completely eluded me.
In her book, Nothing Is Impossible with God, Rose Marie Miller describes my life as she depicts her own:
The gospel was not my working theology: Mine was moralism and legalism — a religion of duty and self control through human willpower. The goal was self-justification, not the justification by faith in Christ that the gospel offers. But, as many people can tell you, moralism and legalism can “pass” for Christianity, at least outwardly, in the good times. It is only when crises come that you find there is no foundation on which to stand. And crises are what God used to reveal my heart’s true need for him. (4)
Like Miller, I am a pastor’s wife, a church planting wife, and a missionary. Like Miller, I for so long lived a life of legalism, and, like her, ministry was the “crisis” that shone a light on my self-sufficiency and self-justification. I discovered quickly that I could not meet ministry’s demands, and I certainly could not love, according to bootstrap religion.
The beacon of light, simultaneously convicting and life-giving, was Galatians 5:4: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law.” That is exactly how I felt — like an outsider standing apart from Christ, trying desperately to earn my belonging. I rejected any of Christ’s advances toward me out of shame over my failures and out of my stubborn self-determination.
Living Like Orphans
Rose Marie Miller’s husband, Jack, characterized her self-justification as orphanhood: “you act as if you are an orphan. You act as if there is no Father who loves you” (11).
- Orphans have to take care of themselves.
- Orphans must be strong.
- Orphans must protect themselves from being taken advantage of.
- Orphans cannot depend on anyone.
- Orphans cannot be weak.
- Orphans crave to be taken in and loved but doubt they ever will.
- Orphans want to be accepted, to belong.
- Orphans only trust themselves.
- Orphans cannot get too close.
- Orphans are on the outside looking in.
For many years, I was acting as if I were an orphan, trying to do the Christian life but failing miserably. I thought that my failures were my accusation, not realizing that this understanding — that I could not actually live the Christian life myself — was the first step toward liberation. Galatians 3:3 taught me that the Christian life can only be lived by the Spirit: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
No Longer Orphans
The Father advanced toward me, showing me that, in Christ, I am no longer an orphan but his child: “God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4–5).
If we are daughters (and we are, if we are in Christ), we enjoy the love and protection of a perfect Father. He is not an impatient, stingy parent forever irritated at our weaknesses and failures. He invites us into the family, gives us His name, dresses us with righteousness fitting of His family, and erases the ways of our orphanhood, especially our self-reliance and self-justification.
But that’s just it, we too often return to our orphanhood . . .
. . . living as if it were still up to us, living as if the Spirit never came and could never teach us or guide us in all the affairs of life. We go through the day believing that it is up to us to figure out how to solve our problems and get on with life. The result is that we live with an uneasy guilt and fear because we have not measured up to our standards or won the approval of others. (56)
I see orphanhood pervading my heart and the hearts of other women in an age when Facebook comparison and self-sufficiency reign. There is an undeniable urge toward perfection in our culture and even in our churches. Women stand apart from one another, wondering if they are the only ones, struggling to keep up the façade of flawlessness.
Worse, women stand apart from God, afraid to go before the throne with their failures or unwilling to acknowledge their need before Him, when, in reality, we are daughters with full access to our Father.
Perfect For Us
As Miller says, we don’t have to be perfect because Another is perfect for us. When perfect is taken care of — when we’re declared righteousness by the blood of Christ — we are finally free to love, to accept our weaknesses because God is strong in them, and to believe that God is for us.
“Living to please God — repenting of the true guilt that comes when we put anything besides God at the center of our lives, trusting in the blood of Christ to cleanse the conscience of dead works, and relying on the power and presence of the Holy Spirit for the tasks of the day — is truly the liberated way to live” (32).