My, how terribly conflicted I can be.
As a Christian, I understand, and believe with all my heart, that Jesus made atonement for my sins by dying on the cross. He paid the price of my transgressions in full. I am graced with forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God.
Yet, in a practical sense, I am driven to atone for my sins. I’m addicted to the practice, this drive to even out the scales or balance the ledger of my life. You see, I don’t want to be a bad person. I want to prove myself to be capable, significant, worthy.
When I’m living well, I feel OK about myself. When I’m not, I don’t. It takes relatively little to get me into a mindset of self-condemnation. My self-talk is filled with familiar choruses: “You’re no good.” “You’re a failure.” “You’re incompetent.” “You can’t do anything right.” In moments of seeming clarity, I resolve to redouble my efforts to prove that I am not what I am telling myself that I am.
And often, this works. For a while. This business of self-atonement turns out to be a tough business to be in.
I came across someone who, apparently, struggled with the same issue. I only know him by his first name, Micah. Here’s what he said:
With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of olive oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
Turns out that no matter what you offer to God in atonement for sins, it’s never enough. This is true even for the “already forgiven”, the practical atoners like me who want the scales of their deeds to tilt toward the good in order to validate their value and significance. Even if I sacrificed my children, it wouldn’t be enough. (And I wouldn’t.)
So Micah says we should knock of the self-atonement efforts. It insults the sacrifice of Jesus, along with being woefully inadequate to purge the conscience and validate self-worth. A purged conscience and a validated sense of self-worth are both found in the cross of Jesus. Matter settled. And what should we do instead? Micah put it this way,
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.
OK. So every day, I need to get up and focus on three simple things.
Do the right thing.
Shower people with mercy.
Stay in sync with God and His ways.
When I feel the need to make up for my failures (and I will fail), I remember the cross, say “thank you”, and then go out and do the right thing, shower people mercy, and live in sync with God and His ways. This is how I live out my “thank you” to God. This is how I live out my love for God.
These three things form the foundation for an emotionally and spiritually healthy life. They are the “reset mode” I return to after I fail, or when I am confused on what to do. It’s all God requires. And when we do what God requires, my soul finds the rest it cannot find in atonement efforts. It can just enjoy being atoned for.