My friends and I sang along to a popular song on the car radio, giggling and swaying back and forth in the backseat. Catherine’s left hip pressed against my right, and my left shoulder hit the side of the car on each downbeat.
As we pulled off the freeway toward church, my gaze caught a man in a baggy sweatshirt and frayed jeans. He held a sign that read Hungry. Anything helps.
The light turned red, and the car eased to a stop. Should I give him some cash? I had several bills in my wallet. And I wasn’t hurting for funds.
As the song continued, Catherine elbowed me and grinned. I smiled back, but I was no longer in the mood for fun.
I turned to the window — not to look at the man but to look away from my friends. I had always thought of myself as generous. So why was it so hard to roll down the window and give this guy a few dollars?
The light turned green. We pulled away from the intersection — and away from my opportunity to practice generosity.
My friends continued to sing as we pulled into the parking lot. When we piled out of the car into the church, I could already hear the guitar and keyboard. But I still wasn’t ready to sing. I didn’t feel like a child of God. I didn’t feel that I was serving Him. And if I wasn’t serving Him, I probably wasn’t obeying Him or loving Him or abiding in Him. But I guessed I should swallow the pit in my stomach and raise my voice and my hands to Him anyway.
What else could I do?
Paul declares that anyone in Christ is a new creation, that the old is gone and the new is here (2 Corinthians 5:17). We are not who we once were. Because of Christ, we are fundamentally changed. His Spirit is at work, transforming us and enabling us to love Him and serve Him in ways we couldn’t before. But that doesn’t mean the change is finished. It doesn’t mean we’re perfect.
We’re just not there yet.
Theologians toss around terms like sanctification, which is a fancy word for spiritual maturity. There are two types of sanctification: positional and progressive.
Positional sanctification means that Christ died once on the cross, and this sacrifice was enough for all who believe in Him (Hebrews 10). He doesn’t have to die again, and we don’t receive the punishment of God’s wrath for our (many) sins. The atonement is complete. We are new creations, and the process is one-way: We won’t become the old creations again.
Progressive sanctification means that as we live on this earth and grow in Christ, He is continually making us more like Him (2 Corinthians 3:18; Colossians 3:10). This is a process, not a status. Yes, we are new creations, but we are not finished. Or rather, He’s not finished with us. Each day, we can become more like Jesus in how we love Him and others.
Yet we won’t ever be completely like Christ. He won’t be finished with us until He returns, judges the world, and gathers believers to Himself in eternal glory.
Eternal glory. That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? But it’s not ours quite yet. For now, for reasons unknown to us mortals, God wants us on earth. He has prepared good works for us to do (Ephesians 2:10), and these good works are an outpouring of our faith (James 2:26). His Word instructs us not to neglect them (Hebrews 13:16).
Reading about all these good works God has for me creates enormous pressure. What if I miss them or don’t do them? What if someone drops a sandwich, and a little kid picks it up before I can get there? What if I was supposed to help an old lady cross the street, but the car turning right cut her off? What if I was meant to donate to the homeless, but my friends distracted me with their singing?
Or, worse yet, what if I didn’t donate because my heart was hard?
As someone with a sensitive moral conscience who struggles with guilt and shame, little things weigh heavily on me. No, I probably wouldn’t have saved that man from starvation. But it’s not just about helping him; it’s also about doing God’s will. He uses circumstances to soften my heart, unclench my fingers, and open my eyes.
And yet when my heart is hard, my fingers are white-knuckled, and my eyes are screwed stubbornly shut, He still loves me.
Good deeds gone undone aren’t the end of the world. God alone has the authority to declare the end of the world. When I mess up, maybe I missed an opportunity. But that doesn’t mean I’ve ruined everything. God is way too powerful for my mistakes to put a dent in His cosmic agenda.
I’m not saying, “Don’t donate to the homeless, because God’s taking care of them” or “Good works are optional” or “Someone else will do it.” Given the choice between guilt and a good work, I hope I’ll choose the good work next time, for Paul says, “Let us not become weary in doing good” (Galatians 6:9, NIV). But I don’t have to wallow in that guilt. Christ already died for all of the sins I have committed and will commit. Yes, I am guilty, but that’s why He was condemned. My new identity in Christ is one of forgiveness, innocence, and even purity.
Next time, I’ll give that man a ten or a twenty — or maybe a taco. But it will be because I want to show him Christ’s love, not because I fear the alternative. I’ve been adopted into God’s family (Ephesians 1:5). Though I’m not finished, I’m not losing my status as His child anytime soon.
Noelle Chow recently graduated from Biola University with a bachelor’s degree in English and psychology. She serves in the youth ministry and on the worship team at her church. “Living the New Life” in the September-October BA is Noelle’s first published piece. She lives in Irvine, CA.