One of my boys’ favorite movies is Cars. As in, they have worn out two Cars (the first one) DVDs and one Cars Two disc. One of my favorite characters is Doc Hudson. Doc was the most famous race car of his time, but his time is past and he doesn’t want anyone to know who he was. Lightning McQueen, the young flashy newcomer gets lost near Doc’s town, Radiator Springs, and eventually discovers that this feisty old Doctor and town judge is actually the Hudson Hornet. When Lightning discovers that Doc has several Piston Cups (the top trophy for which he himself covets) just thrown in a corner collecting dust, Doc tells him, “It’s just an empty cup.” Doc discovered that he could not base his identity on being the best race car. Even though he won several coveted piston cups, in the end, the cups meant nothing to him.
Paul writes something similar in Philippians 3, starting in verse 4: “If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith”
My whole life I lived as if who I was depended upon doing good and having others think of me as good–good daughter, good student, good girl, good wife, good mother, good Christian, good friend. Up until a few years ago, even as a Christian, I was living my life as if the things I did and the way people thought of me mattered, as if those things made me more worthy–of salvation, of blessing, of favor. I had no idea I was living that way until life events challenged those things and the Lord cracked my mirror right open so I could see myself–my sin–clearly. When my status as good mother was challenged (not by God, mind you, but by my own impossible standards and the fear of what people would think if they saw my perceived failures) I grew defensive. I felt unsettled deep within because I was afraid someone would see through my act. When I could not live up to what I thought of as being a good daughter–when I had to in fact break off relationship for a while in order to get healthy–it devastated me. Anything that threatened my carefully built image was something to which I reacted with strong emotional, uncontrollable feelings. I was a slave to my own self-perceived image. And worse, because those things made up my identity, they were functionally my saviors. What shallow things upon which to stand!
The Lord, in his mercy and love and incredible grace, began to show me that I could not depend upon my glass castle to save me. I believed with my whole heart that He died for my sins. I knew intellectually that I could not earn His forgiveness. I was a Christian! But I was also an idolater. I had all these ideas of what it would mean to be a successful Andrea, and none of them included doing….nothing. But that is what grace is all about. It is about realizing that I could do NOTHING to earn salvation, to be more worthy of it, to be Christ-like on my own. He has to do it all. That is why Paul wrote “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.” Paul knew that he was exceedingly sinful, exceedingly unable to be good enough. He knew that it was only when he admitted his inability that Christ would be made strong in Him.
When I tired of living the impossible lie that I had to be the best or that I shouldn’t even try, I began to see that there was a different plane upon which I needed to stand. I needed to stand on the plane of “I am unable. I am weak. I am bankrupt–morally and spiritually. I cannot be good enough.” And when I finally got that–that my acceptance by the Lord was based solely, completely, and wholly on what Jesus did for me–when I got that, I was finally free. Free from the need to be perfect, free from the need to live up to my own impossible code of excellency. Free to let my identity be in Christ and in Him alone. I realized that all the good stuff I had done, all the things I had tried to be, all that I had succeeded at–it was all an empty cup. What I had to offer Jesus was me: imperfect, sinful, needy. And He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in (your) weakness.”
The more I realize how much I need Jesus, the more I see my sin and am disgusted by it (because let me tell you, it just keeps coming up), the more grateful I am that I don’t have to be good enough. I see friends struggling–some of them are where I once was and some are beyond where I am now, and all I can do is pray for them. The Lord has opened my eyes and I see a world FULL of lost people–and I see a world inhabited by many Christians who have no idea that they are still in bondage. We need more grace. Our churches need to preach grace. Our Sunday Schools need to teach grace. Our homes need to be abounding with grace. Grace is not the same thing as permissiveness or glossing over sin. So often people use the word grace as if it should excuse their sinful behavior. It does no such thing. It is, however, the only way we can be free of the false identities that keep us in bondage. Grace actually helps us see our sin and how far from the mark we are. It is God’s unmerited favor to us–His willingness to send His Son to pay the price for our sin–his free gift of salvation whereby our sin is exchanged for the robe of righteousness. God can only fill an empty cup. I am no good to Him if I am full of my “goodness” or good accomplishments. Grace is what enables us to admit to all the bad we have done and to look at all the good we have done and say, “it’s just an empty cup.”