It's not that we don't believe in grace. We do. We believe in grace a lot. We just don't believe in grace alone. Surely, we think, it takes more than grace to save us. We grace-a-lots want to do our part. We figure Jesus almost finished the work of our salvation but every so often needs our help. So we give it.
We collect good works the way Boy Scouts collect merit badges on a sash. I kept mine on a hook in my closet, not to hide it, but so I could see it. No morning was complete without a satisfying glance at this exhibit of excellence. Each oval emblem rewarded my hard work.
I became a Christian about the same time I became a Boy Scout and made the assumption that God grades on a merit system, too. Good Scouts move up. Good people go to heaven. Perfect people get the best seats.
So I resolved to amass a multitude of spiritual badges. An embroidered Bible for Bible reading. Folded hands for prayer. A kid sleeping on a pew for church attendance. In my imagination, angels feverishly stitched emblems on my behalf. They scarcely kept pace with my performance and wondered if one sash would suffice. I worked toward the day, the great day, when God, amid falling confetti and celebratory shouts, would drape my badge-laden sash across my chest and welcome me into His eternal kingdom, where I could humbly display my badges for eternity.
But some thorny questions came up. If God saves good people, how good is "good"? God expects us to have integrity of speech, but how much? What is the permitted percentage of exaggeration? Suppose the required score is 80 and I score a 79? How do you know your score?
I asked a minister about it. Surely he would help me answer the "How good is 'good'?" question. He did, with one word: do. Do better. Do more. Do now. Do. Do. Do.
Teens have probably heard a version of this from their parents, their teachers, their friends, maybe even their pastor. Do good, and you'll be OK. Do more, and you'll be saved. Keep doing until you get it right.
Keep doing until you're perfect.
There's a problem with pushing for perfection. Trying to be good still doesn't answer the fundamental question: What level of good is good enough? At stake is our eternal destination, yet we are more confident about cookie recipes and baseball stats than the entrance requirements for heaven.
God has a better idea: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:8). We contribute nothing. Zilch. As opposed to the merit badge of the Scout, salvation of the soul is unearned. A gift. Our merits merit nothing. God's work merits everything.
We find it easier to trust the miracle of resurrection than the miracle of grace. We so fear failure that we create the image of perfection, lest heaven be even more disappointed in us than we are. The result? The most burned-out people on earth.
Attempts at self-salvation guarantee nothing but exhaustion. We scamper and scurry, trying to please God, collecting merit badges and brownie points and scowling at anyone who questions our accomplishments.
Enough. Enough of this frantic push to be perfect. "Your hearts should be strengthened by God's grace, not by obeying rules" (Hebrews 13:9, NCV).
Let grace happen, for heaven's sake. No more pressure. No more performing. Of all the things teens must earn in life, God's unending affection is not one of them. They have it.
If you ask me, that sounds perfect.