A few years ago, I received a paper from a student, gave it a C-, and returned it to her.
She showed up at my office door one day later, incensed. “Excuse me,” she said, looming over me where I sat in my chair, “but I just want to know what I did to deserve this grade.”
“…how do you mean?” I asked, glancing over the paper and all the corrections I’d scribbled on it. It was a minefield of comma splices, sentence fragments, misspellings, improperly attributed quotes, and half-baked ideas.
Her brow furrowed. “I turned it in,” she told me, desperation creeping into her voice as she reassessed the red marks and saw the look on my face. “I turned it in on time and everything and I answered the question you wanted us to answer. Isn’t that good enough?”
“Well, yes,” I explained, “for a C-. But just turning in a paper and answering the prompt doesn’t net you an A. That’s just the bare minimum.”
She left, defeated. And I shook my head and laughed.
I can’t in good conscience be too amused by that encounter, though, since I behave the same way myself in my walk with Christ. Most Christians do. We tend to celebrate the bare minimum as being exceptional, without realizing that we’ve simply set the bar so low for ourselves that we’ve made the bare minimum look like an accomplishment when it’s not.
We commit ourselves to Bible study and prayer for a whole week, more so than usual, and we wait for the blessings of heaven to rain down upon us. We forgive that one person we struggle to forgive and we think we’re really something for doing it, because wow, that was hard. We amp up our ministry and end up impressing ourselves so much that we think surely God must be impressed, too.
I’m not saying that those things can’t be major accomplishments, or signs of Christian growth. They can be, and are. But I think that if we’re not careful, and if we lose our perspective on them, we run the risk of doing precisely what my student did: congratulating ourselves for something that shouldn’t be all that remarkable for those who possess the indwelling Spirit and believing, as a result, that our efforts and behaviors are what determine the status of our relationship with God.
The Bible tells us that “all our righteous acts are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6) and I think most of us tend to think about that in the general: we are sinners, we are only redeemed by grace. That’s true. But also helpful to consider that verse on a granular level. That stuff you do, that thing you did, the super-awesome thing that was so amazing and righteous and inspired by God?
It’s a dirty rag. It shrivels away to nothing beside the holiness of God.
I don’t say this to discourage anyone from trying to grow in righteousness and righteous behavior. I say it to point out the incredible gulf between even our most righteous behavior and God’s holiness; to remind myself that God’s presence in my life must be unhooked from my merit and my behavior and remain only dependent on His grace; and that no matter how much I grow as a believer I must remain humble in the knowledge that there is so, so much more growing to do.
We should all give God our best. And we should acknowledge, at the same time, that even our best isn’t much and doesn’t make the grade – sometimes it’s just the bare minimum of what we ought to, or could be, doing. That God loves us and trusts us and entrusts us with His work in spite of that is the miracle: it is an affection that is impossible to earn or impossible to keep with even our best behavior, relying only on grace and love.