In Pursuit of Righteousness

“The Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go, for Saul is the chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the children of Israel.’”

–  Acts 9:15

The Apostle Paul wrote 13 (and possibly 14) books of the New Testament. By word count, roughly a third of the writing of the New Testament is attributed to him. The astrophysicist Michael H. Hart named Paul the 6th most influential person who ever lived, beating out such people as Gutenberg, Columbus, and Einstein. (I remember a Time magazine article ranking him the most influential person of all time, just ahead of Jesus. I couldn’t make sense of that ranking as a teenager and I couldn’t find that reference as an adult.) All of this obscures the fact that Paul – the greatest champion of the Christian faith – had previously been the Pharisee Saul of Tarsus, a man who had made it his foremost mission in life to murder and imprison Christians. This would be something like watching Osama bin Laden become the trumpet of American capitalism.

This, to me, is one of the most compelling aspects of Christianity. Instead of choosing the most qualified, devout, and faithful to carry His message, God routinely selects weak and wicked men instead. Moses was a murderer, which also became true of David. Abraham was such a coward he twice pimped out his wife in an effort to save his own skin. Jonah actively and unrepentantly defied God’s directions.

This underscores the fact that God demonstrates His strength through our fragility. Rather than relying on the puny power of men, God’s power is made perfect in weakness. To the one who claims to be too weak to follow Christ, Aaron Weiss replies, “He’ll use the weak to overcome the strong.” Instead of relying on the sort of person other men may call, “Good,” God takes the unrighteous and pitiful, the humbled villains, and projects His power through them. Through a flash of light he transforms his most vocal opponent into his most zealous servant. The weakness of God is greater than the strength of man, indeed.

But this begs a question in my mind. Why seek strength if God’s power is made perfect in weakness? Why, when grace abounds and God can redeem and He even seems to delight in using the sort of person whose only virtue is moral frailty, why should we make an effort to become more like Christ?

What, then, is the value of pursuing righteousness?

It takes effort to remember the signposts that mark the road of redemption. The biostatistician Georgia Salanti once said, “Sometimes it’s the questions that are biased, not the answers.” The question of what does it gain me to be righteous disguises the assumption that being perfected in Christ should lend me some material gain. There will always be a second half to that question that goes unspoken. “What is the value of pursuing righteousness if it costs me my promotion?” “Why should I make an effort to become more like Christ if it doesn’t win me the partner I desired?”

As soon as I acknowledge that fact, it becomes clear that I was never pursuing righteousness at all. I was trying to barter with the One who had already given me His Son at no cost. Knowing my food ought to be the Word of the Father, I still have the nerve to ask Him for lobster and caviar (and maybe a torchon of foie gras for good measure).  It takes unfathomable arrogance to believe that righteousness has no merit.

But it turns out, that is the point of the whole process. We set upon pleasing God, only to trip and fall and fail at every turn. And that sets us back upon the right course: our vehicle in the pursuit of Christ is Christ. As CS Lewis says in The Four Loves, “Man approaches God most nearly when he is in one sense least like God. For what can be more unlike than fullness and need, sovereignty and humility, righteousness and penitence, limitless power and a cry for help?”

We are all little Pauls, and that is the story of the gospel. That only when our own strength has failed can we see we were propped up by the Cross all along. When we finally see our weakness, that’s when the strength of God is revealed. Like Spurgeon said, “When was Christ strongest but when He was weakest? When did He shake the kingdom of darkness but when He was nailed to the tree? When did He put away sin for His people but when His heart was pierced? When did He trample upon death and the old dragon but when He was Himself about to die? His victory was in the extremity of His weakness, namely, in His death; and it must be the same with His trembling Church.”

O Lord my God,

Let me forever remember to rely on you. And when I forget, arrange my life so I have no choice but to do just that. If I must be stripped of every earthly comfort and joy and ambition before I can fully embrace my Savior, take them away from me so quickly I don’t even see them leave. Let me long for nothing that you didn’t give to me through Your grace and mercy.