One night several years ago, my foot began to itch. Looking down, I saw a mosquito bite on my toe. It figures… this is Florida. Mosquitoes are like the state bird. So I ignored it. Around 2:00 a.m., I woke up and my foot was numb. Thinking I must have slept on it in a way that cut off the blood flow, I ignored it. By morning, it occurred to me that there might be a problem. My foot had swollen to the size of my head and was covered in splotches and blood blisters. My strategy of “ignore until it disappears” was proving unfruitful. I just plowed into work.
My wife, ever the sensible one, suggested I go to the doctor. But the doctor meant downtime, so I demurred. Eventually, my foot morphed into a watermelon and my life experienced a work stoppage.
The diagnosis? According to the doctor, it was ant bites–not exactly the most masculine reason for a doctor’s visit. But I live in a state where insects and reptiles are always surprising people.
My foot was fine, but the ants derailed my day. A wrench was tossed into the whirring gears of my productivity. And the more it bothered me, the more my attention shifted from my foot to my heart.
Productivity as Righteousness
I’ve noticed when things are going well, I’m a model of contentment. When I’m working hard and can spot obvious fruits of my labor; when I’m making decisions for the team and we can see progress towards our goals; then God and me are doing great and my imagination runs wild over the conversations in heaven. “God, have you considered your servant Dave? What a wonderful and productive of a Christian leader he is–such a shining specimen!”
The assumed righteousness of my productivity delivers me peace and a sense of right-standing. But my confidence is not in the righteousness of Christ. It’s really me falling back to reliance upon my own works.
This is precisely the message that Paul was combating when he wrote 2 Corinthians. Opponents had come into the church and were carrying a message that did not align with the gospel. They were telling the Corinthian church that they needed a little help from the Law of Moses. Christ’s righteousness wasn’t enough. They needed to keep the Jewish law as well. They contended that Moses’s ministry was impressive–that it came in glory and power! And they were leading people astray from the gospel message that Paul had first proclaimed.
So in 2 Corinthians 3, Paul defends his ministry against these opponents. He tells the Corinthians that while the ministry of the Law (the ministry of death), came with glory, the ministry of the Spirit is much superior and carries greater glory (see 2 Corinthians 3:7–11). He was calling on the Corinthian believers to renounce any message that demanded they mingle their righteousness with the righteousness of Christ.
Why The Law Did Not Produce Righteousness
You see, keeping the Law of Moses had never produced life because no one was ever able to keep it perfectly! “The letter kills,” he wrote (2 Corinthians 3:6). Or, as Paul says to the Galatian Christians, “If a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin” (Galatians 3:21–22). The law held people captive (Romans 7:6) because it demanded a righteous perfection that no one could attain. It held up to the people the picture of perfect obedience and through its requirements, revealed that no one was able to measure up.
Sin penetrates too deep into the human heart. No amount of external compliance can root it out.
But these detractors were calling the Corinthians to this captivity. They were demanding adherence to the law, thus denying that righteousness comes by faith (see Galatians 3:7). So Paul defended his ministry and declared that it was actually better than the ministry of Moses (an audacious claim, Paul!). Yet he didn’t base this on the fact that he was somehow better than Moses. He argued that God had given him and the other apostles the ministry of the new covenant. And it was better because it led to life!
Paul did not proclaim a message of works-righteousness, but a message of receiving-righteousness. “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6).
Swollen Feet, Swollen Hearts
Back to my swollen foot. There was a battle going on in my heart that day, though at the time I was not fully conscious of it. As my wife wisely reminded me, any rational person, upon waking up with an obviously engorged foot, would have stopped working and gone to see a doctor. But I liked my productivity a bit too much. Things were going well and I didn’t want any distractions. Then ants happened. And the more time I lost, the more condemned I became. My lack of productivity attacked my sense of identity.
By God’s grace, I realized I was falling captive to a law of works. I wasn’t walking in the freedom of life given by the Spirit. On the contrary, I felt a need to perform, to maintain my productive output, to keep the ministry going well. I didn’t want something as silly as a bug bite to diminish the fruit of my labor.
Whether I realized it or not, I was trying to earn my keep. I had begun to find my identity in what I did for God, not what he did for me.
Let’s be honest. I am not alone in this. It’s the tendency of every human heart. We grow discontent and disquiet, thinking that we need to generate productive righteousness in order for God to accept us. Our hearts swell with pride and we seek to present ourselves as worthy before the Lord. Look at the fruit of my work. Look at how well I’ve done at not getting angry with my kids. Look at how I’ve kept my resolve not to indulge in sexual sin, or in greedy spending. Look at the way I’ve been leading my family in prayer and Bible memorization and reading. Look at how I’m serving in the church. Look at how I gave generously to the poor, or how I’ve used my spare time to help out my neighbors, or how I shared the gospel with that stranger last week. Look at me. Look at me. Thank you that I’m not like that tax collector! (see Luke 18:10–14).
We want to bear good fruit in our lives, but our temptation is to take that fruit and try to wrap it up in nice baskets that we offer as gifts to God which will earn his favor.
The School of Grace
In his grace, God allows bugs to attack progress.. He derails us. He disrupts our workflow. It could be all sorts of things. Perhaps a sickness. Or maybe your computer locks up or shuts down. Or you’ve lost a job that forced you to move. Or maybe it’s something more minor like a bug bite, or writer’s block, or a talkative coworker from whom you can’t escape.
Whatever it may be, God uses these disruptions to put us through his school of grace; to remind us that we bring nothing to table. He ordains mundane events to keep us humble. God orchestrates events to create dependent children who come only with hands empty and arms outstretched.
Our productivity does not incite God’s delight. It’s the righteousness of Christ imputed to us that merits the blessing of God.
Our hearts preach to us the ministry of the law of Moses that says, “Do this and you will live.” But God offers to us the ministry of the new covenant which says, “God has done it so that you can live.”
I pray that you would enjoy this gift of his righteousness today, and the next day, and the next. Guard yourself against the pride or productivity that creeps in and tempts you to earn God’s favor. The good news is, you already have it. All of it. As a son or a daughter of God, he has declared you righteous. You can’t make that robe any more white.
Whether it’s a productive day or the one where the kids leave orbit and you lose the day, bask in his favor. Go forth as a joyful child of the King who seeks to do all for his glory. Not because of what you earned by a completed to-do list. But because of what he supplies to us through the cross.
- Read Luke 18:9–14. What was the difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector? Which one more accurately reflects your heart?
- In what ways have you tried to earn God’s favor in the past? In what ways do you think you may be trying to do that now? Make a list and discuss them with a friend, your spouse, or your pastor.
- Why does Paul say “the letter kills” in 2 Corinthians 3:6? Reflecting on the verses cited above, briefly explain in your own words Paul’s view of the Mosaic law.
- What disruptions have you experienced or are you experiencing in life? What do you think God might be teaching you through these? Pray for the grace to learn the lessons well and rest in him.