62 Q. Why can’t our good works
be our righteousness before God,
or at least a part of our righteousness?
A. Because the righteousness
which can pass God’s judgment
must be entirely perfect
and must in every way measure up to the divine law.^1
But even our best works in this life
and stained with sin.^2
^1 Gal. 3:10; Deut. 27:26
^2 Isa. 64:6
63 Q. How can our good works
be said to merit nothing
when God promises to reward them
in this life and the next?
A. This reward is not earned;
it is a gift of grace.^1
^1 Luke 17:10
64 Q. But doesn’t this teaching
make people indifferent and wicked?
It is impossible
for those grafted into Christ through true faith
not to produce fruits of gratitude.^1
^1 Matt. :18
LORD’S DAY 24 (Q/A 62-64)
“THE ANTIDOTE FOR EGO, VITAMIN FOR THE HEART”
A friend of ours received unwelcome news from her doctor that her cholesterol and sugar levels were at an elevated state, even after a regular diet of oatmeal in the morning, plenty of vegetables, and tofu at night. Our family, too, eats pretty healthy – not much fried foods, we read the labels for trans fats and sodium, no soda, moderate portions – but it seems like every week, there’s new news from the “Eat This Not That” twitter feed or Dr. Oz’s show about the blessings or curse of egg yolks, red wine, dark chocolate, blueberries, pomegranate, red meat, different kinds of fish, and on and on it goes. There are those days when my wife and I would like to pull out the butter and cream, slather it onto our brioche bread; we reason that if it worked for the late chef pioneer Julia Childs, who lived to be 81, let’s just enjoy the food we have…moderate portions, of course!
A regular diet which we all do on a daily basis is work. We labor, we put our skills/gifts and education to work. And when we work, we want recognition/acknowledgment for our work. In the area of service towards others, we want recognition for that, some sort of acknowledgement that what we have offered is gratefully received; that’s the human heart. It’s not possible for our hearts and minds to be completely free of desiring recognition, even on our best days to be truly, fully, consistently altruistic. The book of Deuteronomy wisely cautioned:
17 Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ 18But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today. (8:17-18, NRSV)
In 11 chapters, the book of Ecclesiastes speaks of work and wisdom, and concluded:
13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (11:13-14, NRSV)
Tim Keller, in Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God’s Work, sounds the note to our contemporary ears, in describing how our human hearts regard work or service as fruitless, as pointless, as for selfish gain, or transform it as idols.
Keller prescribes what the Scriptures and Q/A 62-64 remind again and again — we live in and with the grace and mercies of God. Our ballasting in the heart and life of God through the gift of faith enables us to see our work and all forms of service within the perspective of God’s own work in the world and God’s purposes in the world.
Faith anchors us to the heart and life of God so that when we regard our work and service in ways that are “not right” (unrighteous) and descend into the miry pit of self-pity, or ego, or frustration, or selfishness, or disappointment, or idolatrous (turning work into our own god), faith calls us to a different way, the more excellent way, God’s way.
Here, categories of “righteous” and “unrighteous” are descriptions of not levels or degrees of acceptance, but ways in which we live or not live into the right perspective of what God intends for us when we serve, when we work. The Catechism is adamant in its assertion that because God has determined to be for us, to be with us, to be in us . . . God in Christ through the Holy Spirit is our sure and certain comfort. Period. No additions, no subtractions. What is called forth from us is to receive God’s gift with gratitude, and to offer gratitude.
“Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” (1 Thessalonians 5:18)
We get caught up in ourselves when we fall prey to ourselves, or to worldly values that transforms work and service in motives and aims that are different than gratitude. And guess what? We all fall prey to that. Our work and our service are not always about gratitude to God, gratitude for God.
That is why we continually live, and move and have our being in the grace and mercies of God because we don’t know why people do certain things, or what the final results will be, or how salutary or destructive the outcomes may be. And even for ourselves, God knows us better than we know ourselves.
But like eating, whether healthily or unhealthily, we need to eat. And in living, we continue to live, and work and serve — healthily or unhealthily.
The nature of gratitude, which we’ll cover in the next section on the sacraments, is all about grace, and, therefore, about gift.
The gifts that we offer to others in forms of work and service, the gifts that we offer to God, while tainted with impure motives and aims in some form or measure, come with it the power and grace of God that are seen, but mostly, unseen. In that mix, we receive God’s continual gifts – the gifting of God’s own self – who continually anchors us to the heart of His Son, who as our eternal intercessor and High Priest in the Holy Spirit – presents us and our works and service – as pleasing in God’s sight because we are grafted to Christ, joined to Christ, and that which we do, as imperfect and as inconsistently as we do them, are nevertheless our attempts at gratitude, and because offered with Christ’s Spirit, are received as gifts to our delighting heavenly Father.
This became so vivid for me as our eldest, our 10 year-old son, tried again and again in the last two weeks to make us breakfast: pancakes (regular and fruit-topped), scrambled and fried eggs, and French-pressed coffee. Breakfast is the most important meal for our family so breakfast preparation is a major enterprise for us. (No continental breakfast for us, hold the Danish and croissants, show us the protein!). Our son was so meticulous with the measuring cups and spoons, generous with applying the nonstick cooking spray, to the point that he burned his left forearm on the skillet. With his efforts, he savors the praise from the whole family…not mere words of gratitude will suffice, he wants to hear, “Daniel, these eggs and pancakes are awesome!”
As his father, I don’t criticize him for his mixed motives and aims, but offer him encouragement, words of gratitude, savor the breakfast he has made. He enjoys it, and so do we. Tried and tried he does, with the encouragement we offer and the delight that he has as we delight in him, and now three weeks into this, I can say, Daniel’s pancakes are one of the best I’ve tasted, and he has prepared great fried eggs and made the coffee just how I like them.
That’s how God works in, with, and through our works. While we are not fully consistent with what and how we work and serve, God delights in us, as Christ delights in us and with us, and on that basis, the mutual delighting that the Father has with Christ in the Spirit, and through Christ with us, our works and service are acts of gratitude, gifts of joy for God’s own , Jesus Christ, the gift of joy of the Father for us all.