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We look to Christ’s life for our salvation and righteousness, but do we also look to His story to define our own? Or do we think Christ merely gets us into heaven, yet it’s our job to ensure our lives are up to par? While we know only He can save us, we often think we can fashion our own lives into something worthwhile. But, there has never been a man who honestly looked back upon his life and thought he lived it as he should have. Though many of us will have attempted to do what we were commanded, we all must face the ubiquitous reality that our best days are merely mediocre. The best among us have looked at their lives and described them as beggarly and minimal (Luther and Apostle Paul, respectively).

Elizabeth Corey recently described this feeling as it arises in midlife: “The consolations I have described imply that by middle age, most of us have made our peace with life, and in many respects, we probably have. But unless we are egomaniacs or narcissists, this peace is inevitably accompanied by some sense of sadness and failure. What regrets do we have? Have we really used our talents? Or did we waste them by being envious, lazy, or indifferent?”

Though we instinctively think of ourselves as good people, who among us doesn’t know long seasons of envy, laziness, or indifference? We all know these vices, which means we will all know that our lives have not been lived as they should have been. The response to this situation takes one of three forms.

1. Deny the Truth

First, people reject the truth and tell themselves that God approves of them, and so should they since, after all, they are good people. In response, it should give us pause along this route to contemplate the question, “Who doesn’t think of himself as a good person?” An assessment loses validity when it is the same regardless of the subject.

2. Lower the Bar

Second, others, understanding the dilemma of the first approach will lower the bar. They will say the standard is too high, and after adjusting it downward, they will say, “I did the best I could, most of the time.” But this approach has the same problem. Namely, “Who doesn’t do their best at least some of the time?” And, once we think a little more, we find ourselves on even worse ground than the first approach because we begin to realize that there is always a little more we could do—one more dollar donated or minute given.

3. Admit We Fell Short

The failure of the first two responses leaves us with the only reasonable route: to admit that we did not live our lives as well as we should have. Yes, we had moments of doing our best. But, if we’re honest, we had many more when we didn’t (did you know the average person works just a few hours out of the workweek?). And yes, according to Joel Osteen and my grandmother, I am a wonderfully great person. But, according to them, so is everyone else, aside from Satan (maybe?). An honest perspective forces us to recognize that our life’s work isn’t quite up to snuff. Even if you changed the course of history through a life-changing invention or cured cancer, you still sleep in, overeat, don’t answer the phone, and sit in front of the TV rather than work on the next important invention or cure. Or, you avoided those vices and worked so hard that you neglected your friends, family, and health.

This third option of admitting at least partial failure is the only one available, and it has only one solution—vicarious living. It’s bad when parents live vicariously through their children, but it’s our only hope when looking at our own lives. We need Jesus not only to save us from our sins but also to live the lives that we should live. How can we rejoice in heaven, knowing full well for eternity that we wasted large parts of our lives? Because Jesus didn’t. Our entrance into heaven is thanks to Him, and our rejoicing while we’re there is thanks to Him, not to our Protestant work ethic.

Therefore, we should live our lives now, not with the goal of being proud of a life well-lived on our deathbed. Rather, we should live with more gratitude than ambition because Christ has already done the work. It is finished. If this gratitude is genuine and ours, it will compel the best life possible, driven not by anxious ambition but by grateful love.

This was originally posted on The Fight of Faith.

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