The Christian life is often a back and forth between despair and pride, self-loathing and self-righteousness. God’s answer to both is simply: grace.
Sometimes people feel that they need to “clean themselves up” before they can come before God in prayer, church, communion, or whatever else. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, they search for fig leaves with which to cover their nakedness and shame. If they feel that they can cover themselves up well enough or if they convince themselves they are not bare at all, then come pride and self-satisfaction: “God will be satisfied with my performance/listen to my prayer/not be mad at me because of all these things I did this week…”
If, on the other hand, no “fig leaves” feel big enough to cover their shame, then come despair and guilt. Feeling exposed, alone, disappointed in themselves, and intensely guilty, people will often withdraw from God altogether, or only come to him in a further attempt to placate their guilty consciences. They don’t truly come to prayer or church for God or true forgiveness, because they don’t believe themselves worthy of either. Enough time spent in the darkness of despair and bitterness at God may even result. As in James 1, they will claim that God is “tempting” them beyond what they can bear, or that his standard is simply too impossibly high for them. For others, maybe not. But it is certainly too high for them.
Both sides of the spectrum may feel holy. The self-righteous person feels just that – righteous. And the guilty person feels holy too, because they know God hates sin and therefore their self-loathing must somehow be right as well.
God, in his most wonderful way, completely does away with fig leaves altogether.
To the proud, self-satisfied heart he says, “You think you can have access to me because you managed to scrape out an offering this week? Nonsense – all your ‘righteous acts’ are like filthy rags before me. I owe you nothing and you owe me everything. You can come to me simply because I love you, I made you, and I have given grace to you, and for no other reason.”
To the despairing, withdrawing heart he says, “Is my arm too short to save you? Are you beyond my reach? Do you not know that I died for the very purpose of bringing sinners to myself? You have full access to me simply because of what I have done for you. My grace is sufficient for you. Come.”
God rejects our makeshift coverings of shame and instead clothes us with the very covering of Jesus’ blood, and Jesus’ righteousness. We are forgiven past, present, and future sins in his eyes because Jesus died to forgive us. We are declared pure and worthy in his eyes because Jesus lived perfectly in order to cover us. We do not get access to God or gain his approval through our performance and we do not lose it through our failures: fig leaves have nothing on grace.
Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. Hebrews 10:19-23
Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves…
The LORD God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. Genesis 3:7, 21