Some time back, I read that people who seek to lose weight need to consider what they use to fuel their body. The body can draw energy from sugar, or from fat (stored energy). The body was likened to a furnace in which a log is burning. For most of us, the log is sugar, because that’s what we eat; and it’s a quick, easy solution for the body. So the body says “I am a sugar furnace!” and it burns and demands sugar. In order to move the stored fat in our bodies, we have to make our body decide “I am a fat furnace!” and get it into the habit of burning the “fat log” instead of the “sugar log”.
Now, I have no idea if the intervening years have declared this to be science or fiction. But it is an ideal metaphor for the way we live our lives before God. For much of my life, I’ve been burning up in works (using my own efforts to try to fuel amity with God). I thought if I was just demonstrably dedicated enough, God would stop clicking His tongue at my many imperfections, and His love would feel warm instead of forced. Eventually I was shown that the whole time, He had stored up for me the unlimited “fat” of His grace, and was saying, “Here, use this – you’re burning the works log when I’ve provided a packet of Grace Tams that never runs out!” It turns out, He didn’t just pay for my sins, like rescuing me from an overdrawn savings account. He gave me a credit card linked to a millionaire’s share portfolio. It’s not just yesterday’s debts that are covered. I never have to pay for another bill ever again!
I used to think that on the day I accepted Jesus (age 3), my slate was clean – and I was beholden to keep it clean, because look what it cost Him to clean it! This left me in a place where I was trying to live a perfect life, not out of gratitude but out of anxiety. Because I have been a Christian all my life, I do not know whether, for me, sin is easier to say “no” to, than it is for people who do not have the Holy Spirit. Theory says yes. But I can’t test that theory, and I certainly don’t want to imply that my pathetic little store of faith makes me a better person than anyone else. All I can tell you is that temptation is hard; God understands this; God understands us; God make a way to satisfy the demand for perfection. He became perfection for us. And He did it by becoming sin for us. Mind. Blown.
Isaiah 10 has a bit to say about unrealistic expectations, and while Isaiah is talking about real political threat, I think the principle still applies to our spiritual lives.
Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people … In that day the remnant of Israel, the survivors of Jacob, will no longer rely on him who struck them down but will truly rely on the Lord, the Holy One of Israel. … In that day their burden will be lifted from your shoulders, their yoke from your neck; the yoke will be broken from your shoulders/because you have grown so fat/because of the oil.
Oil usually symbolises the anointing, and here could be a reference to the Anointed One (which is the literal translation of the title “Christ”). Oil was used to anoint kings and thereby confer authority. In church circles, we use the term “anointed” mainly to refer to the goosebumps we get when the Holy Spirit “turns up and does things”. He is always there, of course, and has a baffling sense of timing completely outside our agenda. “Things” in this instance might include healing, deliverance from demons, or the quiet, much-needed word of revelation or sensation of assurance needed in a person’s inner life for their breakthrough. My favourite phrase describes the anointing as “the burden-removing, yoke-destroying power of God”. The picture is that of an emaciated slave swelling in health to the point where they realise they no longer need to remain a prisoner. It could equally be pictured as a kind of oil poured on a wooden yoke that somehow melts it down or renders it immediately flammable. And again could simply be that the One anointed in oil commands that yokes now be removed because He has overthrown the oppressor who put them there. It can be all those things at once.
Grace is the good oil. It’s that which makes us “fat” with latent energy, “dunamis” (dynamic energy), if you like. If it sounds like I’m mixing too many metaphors, getting all the symbols muddled … I’m kind of okay with that. I think the Bible allows for that; it regularly mixes and intertwines and enmeshes metaphors because there just isn’t one good metaphor that is big enough to encompass the whole salvation story. In the end, there’s nothing like it; we can only find small similes to unwrap it one bite-size piece at a time. That’s why the Bible has no trouble at all describing God as a father, a mother, a bridegroom, a servant and a king. The very fact that we are His children, and He chose to become one of ours, drives the point home.
When I jump in the boat and link arms with Jesus, embracing His perfection – a perfect human life lived, and perfect divine life overspanning all of creation – my imperfections are so eclipsed and washed by His light that the Father sees no darkness, and declares perfection over all who sail with Him. I am melted into Him, not losing who I am but becoming all He created me to be, as I join in His righteousness. He does not invite me into the boat because I am hard-working or pretty or important or chatty or good. He just invites. All of us. This is Ark II: one truly righteous Man and those closest to him. I want to be close.
So (switching metaphors back again) what shall I burn in my furnace? If I continue the burnt offering using a mixture of grace and effort, my life is never going to decide it’s a “grace furnace”. It’s just going to go on smouldering and spitting frustrated sparks. It will still smell like burnt veges. I will be standing in Jesus’ light-washed boat, trying to hold His hand while clutching a filthy, algae-dripping paddle.
In the end, there was one perfect Lamb, one sacrifice for all, and it surely trumps any other paltry thing I could throw on the fire.