For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. — Romans 1:18–20

No one can read the list found in Romans 1:18–20 and not find themselves in it. The Bible makes clear that every man, woman and child have sinned and have come woefully short of God’s righteous standard (Romans 3:23). The Psalmist summed it up well:

They have all fallen away;
together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one.

— Psalm 53:3

Okay, I got that. Looking at my life was confirmation enough. Accepting the biblical record concerning my condition before God was not difficult, but understanding what I needed to do to make things right was.

Struggling with years of accumulated guilt, I walked the church aisles, shaking the preacher’s hand enough times to develop callouses, but I remained as lost as I was before. I sat calmly on a pew and listened actively to others lead me down the Roman Road so many times I could be a tour guide, but my heart remained unchanged. I went to my knees, praying the sinner’s prayer, bowing my head, raising my hand and repeatedly “repeating after me” as told, but my guilt remained. And yes, I was dipped and dunked enough times to have developed gills, but each time the results were the same: down a dry sinner, up a wet one.

Like following the yellow brick road but never finding Oz, I began to think God had written me off, and that making it to the Emerald City just wasn’t in the cards for me. One day, however, while reading through the Matthew’s gospel for the umpteenth time I came upon this passage:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
— Matthew 11:28–29

Like driving down the road at 50 MPH when a signal light turns red right as you hit the intersection, I slammed on the brakes. “All who labor.” That’s me. “I will give you rest.” That sounded wonderful. I don’t know if it was theologically correct to read into that passage as I did, but sitting there in the quiet of a moment, scripture penetrating my foolish heart, I realized that my problem had been my trying to please God through my efforts, thinking the things I did would make Jesus happy so that he would wipe the slate clean, and we would live happily ever after. I was so, so wrong.

All my life I had pursued a performance-based salvation, becoming a very good performer. I had worked my hands to the bone, so to speak. God, however, was not impressed. Not once. More than anything else, I learned that day — and would pass along to others — this simple truth: You don’t earn a gift. You just receive it and say, “Thank you.” God will take it from there.

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
— Ephesians 2:8–9