“He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.” Psalm 23:3 NKJV
A friend organized a Christmas cookie swap for our church office staff. The plan was simple. Price of admission was a tray of cookies. Your tray entitled you to pick cookies from the other trays. You could leave with as many cookies as you brought.
The Burden of Guilt
Sounds simple, if you know how to cook. But what if you can’t? What if you can’t tell a pan from a pot? What if, like me, you are culinarily challenged? What if you’re as comfortable in an apron as a bodybuilder in a tutu? If such is the case, you’ve got a problem.
Such was the case, and I had a problem. I had no cookies to bring; hence I would have no place at the party. I would be left out, turned away, shunned, eschewed, and dismissed. (Are you feeling sorry for me yet?)
This was my plight.
And, forgive me for bringing it up, but your plight’s even worse.
God is planning a party … a party to end all parties. Not a cookie party, but a feast. Not giggles and chitchat in the conference room, but wide-eyed wonder in the throne room of God.
Yes, the guest list is impressive. Your question to Jonah about undergoing a gut check in a fish gut? You’ll be able to ask him. But more impressive than the names of the guests is the nature of the guests. No egos, no power plays. Guilt, shame, and sorrow will be checked at the gate. Disease, death, and depression will be the Black Plagues of a distant past. What we now see daily, there we will never see.
And what we now see vaguely, there we will see clearly. We will see God. Not by faith. Not through the eyes of Moses or Abraham or David. Not via Scripture or sunsets or summer rains. We will see not God’s work or words, but we will see him! For he is not the host of the party; he is the party. His goodness is the banquet. His voice is the music. His radiance is the light, and his love is the endless topic of discussion.
There is only one hitch. The price of admission is somewhat steep. In order to come to the party, you need to be righteous. Not good. Not decent. Not a taxpayer or churchgoer.
Citizens of heaven are righteous. R-i-g-h-t.
All of us occasionally do what is right. A few predominantly do what is right. But do any of us always do what is right? According to Paul we don’t. “There is none righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10 NKJV).
Paul is adamant about this. He goes on to say, “No one anywhere has kept on doing what is right; not one” (Rom. 3:12 TLB).
Some may beg to differ. “I’m not perfect, Max, but I’m better than most folks. I’ve led a good life. I don’t break the rules. I don’t break hearts. I help people. I like people. Compared to others, I think I could say I’m a righteous person.”
I used to try that one on my mother. She’d tell me my room wasn’t clean, and I’d ask her to go with me to my brother’s room. His was always messier than mine. “See, my room is clean; just look at his.”
Never worked. She’d walk me down the hall to her room. When it came to tidy rooms, my mom was righteous. Her closet was just right. Her bed was just right. Her bathroom was just right. Compared to hers, my room was, well, just wrong. She would show me her room and say, “This is what I mean by clean.”
God does the same. He points to himself and says, “This is what I mean by righteousness.”
Righteousness is who God is.
“Our God and Savior Jesus Christ does what is right” (2 Pet. 1:1).
“God is a righteous judge” (Ps. 7:11 NIV).
“The LORD is righteous, he loves justice” (Ps. 11:7 NIV).
God’s righteousness “endures forever” (Ps. 112:3 NIV) and “reaches to the skies” (Ps. 71:19 NIV).
Isaiah described God as “a righteous God and a Savior” (Isa. 45:21 NIV).
On the eve of his death, Jesus began his prayer with the words “Righteous Father” (John 17:25 NIV).
Get the point? God is righteous. His decrees are righteous (Rom. 1:32). His judgment is righteous (Rom. 2:5). His requirements are righteous (Rom. 8:4). His acts are righteous (Dan. 9:16). Daniel declared, “Our God is right in everything he does” (Dan. 9:14).
God is never wrong. He has never rendered a wrong decision, experienced the wrong attitude, taken the wrong path, said the wrong thing, or acted the wrong way. He is never too late or too early, too loud or too soft, too fast or too slow. He has always been and always will be right. He is righteous.
When it comes to righteousness, God runs the table without so much as a bank shot. And when it comes to righteousness, we don’t know which end of the cue stick to hold. Hence, our plight.
Will God, who is righteous, spend eternity with those who are not? Would Harvard admit a third-grade dropout? If it did, the act might be benevolent, but it wouldn’t be right. If God accepted the unrighteous, the invitation would be even nicer, but would he be right? Would he be right to overlook our sins? Lower his standards? No. He wouldn’t be right. And if God is anything, he is right.
He told Isaiah that righteousness would be his plumb line, the standard by which his house is measured (Isa. 28:17). If we are unrighteous, then, we are left in the hallway with no cookies. Or to use Paul’s analogy, “we’re sinners, every one of us, in the same sinking boat with everybody else” (Rom. 3:19 MSG). Then what are we to do?
Carry a load of guilt? Many do. So many do.
What if our spiritual baggage were visible? Suppose the luggage in our hearts was literal luggage on the street. You know what you’d see most of all? Suitcases of guilt. Bags bulging with binges, blowups, and compromises. Look around you. The fellow in the gray-flannel suit? He’s dragging a decade of regrets. The kid with the baggy jeans and nose ring? He’d give anything to retract the words he said to his mother. But he can’t. So he tows them along. The woman in the business suit? Looks as if she could run for senator? She’d rather run for help, but she can’t run at all. Not hauling that carpetbag of cagmag everywhere she goes.
Listen. The weight of weariness pulls you down. Self-reliance misleads you. Disappointments discourage you. Anxiety plagues you. But guilt? Guilt consumes you.
So what do we do? Our Lord is right, and we are wrong. His party is for the guiltless, and we are anything but. What do we do?
I can tell you what I did. I confessed my need. Remember my cookie dilemma? This is the e-mail I sent to the whole staff. “I can’t cook, so I can’t be at the party.”
Did any of the assistants have mercy on me? No.
Did any of the staff have mercy on me? No.
Did any of the Supreme Court justices have mercy upon me? No.
But a saintly sister in the church did have mercy on me. How she heard of my problem, I do not know. Perhaps my name found its way on an emergency prayer list. But I do know this. Only moments before the celebration, I was given a gift, a plate of cookies, twelve circles of kindness.
And by virtue of that gift, I was privileged a place at the party.
Did I go? You bet your cookies I did. Like a prince carrying a crown on a pillow, I carried my gift into the room, set it on the table, and stood tall. And because some good soul heard my plea, I was given a place at the table.
And because God hears your plea, you’ll be given the same. Only, he did more—oh, so much more—than bake cookies for you.
It was, at once, history’s most beautiful and most horrible moment. Jesus stood in the tribunal of heaven. Sweeping a hand over all creation, he pleaded, “Punish me for their mistakes. See the murderer? Give me his penalty. The adulteress? I’ll take her shame. The bigot, the liar, the thief? Do to me what you would do to them. Treat me as you would a sinner.”
And God did. “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Pet. 3:18 NIV).
Yes, righteousness is what God is, and, yes, righteousness is what we are not, and, yes, righteousness is what God requires. But “God has a way to make people right with him” (Rom. 3:21).
David said it like this: “He leads me in the paths of righteousness” (Ps. 23:3 NKJV).
The path of righteousness is a narrow, winding trail up a steep hill. At the top of the hill is a cross. At the base of the cross are bags. Countless bags full of innumerable sins. Calvary is the compost pile for guilt. Would you like to leave yours there as well?
One final thought about the Christmas cookie party. Did everyone know I didn’t cook the cookies? If they didn’t, I told them. I told them I was present by virtue of someone else’s work. My only contribution was my own confession.
We’ll be saying the same for eternity.
Excerpted from Traveling Light
© Max Lucado