Righteousness like Steak: Rare or well done?

“Well done, my good and faithful servant.” Those words, so fresh, so true. That voice within me podded my heart to beat once again. Joy erupted from within, pouring down my cheeks. The salty flavour of those tears did not leave me as I rose from my knees, the events of the day still swirling in my mind.

“I gave it all away.” I said out loud, not caring who was around to hear. That woman, so helpless, dirty, distraught. Lost her husband, house, kids. What could I do with a few hundred dollars that this woman could not? My spirit rose to the challenge… and I gave it away. “All of it,” I spoke again, still amazed with what I had done. That smile that had stretched across her face was priceless. No money could buy such joy. I could trade a week’s pay-check for the look on that face or the salt on my lips in a heartbeat.

As a kid, I had been taught to do good and run from evil, but never knew that it could be so enjoyable. Who knew that I could feel so good about giving that money away? The next day afforded me the opportunity to help an old lady across the road, and I approached it with even greater joy, knowing the rewards would be more profitable than the inconvenience. Nothing could be better. The view from this emotional mountain-top was so beautiful, and that voice in my head more audible than ever before. “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Though the climb had been gruelling, I took each step in great expectation, picking myself up when I fell, looking forward to the view from the top. I pushed myself hard, working at each step as the air grew thin, breath quickened, and heart beat louder than a speeding train. Leaving the swampy muck of my former life behind, I pressed on. Thievery, adultery, and selfishness all sunk like giant boulders beneath the inky black sludge of the past.

Now, on the mountain-top, I looked back at the mess my life had been. The swamp was dark and foreboding, reminding me of those days that seemed so long ago: the dark branches of the trees reaching for me, my feet sinking into the mud. I hadn’t known that life could be different, but up here the contrast was daunting. Flowers poked their heads through the green blanket below, speckling the ground in beauty. The trek up the mountain had been worth it, the scene before me breath-taking. Trees dotted the horizon. In the distance, that red globe of might rose to greet the day, shaking hands with the leaves as they caught on the wind and were lifted to the heavens, swirling, dancing, playing in the air before gracefully descending to the blanket of green below, like feathers.

One loose rock. One misstep, and I was falling. The scene below faded from view, the sky replacing it as I fell on my back, sliding down the mountain. Rocks and dirt raced me to the bottom. One slip up and that voice in my head spoke again, “Worthless. You disappoint me.”

“I’m sorry,” I said between tears, digging my heals into the earth to cease my decent. I got up, receiving no help from the voice. “I’ll do better next time, I promise.” It was only a few steps, just a small slip up. Soon I was on the mountain once again, looking down, but the scene was not as awe-inspiring as before. I saw little pebbles scurrying down the side of the rock to their death below: little pieces of my righteousness fleeing, never to return.

How could I have been so stupid? It was just a candy-bar. What did it cost, two dollars? I could afford that… or maybe not after giving all my money away. I didn’t really need it, though. The guilt left a bitter taste in my mouth as I unpeeled the wrapper and took a bite. The sweet flavour of chocolate I had been expecting was swallowed up by the taste of guilt that still lingered on my tongue. I spat it out in disgust, throwing the rest of it away.

Two rights do not wash away a wrong… but three do. That’s what I thought anyway. Three lefts make a right, and I hoped for the same result from wrongs. Once I avoided temptation… then twice, and finally a third act of goodwill left me clean again… mostly. At least that’s what I told myself. The beautiful valley below still lacked the purity it once held in my eyes. The swamp called to me from behind, taunting me with my past. As I looked back, I lost my footing, falling one more time. This time I slid further, struggling against the voice in my head. “You’re nothing but a thief! You haven’t changed at all!” It sneered, pushing against the cold stone of the rock. Tufts of grass flew, rocks dislodged, clouds of dirt obscured my path. A baby tree was my only salvation, sending its roots into the rock, affording me a hand-hold to fight against my vile decent.

Pulling myself from the dirt, I brushed off my clothes, though could not get rid of the grass stains. Marked. I thought. “Marked as a thief.” The voice taunted me.

“God, why are you doing this to me? Have I not climbed the mountain?” I cried out, sinking to my knees.

Silence.

“I will try harder! I will be righteous!” Be Holy, for I am holy. A command of God written in the pages of his word, but what a command it was! How could I live up to such an expectation? I could do nothing but try: try to pick myself up, try to brush myself off, try to climb the mountain. Loose stones tortured me. I fell again. Two steps forward, one step back. Two steps forward, another trip, another slide, another fall. Clouds of dust masked my vision. Soft earth taunted my toes where the grass was ripped and torn. I lost my footing, tripped on an invisible stone in this blanket of dust. On hands and knees now, I crawled, climbing for the top one shuffle at a time. “Marked! A failure! Unrighteous! Unworthy!” The voice would not leave me alone. “No one is righteous, no not even one.” It began quoting scripture at me, prophesying my fate.

Well done, my good and faithful servant? Those were the days. What happened to that voice? As I reached the top of the mountain again, I turned around to look at the valley below, and began to cry. The side of the mountain was torn, ripped up like the face of a tortured innocent man. Dust hung in the air, masking the once beautiful scenery. My vision was obscured by the wet of my eyes, that salty taste of old again on my lips… but not the same, joy replaced with sorrow. The salt enhanced the bitter flavour or my guilt, leaving me all too aware of my unrighteousness. “You are nothing but a sinner.” The voice sneered again.

I could hold myself up no longer. The pain of my failure kicked me in the shins and my legs crumbled beneath me. I fell, but this time did not get up. I didn’t even try. I soared down the side of the mountain like a garbaged tin can, spinning, bumping, rolling. Rocks hit my head, grass ripped at my clothes, dirt caked my face. I halted at the bottom with a final thud – nowhere left to go. The wet dew on the grass turned my powdered skin into a sticky, wet mask of mud.

“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. There is none who does good, there is not even one.”

I knew that voice was right. Why had I ever tried? Was I not destined for the grave? Destruction? Death? Why try to be righteous when I could not?

“Zeal for God.” Another voice entered the scene. This new, pure, crisp voice whispered into my ear, but not like the other voice. “Eager to please, but seeking to work out your own righteousness.”

“Own unrighteousness,” the other voice corrected. “A failure!”

“My child,” the softer voice said, seemingly ignoring the accusations of the first. “You are not a failure.”

I screamed, trying to drown out this argument in my head. “I am not righteous! I am not worthy!” The tears began again as I fought this battle within.

“Unrighteous! Unworthy!” the voice egged me on.

“Not… by… works…” the three soft words tore throw the cacophony with finality. Those three words, long ago heard but forgotten, cut into the battlefield like a hot knife slicing butter. The first voice stepped into the attack, its breastplate or unrighteousness shattered by the swing of the sword. Pieces flew into the air as the hot knife stuck its mark, exposing the voice for who it really was. Its words repeated in my mind. Well done, good and faithful servant. These words spewed from the mouth of the Deceiver with vile intent. Without face and name, the voice had sounded sweet, but no longer. Those cracked, dead lips spat out the words like administering poison. Well done… the Deceiver’s fingers came together, revealing his cruel intent …good and faithful servant.

Those first words of the Deceiver turned sour in his mouth: first words, and last words. The farce was over, being exposed, no more trickery, no more lies, no more deceit. That first voice from the mountain-top left as quickly as it had come.

“Zeal for God, but without knowledge.” sadness was evident in the remaining voice as it spoke once again.

What knowledge? I wondered, though the question was answered simultaneously with its manifestation. “Not knowing about God’s righteousness, you seek to establish your own.” I left my shoulder open for the crying voice, his sweet tears trickling down and falling like the soft pattering of April showers.

“Righteousness…” I asked, letting the voice cry for a time. “…of God?”

“Through faith… not by works so that no one can boast.” The voice finished with finality. “The righteousness of God in Christ Jesus. Because of his death, you are made alive… free… righteous.”

My own righteousness had fallen. I had fallen. My own righteousness was a failure, but I was not. My own righteousness was corrupt, but I was not. The voice stretched out its hand and picked me up from my fallen state on the grass. “Come, walk with me.” The garden had been beautiful from above, high on that mountain-top, but nothing could compare to its beauty now. A leaf brushed against my cheek it glided to the ground. I breathed in deeply and smelt the soft scent of the flowers. The cool, moist air alighted on my face, washing away the dirt and grime. From so close I could hear the birds, rustling the leafs of the trees, singing their soft serenades to each other.

“The righteousness of God.” I said, in awe of this once foreign idea.

The voice which walked with me turned, and smiled. “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

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