Escaping the Rat Trap: How the True Jesus Solves Our View of Self

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This summer, the student authors of the Rooted Student Series give us a taste of the themes we explore in our upcoming book, The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School. As students either currently in high school, college, or just recently graduated, our writers offer us a fresh and unique perspective of the Jesus they got to know in high school or wish they had known when they were younger. Their stories and their wisdom will help youth leaders and parents guide their students through high school and point them to Jesus.  -Rooted Student Series Editor Lauren Center

In his must-read book Thoughts for Young Men, J.C. Ryle writes: “Young men, young men, I wish you did but know the comfort of a conscience not burdened with a list of youthful sins.” Or as I would say it, “Young men and women, I wish you did but know the difference of a high school experience grounded on a true understanding of Jesus.” 

My biggest problem in high school was not the weird soft smile I would wear on Snapchat, or the fact that “the dab” used to be my go-to dance move, or that my lunch was a nutter butter and a 20-ounce lemon-lime Gatorade; my biggest problem was my misunderstanding of Jesus. And let me be clear: the biggest problem for every student is a wrong understanding of Jesus. 

Like most youth group kids, I knew Jesus died for my sins, and I knew He did this even when I did not deserve it. But what I did not understand was that Jesus was going to continue saving me, despite my future sins. If I’m being honest with myself, I used to think Jesus died for my sins, and now the rest was up to me. This view of Jesus was like a spiritual rat trap; enticing bait, but it ultimately left me with a broken neck. 

Pride or Despair

I knew God wanted me to do good things, and I knew that He wanted to use me. So, I thought my use in the Kingdom was a direct result of how many good things I did. God was a vending machine. When I put in obedience, out came blessing. But this is a terrible formula for the self-righteous, sober student. 

Because my sins were much less public than others, I walked around the school halls with a badge on my chest labeling me “The Jesus guy,” and I loved it. In seasons of great “obedience,” I knew God was impressed with me, and I was smothered in pride. Deep down, I thought I was one of the best guys at my school, and as a result, I would often treat my agnostic and atheist friends horribly. My soul cried out, “God, look at me! I am reading my Bible, and I am praying. Aren’t you happier with me now?” 

But in the days when my private sins would arise and I had to come face to face with my sinful self, my pride turned into total despair. I knew I was a hypocrite. Every time I sinned, my soul cried out a different tune, “God, don’t look at me! I know I am wrong, and I promise I will gain back Your happiness with more work.”

The Christian View of Self 

Christianity is the only faith that gives us the right view of self. The true gospel solves the outcomes of “pride or despair.” Since people are saved solely on the basis of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, there is no room for either sinful outcome. You cannot be prideful if you know you have been completely and once and for all saved by grace because you did nothing to earn it. 

God is not impressed with your works apart from faith; He is too holy. He is a mountain we can never climb. As Jonathan Edwards strongly said, “your own care and prudence, and best contrivance, and all your righteousness, would have no more influence to uphold you and keep you out of hell, than a spider’s web would have to stop a falling rock.” 

But despair will not help either. When God looks upon us, He does not see our sin but the perfect, spotless righteousness of Jesus. In Egypt, God sent an archangel to kill the firstborn son of every family, but each Israelite son was saved by placing the blood of the Passover lamb on the door (Exodus 12). In the same way, Christians are protected from the holy wrath of God by the blood of the Passover Lamb, Jesus, who covers His blood over our sinful hearts. There is constant hope and joy for the sinner. If you are in Christ, His blood cleanses all your sin, and He will never let you go. 

An Exhortation

If you are like me and live in the constant pendulum swing of self-love and self-loathing, immerse yourself in the gospel story, because you have a misunderstanding of Christ. As the hen spreads her wings over her chicks and takes on hail to protect them, Jesus’ obedience on the cross is like an umbrella protecting His people from the due punishment we deserve (Luke 13:34). While we are still sinners, His perfection covers us. 

As Luther put it, at the same time we are righteous, we are also sinners. Saved and sinful simultaneously.  Therefore, God is not so easily impressed with you because He sees your true, sinful self, but He is also not so easily devastated by your mistakes because He has made you right in His eyes. You cannot boast in yourself because (in terms of your righteousness) you are sinful in the eyes of God. At the same time, you cannot hate yourself because Christ’s righteousness has covered you and made you a new creation pleasing in the eyes of God. You are unworthy yet totally worthy. 

If you’re reading this and you think salvation by grace is an excuse to sin, you have a misunderstanding of Jesus (Romans 6:1). We strive to live holy lives (Romans 12:1). We love to commit good works. We long to fulfill His moral law. Not because we are trying to achieve His favor, but because He has already given us His favor. I want to please my Father not so one day I will finally be his son, but I try to please my Father because I am already his son.

So to the 17 year old Leitner, please understand who Jesus is. Rejoice in God’s love for you! Don’t break your neck in a spiritual rat trap, but look to your Shepherd who has comfort for the weary and heavy-laden (Matt. 11:28). He will change how you view yourself, and He will give you everlasting peace. 

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