From good works to God’s grace.
by Virginia W. Gasper
Thirty years ago, l looked pretty good on the outside, if I say so myself. Unlike many who become Christians, leaving a life of worldly degradation, I spent my entire adult life trying to be a “good Christian.” I woke each morning determined to be better and holier than the day before.
But I was crabby, tense, and self-centered from trying to paint a thick coat of Christian whitewash over the filth I knew filled my heart. The more I struggled to love my neighbor, turn the other cheek, and take chicken soup to the sick, the more miserable I became.
Even worse, I grimly determined that our five children would also be coated with love, joy, peace, and all the other signs of a good Christian. They wiggled or fought through family devotions every night. When the church doors opened, I marched them in with fancy clothes and rebellious hearts. My kids were never allowed to miss a Bible School class, Vacation Bible School, or youth meeting.
Can you imagine the tension in our household as four bright, energetic boys and one independent girl fought to escape the saint-shaped molds their mother tried to squash them into daily? We were going to be “Christian” if it destroyed our family. And it nearly did.
Since TV was not allowed in our home and our church stressed good works more than the Bible, I heard very little about evangelist Billy Graham. One evening in the early 1960s, our neighbor called to ask us if we would like to come over to watch a Billy Graham crusade. I was not interested, and I convinced my husband he wasn’t either. But the children were ecstatic at the chance to watch the forbidden tube, so we let the two oldest troop through the hedge to “watch just that one program.”
David and Maggie came home strangely quiet and thoughtful. Dave handed me a piece of paper with an address scrawled on it. “If you send to this address, he will send you a good book. It’s free.”
I sent for Light on the Daily Path. I tried “religiously” to use it, but I could not understand it.
However, I underestimated God’s ability to meet me more than half way. Once the Billy Graham organization had my address, their magazine began to come monthly. I read it out of curiosity at first, then began to wait for it like a person starving for food. How close I was to the kingdom of heaven!
And yet how far. Proverbs 26:12 says “Do you see a man wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”
That verse sums up my first 40 years. Intellectual pride was a heavy chain binding me to a miserable life. I began to understand that I needed to ask Jesus into my life and heart.
But I was a college graduate. I belonged to a worldly suburban church. I considered myself well-read and intelligent. Too “wise” to fall for that “simple” stuff, I was an intellectual snob — wise in my own eyes but in reality a fool.
Not knowing how to deal with my inner turmoil, I began to read the Bible through, from Genesis to Revelation yearly. I didn’t understand most of it, but each morning one or two sentences would jump out at me, so I continued to doggedly stick at my task. Slowly, I began to realize I was often guided by some fragment of the Bible that floated unbidden through my head. Still, I was too proud to give God the credit. It had to be my own superiority!
Cracking the shell
God did not send trauma into my ordered life to force me to crawl to Him in humble acceptance. Instead He used a loving neighbor to convince me to attend a daytime Bible study taught by her pastor. It was January in Wisconsin, and I was shut in day after day with a rambunctious two-year-old and no car. When my neighbor mentioned a nursery, I agreed. Peace, quiet — and I would know my Bible better than those women.
Wrong! As the pastor called out verses for us to look up, it felt as if every woman in the room knew exactly where every book of the Bible was. I was sure most of them waited and stared while I leafed and pawed. My training had not included learning the books of the Bible. I listened, wondered, and felt my intellectual shell cracking painfully. I was relieved when we ended the study and broke for dessert.
Immediately, this young pastor singled me out to greet me. After a few remarks, he suddenly and unexpectedly asked me, “Mrs. Gasper, if you were to die tonight, are you sure you would live for eternity?”
My heart dropped. I felt my face flushing and my eyes shifting. I knew very well that after 40 years of working for it, I was less prepared for eternity that morning than I had ever been. I knew my selfishness, my anger, my self-pity, my doubt. I didn’t need to answer.
Gently he drew my Bible out of my hands and turned to Ephesians 2:8, 9. The lesson had been on the meaning and wonder of grace: “God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense.” This was totally new to me.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast.” Slowly his finger traced the words as he read.
At last, I understood! I saw clearly that all my efforts to paint a thick coat of Christian whitewash over my inner rot was keeping me from God, not helping me please God. But could it be this easy? I wanted desperately to feel God needed me. Surely I must do something.
The pointing finger moved slowly on to verse 10: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. “
“Don’t ask God to use you,” the young pastor said. “Ask Him make His home in your heart, and then He will use you.”
I met Jesus Christ face to face that bitter cold Wisconsin morning. My humble gratitude and contagious joy burst out of that inner tomb. Not too many weeks later, my husband also accepted Jesus as his Savior. As we changed, our home changed. Our two youngest sons were soon truly Christian and began wriggling out of the tight shells we had bound them into. Over time, God has molded them into the godly Christians He prepared in advance for them to be.
It has taken time and other influences in their lives, but God has been faithful to answer prayers for our three older children. Whenever I begin to decide they are not exactly where they ought to be spiritually, I feel myself grinning. It only took me 40 years, and then I had to start out as a baby in my Christian walk. I can be patient; God loves them more than I do.
What is more, as my pride was broken. Chicken soup and God’s love began to seep out of my heart. After 52 years of marriage, my husband and I are totally focused on loving Jesus Christ by letting God love the people He puts into our lives. I pray our children do not remember the whitewashed-tomb mother of their childhood. If they do, surely they will see that God’s grace is the only way to Christian freedom. Especially for intellectual snobs!
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.
About the Author