My parents made sure that all of my siblings and I took piano lessons when we were children. I’m not sure if it was based on studies that showed beneficial academic side effects, or just to give us an appreciation for the discipline. Regardless of the reason, with practice, I got to the point where I could play some classic and popular songs, as well as hymns. However, despite the ability to mechanically follow the notes and even accompany others once in a while, I had to face the facts: Unlike some of my siblings, I did not have the gift of music! As a result, while some of them have continued to build upon their musical skills, mine are mainly limited to pressing the “Play” button.
As I will sometimes explain the difference: I can play notes, but those in my family with musical talent can play music. I still appreciate the musical education that I received, and continue to enjoy good music (of many kinds) today, but my efforts weren’t enough to overcome the fact that this was not a gift I was blessed with.
In the book of Isaiah, it seems that God’s people – having been punished for falling away – realized that even their “good deeds” were insufficient for them to demonstrate their own righteousness to a holy God. Whether their current behavior was so far away from the righteousness of their ancestors that it was obviously sinful, or whether they realized that their attempts at righteousness still fell short of God’s perfect nature, the gap was clear.
For all of us have become like one who is unclean,
And all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment;
And all of us wither like a leaf,
And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.
ISAIAH 64:6 NASB
No matter how “good” our actions might be, they cannot make up for our past rebellion. There is no one who – marred by past choices to reject God’s instructions – can somehow become good enough again for a perfectly holy God.
Still, there are many – both followers of Jesus, and those who continue to reject His Lordship – who try to do “good” things: being generous, telling the truth, not taking advantage of others. Even people who don’t accept God’s message can still understand the basics of right and wrong. By following their conscience, social pressure, or other forces, some of them seem like pretty good people, good friends, and good citizens.
However, while individual good deeds might represent the “notes” of God’s commandments, they aren’t the “music” of true righteousness. Without a basis in a life that has been redeemed by – and surrendered to – Jesus Christ, the song of our lives is (at best) a mechanical imitation of what we are called to perform. In order to find the passion, emotion, and beauty of God’s purpose for each of us, we must acquire the gift of living according to His plan and direction.
The same chapter of Isaiah gives us the solution, though:
But now, O LORD, You are our Father, We are the clay, and You our potter; And all of us are the work of Your hand.
ISAIAH 64:8 NASB
Once our past sins are covered by Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, we can only become what we were created to be by allowing God to guide our actions. As the Great Potter, only He can shape us into becoming what we are meant to be. By discovering the skills that He has given us (even if that means discovering which skills He did not give us), combining them with the opportunities that He provides us, and living as the Holy Spirit guides us, we can find both our fullest potential and our purpose.
God is the Great Conductor of history. He doesn’t “program” us to play a certain way (like someone remixing a recording afterwards on a computer). Instead, He coaches and trains us to play our part, finding the intonations and subtleties that – while they are consistent with the score (His Word) – allow us to make the most of each opportunity. He doesn’t force us to do so, but when we follow His leading, we – along with others who are doing the same thing – become part of the greater symphony that He has composed.
When we are truly living in harmony with God, we find harmony with others, and with His plan. So, don’t just try to “do good things”. Let God direct you into the life of righteousness and purpose that He composed just for you.