When I was growing up I was taught the Christian life by being given a list of things I should not do and a list of things I should do. If I didn’t do what I shouldn’t and if I did do what I should, I was spiritual. Since being spiritual was the highest goal of my life, I kept my lists diligently and became spiritual—or a least spiritually superior.

I don’t think that’s what those who loved me—my parents, Sunday school teachers, and youth group sponsors—intended for me, but that’s what happened. It was easy to keep the list—all you had to do was avoid the unspiritual and pursue the spiritual. I didn’t even need the Holy Spirit to keep the lists. Not bad at all. Until . . .

Until I needed mercy. I kept my lists. That was no problem. It only became a problem when I added a new commandment: thou shalt succeed—according to my standard of success. Unfortunately there was no way I could live up to my standard of success: being the best, the very, very best above everyone else in all my endeavors, especially the ones that mattered the most to me. Then I needed mercy I could never give myself, even though God had mercied me all along.

Now the lists were not an entirely bad idea. I’m glad I never became addicted to alcohol or cigarettes or pornography or engaged in immorality. I’m also glad I learned the disciplines of Bible study, prayer, and sharing my faith. That was all good. The unintended by product of it all—spiritual superiority—was the downside that blinded me to my desperate need for mercy and the grace related to it. After all, if you’re spiritual you don’t need mercy.

When I failed according to my standard, not God’s, I felt sure He would fire me because that’s what I would do with anyone who failed the way I did. I didn’t realize how spiritually bankrupt I was or how broken I needed to become or how desperately dependent I was or how radically I needed to be comforted or how driven I was. I mean, if you’re already spiritually superior, why would you need these things? They were only for the weak, not for a strong man such as I. Then came failure. And then came mercy.

God didn’t fire me or turn away from me. Instead, He opened up new doors, new and greater opportunities I could not possible deserve. God was merciful to me, a sinner. And now I say what I always needed to say: Mercy me! What else can a spiritually bankrupt, broken, and desperately dependent man say? What else?