The Quicksand of Merit

I grew up in a quaint little town called Aiken, South Carolina. Aside from having beautiful tree-lined streets with Southern charm and being known for its equestrian roots, Aiken also boasted of Hitchcock Woods, one of the largest urban forests in the nation. Sprawled out over 2,100 acres smack-dab in the center of the town, the woods were serene and historic and enchanting.

There was something absolutely peaceful about walking into these endless woods with the poorly-drawn, terribly unhelpful maps that were placed at the trail heads. I had heard that there was actual quicksand in Hitchcock woods, and I was determined to find it. In my mind, I had an image of quicksand as it is often depicted in movies, a giant pond of unset concrete ready to swallow up horses or people or houses. I was sorely disappointed to find that, in reality, Sand River was actually a small strand of sand running through the forest. You honestly would not have known it was there if the map had not clearly indicated where to look. It wasn’t wet and it wasn’t gaping; it was neither exciting nor overt.

The book of Deuteronomy captures Moses’ last words and reminders to the people whom he had helped lead out of slavery in Egypt. Moses had been with these people for 40 long years of wandering in the wilderness, and he knew that he would not have the privilege of leading them into the Promised Land, though he deeply longed to do so. Rather, he had a good long look at the land that they were about to claim and a good long talk with the people he had come to know and love deeply.  He beautifully recounts their short history together, reminding them of the series of incredible and tragic events that had brought them to where they now were, the edge of the Promised land. He also peppers these accounts with heartfelt charges and warnings as to how they were to live once settled in their own land.

Over and over again, almost to the point of redundancy, Moses tells the people to remember the basis, the cause of the great gifts that the Promised Land was to offer them was not themselves or their own merit but the promises and character of the Lord.

Then it shall come about when the Lord your God brings you into the land which He swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to give to you, great and splendid cities which you did not build, and houses full of all good things which you did not fill, and hewn cisterns which you did not dig, vineyards and olive trees which you did not plant, and you eat and are satisfied, then watch yourself, that you do not forget the Lord who brought you out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. Deuteronomy 6:10-11.

The Lord did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of all the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But because the Lord loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the Lord brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery. Deuteronomy 7:7-8.

Beware that you do not forget the Lord your God…otherwise, when you have eaten and are satisfied and have built good houses and lived in them, and when your herds and your flocks multiply and your silver and your gold multiply, and all that you have multiplies, then your heart will become proud and you will forget the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…Otherwise you might say in your heart, “My power and the strength of my  hand made me this wealth.” Deuteronomy 8:11-14 and 17. 

Know then, it is not because of your righteousness that the Lord your God is giving you this good land to possess, for you are a stubborn people. Deuteronomy 9:6. 

You would think that, standing there on the verge of the Promised land, full of pagan tribes and cultish practices Moses would have had many obvious warnings for the people of God. The land flowing of milk and honey was also chock full of obvious dangers and pits that God’s people could have fallen into. Yet Moses obviously felt that the greatest threat to God’s people was a subtle tendency to slip into a system of merit, whereby they began to believe that they were blessed and chosen because of their nature rather than because of God’s gracious nature.

Out of all the things Moses wanted to tell his people in his last speech to them, He most mentioned the grave danger of the subtle quicksand of self-righteousness or merit. The danger he most alerted them to wasn’t glaring or overtly provocative, it the subtle and slow peril that gradually comes as we begin to trust in our own merits rather than the gracious character of our God.

We forget so easily that we have done nothing to merit the grace of God in our lives; we forget how deeply enslaved we were, how desperate for someone to lead us out of bondage; we forget how often we fail and how deeply we disobey. In a land of abundant blessing and grace upon grace, we begin to subtly think that we have done well, that we are better than “the world,” that we have merited the favor of our Lord.

The quicksand starts to swallow us and we sink. When we realize we are stuck in a merit-based approach to God yet again, what are we to do?

The answer is not to try to do anything, as that only reinforces a merit-based approach to God. Supposedly struggling to get out of quicksand actually causes you to sink further down.

We must cry out and ask for Him to gently draw us out of the slippery sand of merit and back onto the rock of His great grace.

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