image description: chairs in Branford Courtyard at Yale
In the thick of my second, and definitively more challenging, semester at Yale, I am becoming increasingly more aware of the temptation to run on autopilot—to exist in a sort of survival mode, doing what needs to be done without paying much attention to anything else. In my attempt to continue meeting the academic standard of excellence I had put in place for myself, there were times at the beginning of the semester where I cut out many of the things that brought joy to my life—weekly large group with YSC (Yale Students for Christ), reading for fun, writing poetry, making time for friends, having quiet time in the morning to spend with Jesus, journaling, sleep. After a few weeks of trying not to fall into bad academic habits, I realized I had instead fallen into a detrimental lack of rest, release, and joy.
Psalm 39:1-2 speaks to this phenomenon of striving to justify oneself by works to such an extent that the psalmist instead fails to do what is right. We witness firsthand the lament of a man trying to avoid actively sinning (“I will watch my ways and keep my tongue from sin; I will put a muzzle on my mouth while in the presence of the wicked”) to such an extent that his striving turns to passively sinning (“So I remained utterly silent, not even saying anything good”). The lament goes on in the summative proclamation of verse three: “But my anguish increased; my heart grew hot within me.” David tells us in artful yet unambiguous language that carrying the responsibility of dodging sin on our own results in exactly that which we were seeking to avoid.
While Psalm 39 clearly explains the practical implications of striving to manage our sin by ourselves, it does not explain why we fail to manage our sin—nor does it explain why such attempts at sin-management not only lead to sin, but to anguish.
Centuries after David wrote Psalm 39, Paul addresses this dynamic in Galatians 5:4: “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.”
This verse speaks to the struggle of striving to be justified by the law—a struggle David faced as he wrote Psalm 39, and which many, if not the majority, of us face today. Especially as students at an institution like Yale, the urge to justify ourselves by our works extends beyond our faith. I can scarcely think of a single Yale student who has not, at some point or another, compared their classes, extracurriculars, or general experiences with peers and friends. Further, most people I know feel a sense of pressure to ‘keep up’ by ever-planning meals, joining more clubs, taking more jobs, and adding more to their resumes. Though some of these activities may help prepare them for their future careers, much of the striving to ‘keep up’ by staying busy and involved is striving for self-justification.
Despite addressing the near-universal urge to justify ourselves spiritually, academically, personally, and professionally by our own works, at first glance, Galatians 5:4 denotes feelings of hopelessness. Language such as “alienated” and “fallen away” is not comfortable.
Yet an analysis of this verse both syntactically and semantically suggests otherwise. The passive words “have been alienated” indicate that those trying to be justified by the law have not been alienated from Christ by Christ; rather, that the action of striving to justify themselves has alienated them. Again, the passive “have fallen away” suggests the same: Christ has not actively caused us to fall away. He did not, does not, want this for us.
For some, this may seem more discouraging. If Christ had alienated me and caused me to fall away, it would have been out of my hands—but you’re saying it’s my responsibility?
Rather than suggest that we need to strive more to be reunited with Christ and re-established under the throne of grace, Paul in Galatians 5:4 is saying that we get to cease our striving. That we are justified by the grace demonstrated through Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross. Our closeness to him is maintained not by “trying to be justified by the law”—as David demonstrates in Psalm 39, and as each of us demonstrates in our daily lives—but by truly trusting that his grace is sufficient for us (2 Corinthians 12:9). That we do not actually need to continue striving to justify ourselves. That we do not need to continue overwhelming our schedules as an end in itself.
The Gospel—which was unavailable to David as one who lived before the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ—made possible Paul’s wisdom on the struggle of striving to justify ourselves by the law. This is the same Gospel which makes possible our own realization of God’s free gift of grace today.
As we focus on re-centering our hearts on our Maker this Lent season, my prayer for myself and the Church is that we might find the courage to cease our striving and accept justification through grace—a gift we are incapable of earning yet nonetheless given by a gracious, loving Father to his cherished, undeserving children.
Maddie Soule is a first-year at Yale planning on majoring in English.