“Sanctification will be marked by penitence more than perfection.” – Kevin DeYoung
How many of us remember playing Super Mario?
We played through countless levels as the plumber in overalls. We raced through each level hopping on shells, collecting mushrooms, and entering each castle hoping Princess Peach would be there.
For those like me, I struggled with video games. Thumb/eye coordination was a gift I lacked. At school when other kids would brag about what level they got to or how they beat the game and on their third time through, I felt inferior. I wasn’t as good as them. I could not pass the levels like they could.
Did you ever feel frustrated at a video game as you could not beat the levels like others could?
Ever feel frustrated as you see other Christians “zip through the levels” of their Christian life, and you are stuck on level three? Ever feel like you are playing a Super Mario version of the Christian walk?
Seeing Failure in Scripture
Reading the Bible daily and meditating on it is one thing we encourage each other to do.
Ever read a passage and felt like a complete failure? For example, have you read Psalm 15? The passage speaks about those who can approach God’s holy temple. A list is given. Many of us read such a list, and the first thing we see is how much we don’t measure up. For those who feel the call to ministry may read a passage like I Timothy 3:1-7, and will feel all the shame of not being at that level.
Sadly, for many of us we do not see God’s love or grace or forgiveness in Scripture. We only see our failure. We know passages like 1 John 1:9 and stories like Luke 7:36-50, and we see the love, forgiveness, and grace of Jesus. But, as we look at our lives, we feel more like a Romans 1:18-32 Christian. We may be saved, we hope God forgives us, but all we see is our failures. All we see is how we are unlike Christ (well, more like how we are unlike the other Christians around us).
We feel like we conquer things in life, get ahead, only to find out that the princess is not in the castle. We feel like we run out of lives and exhaust the grace of God.
This is a reality for many of us. Yet, we keep silent. We play the level over and over only living in frustration. Is there any way out?
The Leveling Up Myth
In the world of video games, one of the common features is that of characters leveling up. As we play the game, our characters will (or we hope they will) level up and become better. In Super Mario, eating a mushroom will make Mario stronger, and eating a fire flower will allow him to shoot fireballs (my personal favorite).
In the Christian life, we tend to view our sanctification the same way. We want to become more mature Christians (which is not a bad goal). However, for us to get there, we eat as much Scripture as we can consume. We pray and pray. We attend church as frequently as possible. We attend small groups, post verses, give out tracts all in hopes to “level up” our Christian maturity.
There are many reasons why we do this. But, there is one main one – to be seen as perfect. However, what does God say in Philippians 1:6? He was the one who started this glorious work is going to be the one to finish it. Galatians 5:22-23 talks about the fruit of the Spirit. It is not our fruit where we work and work till it appears. No! It is the work of the Spirit. The first part of II Corinthians 5:14 states it is Christ’s love which drives us. It is not us! The goal of wanting to be seen as this mature, perfect Christian is not biblical unless it is driven by Christ’s love.
When we degrade the sanctification process to how much we can do, we liken it unto an addict hoping to get a better life through taking more ecstasy. A work-based Christian life erases Christ’s work on the cross. We make it about us in order to brag about how good we are in comparison to others (II Corinthians 10:12). When all we do is measure each other by ourselves, our “goodness” comes from an image rather than from the righteousness of Christ.
It is by grace we are saved, and it is by grace we are prepared for things God has called us to (Ephesians 2:8-10). Living the Christian life as one “leveling up” spits on the grace and work of Christ.
More than a List
So what should be our Christian life?
It is not a life of “leveling up.” It is not a life fixated on how much we are a failure. It is more than a list. It is more than just put off and put on. We fixate our minds on those lists, because we want it to become about us and our image. However, when we look at the Epistles, we see many chapters leading to those infamous lists.
For example, the book of Ephesians starts off with three chapters dedicated to displaying the love of the Father, the work of Christ, the spiritual blessings we have, and the wondrous mystery of grace (Ephesians 1-3). If we miss who we are, then we will miss how to live. We are a saved, redeemed people by the grace of God through the work of Christ. We do not have to do anything to gain God’s love. He loves us. These lists are an outpouring of grace. When we live a life of relying on God’s grace, we begin to be transformed.
Scripture isn’t about what we can do to please God. It isn’t about how to pass each level. Scripture is about God loving us so much he comes to live among us in order to redeem us (John 1:14). Scripture is about God’s love. He knows our mess. He knows us even before we understand ourselves (Psalm 139:13-16).
When we begin to see this in our Bible reading, we begin to be transformed. When we feel like failures, God reminds us that we cannot do it on our own. Why would Jesus come if we could be the perfect Christian?
Living in Game Over
I have been here. I still struggle with this. I lived in a mindset where my value as a Christian were measured by how much of an image I could obtain. I struggle with so much in my life. I prayed for God to take away these struggles. I memorized verses, I attended church, went for counseling, spent hundreds of dollars on books hoping I could change. All around me I saw Christians “leveling up,” and reaching new heights. I was stuck on a level that seemed unbeatable.
I was frustrated, depressed, and it drove me to a dark place. March 2020 arrived. I was so depressed about how I could not reach where I thought I needed to be that I thought “Game Over” was my only option. Yes, I tried to end the game, but something shouted at me to stop.
God stopped me and he caused me to realize that I was living my faith like Super Mario. I was comparing myself to others. Proverbs 29:25 illustrated how my life was being lived. I wasn’t fearful of the world. I was fearful of other Christians and churches. God created me to be me with my struggles and my ups and downs. He loves me even though I do not look like other Christians around me. It is my faith before him. We are all different body parts of a church showing the love of Christ (I Corinthians 12:12-27). My Christian life will look different than your’s, and your’s will look different than mine.
Living a Super Mario faith just about killed me. Each day I need to remind myself that God loves me as who I am and where I am. The hardest part is accepting myself (with all my quirks) as God intended me to be. This is an ongoing battle. But, I had to put down the gaming system, and turn to the art canvas that God made me to be.
I always thought this line from Beauty and the Beast was the motto of my life – “For whoever could ever learn to love a beast?” But, someone does. His name is Jesus. He tells me I am loved, I am forgiven, and I can rest (John 3:16; Romans 8:1; Matthew 11:28)
I do not have to live with a “game over mindset,” because the Christian life isn’t a game. The Christian life is a life of being an artwork sculpted into the image God wants me to be.
Frankly, My Dear…
Living out our faith like a game of Super Mario will only lead to a life of frustration. Comparing ourselves to others and running after an image will only lead us to a life not following Christ, but following an entrapped pharisaical mindset.
When we emphasize image, we erase the transforming grace of God. Sure, we will not look like how certain religious institutions and churches want us to. But, we will be living as God’s artwork and not as a sweaty and frustrated individual.
There are two movie quotes that stand out to me as we look at a Super Mario faith.
In The Princess Diaries, Joe tells Mia (after her transformation) that, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” How true this is. No one can make you feel inferior without God’s consent. He’s the one who is transforming you. You are never an inferior person when our Creator is the one who is working on you.
However, people will try to make you feel inferior. They will try to shame you and feel guilt over things you are doing and the path you are taking. They will tear you down and manipulate you back on to their way of living. To that, comes my second movie quote. You can turn to them and say the most famous quote in all of cinematic history from Gone with the Wind, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.”
When we allow others to make us feel shame and inferior to them, we will never fully live as God created us to.
Psalm 9:10 promises us God will never abandon us and never put us to shame. It is not because we fit another Christian’s image. It is because we seek him. Our paths look different. Our stories are different. God loves diversity. It is more than diversity of culture and race. It is a diversity of stories.
I still struggle with a Super Mario faith mindset. Sometimes it can drive me to despair, but I need to remember that it is not based on other’s opinions of me, but God’s opinion. So NEVER AGAIN will I live in “Game Over.” We should never live like that.
John Flavel said, “Did Christ finish his work for us? Then there can be no doubt but he will also finish his work in us.”
Our walk with Christ is not about leveling up. It is about being transformed from the cursed beast into the prince who’s Father is the King of kings.
Dedicated to the one who reached out, continually teaching me this, and who I promised to, “Never Again.” Thank you. I am beyond grateful you are in my life.