The following was excerpted from Nick Lannon’s fantastic new book Life Is Impossible: And That’s Good News—a fundamental distillation of the law and the gospel in everyday life. This comes from the third chapter “Mission: Difficult.”

I have heard the Christian life described in many different ways. Some have compared it to a race, or a job, or a train trip, or any number of other things. But the description of the Christian life that has stuck with me for the longest was one offered by my friend Jono Linebaugh (he’s now Dr. Jonathan A. Linebaugh…but back then, he was just Jono) in a Mission and Evangelism class in seminary. He gave this description as part of a personal testimony: the Christian life, he said, was like a mountain surrounded by a gated fence. The goal is to get to the top of the mountain, to be close to God. The Good News about Jesus Christ, Jono said, was that he had come from heaven to earth—come down the mountain—to open the gate in the fence. It was then up to the Christian, through hard work and dedication, to climb to the top of the mountain, to get to God.

This was exactly the idea of the Christian life I had grown up with: Jesus gets you in, but it’s up to you to improve your standing. In Jono’s defense, he went on to say that though he had grown up with this picture of Christianity, he had come to understand that this wasn’t the true Gospel. I mean, after all, didn’t Jesus say, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30)? How often I had considered those words and wondered at how falsely they rang. My early Christian life did not seem easy, nor my burden light. In fact, Jesus seemed to have added burdens to my life! Now, as a Christian, I needed to be careful about my language, the kinds of movies I watched, the music I listened to, the politicians with whom I agreed, and on and on. I had worried about none of these things before I became a Christian. And popular Christian culture didn’t seem to be doing me any favors either.

You’ve heard things like “God helps those who help themselves,” right? And “God will go ninety-nine yards if you just go one”? Or “Jesus is a gentleman”? There’s also a famous painting called The Light of the World by William Holman Hunt that depicts Jesus about to knock on a door that’s covered in vines, having clearly gone unopened for years. Tellingly, Hunt has painted no knob on Jesus’ side of the door…it must be opened from the inside. Jesus is just waiting on you to do one little thing (open the door) so that he can come in and do all of the required housecleaning. All of these cultural touchstones put the pressure on the Christian to do the climbing of Jono’s metaphorical mountain. But notice who has to do the hard work! It’s you! You’re still the one who has to climb the mountain. It all depends on you. Think about it: if God helps those who help themselves, then the whole system depends on you helping yourself. Only then can (or will) God step in and help you. Even if God is willing to go ninety-nine yards, he is paralyzed until you go your one. Again, the whole system depends on you. If Jesus is a gentleman, then the whole system depends on you inviting him in. If there’s no knob on Jesus’ side of the door, the whole system depends on you undoing the latch. Do you hear the refrain? It seemed to me that, as I heard it normally discussed in the Christian culture, the whole system depended on me. God was ready to do his part, but I had to do mine first. That yoke is not easy. That burden is not light.

Saving yourself is impossible. I think that most Christian people would say that. But “helping” yourself, and counting on God to do the rest? That just sounds difficult. Going one hundred yards is impossible. But going one yard, and counting on God to do the rest? That sounds doable. Unlocking the door for a gentleman Jesus sounds doable too. If the impossible is rare, and the difficult is common, then the whole system depends on you. And make no mistake: a system that depends on you is terrible news. […]

The Christian intersection is this: the more capable we feel as humans, the less likely we are to admit to a need for a savior. The theological way to put this is that as one’s anthropology (view of humanity) rises, one’s Christology (view of Christ) falls. If it were true that God helped those who help themselves, then hard work and strong belief would be necessary ingredients to a Christian life. But, thank God, that phrase is not found anywhere in the Bible. By contrast, Jesus consistently seemed to go to those who could not help themselves: the lame, the sick, even the dead. He even went so far as to make his mission to the helpless explicit: “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).

It is good news, indeed, for those of us who can’t do just anything we set our minds to, or even get through an average day in our very average lives, that God helps the helpless. The first step to understanding that Good News, then, is to admit that you’re helpless—what the church has traditionally called “confession”—and that “you can do anything you set your mind to” is just a platitude. As the saying goes, the first step is admitting you’ve got a problem. As we’ll see in the next chapter, that’s God’s first goal with his revelation to us: to convince us that our situation is bad enough to warrant a savior. God’s second goal, as we’ll further see, is to assure us—and sinners everywhere—that our savior has come.

Life Is Impossible: And That’s Good News is now available through the online Mockingbird store (where you can also find our offering of books, as well as a selection of new merchandise). This book is also available at Amazon where all positive reviews help spread the word!