Jesus told a story about two men who entered a temple one day. The first was a deeply religious man who swept into the temple, chin held high, looking and acting as if he owned the place. He prayed aloud, "God, thank you that I am not like these other people--robbers, evildoers, adulterers--even this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get."
The tax collector, on the other hand, went in and stood off to the side. He couldn't even look up to heaven when he prayed. Head bowed, he prayed, "God have mercy on me, a sinner."
Is one of these men better than the other? Qualitatively better? The tax collector likely had cheated many people out of money. He probably sacrificed to pagan gods in order to get his job as a tax collector. He would have had to swear an oath of fealty to the Roman government, swearing to serve Rome above all others, even God. Meanwhile, the religious man probably did everything good that could be done. Not only did he follow all of the religious rules, he gave away a lot of his money.
I've had a question from a very good friend/reader about what I mean when I talk about this internal transformation that occurs through knowing Jesus. I am working on thinking about how to answer that question in light of my own story.
But I think that the story I just told was Jesus's answer to a very similar question. The internal transformation and change begins with acknowledging God and my need for God. God's story of ultimate reconciliation and redemption starts with broken relationships. Broken relationship with the Creator-God, with self, with other people, and with creation. Those relationships are broken because that first person looked at what God was offering and believed the lie that he could do better and get more by doing things his own way. Each one of us follows in his footsteps. Jesus called that a spiritual death.
Some people do things their own way by following a religion, even the Christian religion. Some people make following God into a list of rules and regulations and follow those things to a T. Some people do things their own way by developing a nonreligious standard by which to live and meeting that standard. Some people don't care one way or another and live out of what makes them feel good in the moment.
But Jesus offers a life of restored and reconciled relationships. It starts by recognizing that my relationship with God is broken because of my own pride, and there is nothing that I can do to bridge that brokenness. It starts by acknowledging that the Creator-God has some claim on my life because he created me and formed me and loves me.
Once I acknowledge those things and invite God to work in my life and walk with me, he begins to transform me and to move to heal those broken relationships. Once I understand my right relationship to God, one of humility and love and obedience, I can learn to walk in that way in all of my relationships.
There is still a battle--there is always a battle while we are still on earth. A battle between seeking to meet my own needs in my own way rather than trusting in God. A battle between doing what feels good and what brings me the most immediate sense of happiness rather than doing what illustrates the character of God and brings honor to his name. And each of those battles is an opportunity for transformation--it's an opportunity to invite God in, to be honest and humble about the struggle, and to ask for the power and the spiritual recreation that would enable the choice to follow Jesus. Over time, those tiny little decisions of surrender and invited transformation build character and a pattern of obedience that I believe changes and transforms the very essence of a person more and more into the image of Christ.
So it seems like, for Jesus, anyway, the single most important quality a person could have is humility in his posture toward God. From there, God can do anything to transform and recreate and make new and make good things. From there, the door to spiritual life is wide open.
You'll have to tell me what you think, but I can kind of see his point. I don't care how many great things that spiritual guy had done... I'd rather hang out with the tax collector any day.