The apartments where The Lovely Joanne and I live are being pressure-washed today so they can be painted. Apparently if you don't wash the gunk off the outside first, the paint doesn't stick, then you get this peeling mess that looks worse than acne.
The same thing is true of humans. If we try to paint ourselves with good behavior, it won't stick. Trying harder just makes us more tired. Saying "I'll try harder next time" makes the people around us even more tired! But in our relationship with God, it doesn't start with our behavior -- or even with our hearts -- it started with his own actions for us. He cleaned us off first, through Jesus Christ; and the 'new paint' goes on as a result.
Rather than telling us that we have to behave ourselves, then believe him, then we can belong -- God started by changing the situation all on his own. He tells us that we belong to him, and asks us to believe it; and only then can our behavior be changed. It looks like this (with thanks to Ted Johnston for these three B's):
Belong: Colossians 1:12 says "giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the kingdom of light." And in verse 20, it says "and through [Jesus Christ] to reconcile to himself all things..." So the whole creation, and with it all humanity, has already been brought back into God's love and given a place of acceptance, through what Jesus already did. Colossians 2:13 says "when you were dead in your sins...God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins..." and that was before we did anything!
Believe: Our belief doesn't cause this to happen, or qualify us to receive it; it already happened on our behalf, when we were definitely un-qualified! Our belief only changes our thinking to help us see what is already true. Colossians 1:21-22 continues "Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your own minds because of your evil behavior. But now he has reconciled you by Christ's physical body through death..." and once we fully embrace that truth, we can rejoice and thank God.
Behave: In Colossians 1:10, we're told that this life of being re-united with God does have an effect: "And we pray this in order that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and may please him in every way, bearing fruit in every good work..." But that fruit only comes because we are already adopted into God's household; it's never a means to convince God to adopt us, because he already has. We start making a decision every day to live like what we truly are -- God's dear children.
"Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God" (Colossians 3:1). First things first: we do belong; we need to believe it, then and only then can we behave like it.
May we all learn to live within that truth.