The students at my church, whom I love dearly, whom I would gladly do just about anything for (except for the typical stupid-youth-pastor stuff), have organized multiple benefit events to help my family with medical expenses. No one in my family is deathly ill, as one might think whenever the terms “benefit” and “medical expenses” are used. Rather, we’re just like a lot of American families who are besieged by medical costs in the 21st century: we make it, but just barely.
I’ve not talked about this much at all with anyone other than my wife and couple of close friends, mainly because I am ashamed that the kids believe my family is worthy of such lavish love.
Hello, my name is Jason, and I am a Christian who absolutely struggles with grace.
I am much more comfortable sacrificing. I don’t believe in a salvation that comes from works, but when it comes down to practical things, I’m quicker to work and suffer than I am to bask in unearned favor. Up until a few weeks ago, I wouldn’t have been able to articulate that truth; but now, thanks to the extravagant and beautiful love of a few teenagers, I’m forced to admit that I have a problem with the essential truth of the Gospel.
I’m not good enough, and yet God saved me anyway. And not just saved me, but fills me, indwells me, uses me, and loves me as His own.
To be honest, I like suffering and sacrifice because it makes a good shield against those people who aren’t gracious at all. That sounds stupid, I suppose, but there are people who constantly remind you that they don’t think you’re special, that they don’t see any reason why you should be treated better than they. In reality, their attitude has more to do with their own inherent selfishness than with my undeservedness, but the subtle slings and barbs sting all the same.
Often, people on the road to hell want nothing more than to take you with them. And so I like being able to point to my life and use my works as a defense against those who would want to remind me of my unworthiness.
But when people come alongside you and overwhelm you with love that simply cannot be justified by your life…well, that strips away those defenses. It lays you bare before God and everyone else, and it exposes you for what you are: unworthy. Imperfect. Flawed.
The human response is to either recoil from such love, or to lamely attempt to justify it. I know that’s certainly been the case for me. Before my students put their plan into motion, one of their parents came to me and asked for my permission, told me that if I didn’t offer my blessing, the kids probably wouldn’t go through with it.
I hesitated. The large part of me, the part that knows my flaws and sins and unworthiness, wanted to put and end to it right then. A simple no, and I could go on living my life comfortably uncomfortable. The justifications were plentiful: it’s a down economy; we’re not that bad off; I don’t want the kids getting hurt if people don’t respond the way they might imagine; I don’t want them to feel like they have to do this.
But at my core, in my soul, I felt a conviction that told me I couldn’t say no. That I was going to have to, as my friend Polly Sage put it, suffer in a different way: receiving a love I could never earn or repay. So I gave my blessing. And thus began one of the most powerful struggles of my soul, a statement I don’t make lightly. The only other time I have felt this conflicted was after my daughter, Ruthanne, was stillborn.
In death, most people retreat from you. There is an instinctive notion within the human heart that a person who is grieving needs space, and so people withdraw, leave you alone; they don’t look at your life or question what you do. You are anonymous in grief, and even though your soul and mind might be melting from the white-hot pain and confusion, you learn to find a desirable peace in the solitude. Your foibles and internal flaws remain yours and yours alone.
Life – love – is the opposite. It doesn’t leave you alone, it drags you onstage, warts and all, and proclaims from the top of its lungs that you are special, beloved, worthy. And it’s there, in the spotlight, that you as the object realize fully just how flawed and ugly and worthless you really are. And you feel acutely that the audience can see – if not all, at least some of – those same flaws. You can feel the eyes of judgment on you, even if those eyes are far fewer than your mind tells you. You know the truth, and yet you’re spoken of with such loving terms that you want to believe and run away all at the same time.
Folks, that’s the Gospel in a nutshell. And I’m struggling with it.
I am so blessed to have students who have listened to my incessant cries for the church to be more compassionate, less judgmental, more others-focused, more willing to help the poor and unfortunate. Not just because they are a beautiful picture of the ability of the youth of our world to shine brightly the Light of Christ, but because they are showing me that God’s love is greater, deeper, truer “than tongue or pen could ever tell; it goes beyond the farthest star and reaches to the lowest hell.” I just never expected that they would then turn that love on me.
But no one does. That’s why the persistent cry from the lips of Christ was that “God so loved the world, that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever would believe in Him would not die, but gain everlasting life.”
Today, I understand in an entirely different way, not just that God loves me, but that inside of that love are things I cannot comprehend, much less make my peace with. I am stripped naked, shown undone, and yet He still says, “Beloved.” Not because of me, but because that’s just who He is.
The same is true for you.
May you be so blessed as to discover the terror and wonder of that love so deep.