What Grace Means: Vulnerability Over Self-Protection

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I screw up a lot.

I also sin a lot.

Sometimes those overlap, other times they are separate.

Here I am, telling you in my blog that I am a screwed up sinner.  A dear friend recently described me as “recklessly honest.”  She fully intended it as a compliment; I felt so affirmed by  it that I choked up.

I named my blog “Grace Is Greater” because, though I don’t want to speak in lingo, God’s grace for me is the center and the only hope of my life.  Because I screw up and sin a lot.  I don’t have any hope that I will stop either any time soon–like, say, within my lifespan.  Forty-seven years of life and a small degree of self-awareness convince me I’m right on this point.

I do have hope that, in spite of my screw ups and sins, God has a purpose for my life, I can enjoy being alive and even change the world for the better.  Awfully optimistic for a guy who claims self-awareness.

Jesus said, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”

So, cool.  I’m a majorly sinful screw up who hopes to have life abundantly.  I base that not on my abilities or virtues or how successfully I can navigate the minefield of relationships and finances and prestige.  I root my hope in God’s willingness to love me when I fail, when I disappoint my children and irritate my wife and do sub-par work. Not simply that God forgives me–because he does, which means I can forgive myself–but that he still adores me and delights in me and considers me worth having breathed life into this handful of dust.

I talk about my sin a fair amount, including in sermons.  That means I stand up in front of a bunch of people and tell them my ugly, hidden nastiness.  They wouldn’t know about the grossness in my heart, except that I make a point of letting them know.

One irony in this (there are several) is that I also happen to be ridiculously thin-skinned…part of what makes this life of mine ridiculous, the other part of my blog’s name.

I am offended far too easily, and it takes very little to hurt my feelings.  Oh, and I suck at forgiveness and have a great memory of offenses and slights.  That may not sound like an ideal personality for a guy to spout off about how awful he is.  Hmmm.

But here’s the deal:  I believe in grace.  I believe that instead of giving me what I deserve, God gives me what I will never be good enough to earn–his kindness, his love, his forgiveness, his joy.  God is merciful, meaning he doesn’t punish us even though we have it coming.  But mercy means choosing to forego punishment, or in this case, choosing to absorb the punishment himself.  Grace means giving something good when something bad is deserved.  When someone speaks rudely to you and you choose not to return fire, nor to give it back in some other form (slashed tires, stealing their lunch from the office fridge and replacing it with one of those stale sandwiches from a gas station) that is mercy.  Grace, though, is bigger than mercy.  When someone speaks rudely to you and you speak kindly in return, that is grace.  When someone has done something horrible to you behind your back, and instead of plotting their demise you forgive them, that is grace.  In this sense, true forgiveness is always grace.  God gives us that grace, then overflows us with more.  Jesus does not merely forgive us, he calls us friends and makes us his partners in loving the world.  He hangs out with us.  I can forgive you but decide that you are not safe company, ever again.  Jesus knows we aren’t safe company, and he sets up camp with no plan of abandoning us.  Ever.

If I do my best to convince you that I am a good, upstanding citizen who keeps his nose clean and always wears his Sunday smile, you might like me.  You might be impressed with me.  But you won’t know me.  And, immeasurably more importantly, you won’t know the grace I live by.

For me, an extrovert and a fairly relational guy, I can give a pretty good first impression.  I’m a good listener.  I care about people.  My wife is pretty and my kids are affectionate.  Maybe I can convince you that I am like this all the time.  Maybe it’s not even fake.  Maybe I just show you all my strengths and leave you to draw your own conclusions.  “Whoa, he’s a missionary, he can preach, and he can throw a disc seventy-five yards?  He must be God’s favorite!”

But tell me this:  what do we gain from that, you and I?  You will have an inaccurate picture of me.  If you have your own struggles (I’m going to take a wild guess here…) then you’ll conclude that I can’t relate.  You might wonder why God gives me this easy, together life when you drew a very different hand.  I get to feel proud that I’ve impressed you, while always scheming how I keep up the show.  Oh, and I get to know that your view of me and feelings toward me are based on a deception, or at best a very selective revelation of my life.

You’ve probably heard that before.  I just take it and extrapolate:  You don’t need to be impressed with me; you need to know that God doesn’t keep score, that he can and does forgive anything, that none of this has anything to do with being good enough.  None of it.  Not living a full life, not changing the world, and adamantly not being loved by God Almighty, the creator of snails, The Black Eye Galaxy and us.

It’s one thing to tell you that I mess up a lot.  I’m trying to tell you that I am messed up, and that doesn’t make a bit of difference to God.  It does mean that my wife’s work is cut out for her.  It does mean that I get to apologize more often.  But God has gifted me extravagantly, and he doesn’t take any of it back because I seem fond of shooting my own toes.  He’s always trying to persuade me to take my hand off the trigger, put the safety on, maybe even–ready for this–set the gun down.  I know, crazy talk.

Seriously, God has never given up on me.  Not during my youth when I seethed with anger and hatred and used people to make myself feel better, not after our son died and I raged against God for three years and told him to (just about lost my PG rating there), and not when I come back from committing the same sins in the same way even though I have asked forgiveness for this so many times I’m sick of hearing myself say it.

If you can relate to feeling like a trainwreck sometimes but still functioning, then know you aren’t alone.  God doesn’t love you less.  His grace is greater than your train-wreckedness.  I promise.  I’ve already scoped out that territory.

And if you wonder if God is getting tired of forgiving you, I’m quite sure he isn’t.  In fact, he’s never loved you more than he loves you right now, as you prepare for the 10,984th time to repent and ask him to help you stop.  Yeah, I’ve danced in that minefield, too.

Believing in grace, to me, means believing it’s too important to conceal.  I don’t do this perfectly.  Sometimes I try to keep my failures and sins to myself because I just feel too raw to have anyone look at me that way.  But people’s judgment really isn’t the issue, even though some days it feels  like it might be hydrochloric acid I’ve swallowed and that sensation is my organs getting eaten.  I’m getting over that.  It hasn’t killed me yet, so I’m starting to suspect it never will.  In contrast, I’ve had people tell me that hearing my struggles has helped save their lives and keep their faith.  That’s humbling.  It’s worth some writhing in misery discomfort.

Bottom line, either God looks good or I do.  The goal is not for me to look bad.  If I’ve done something well or acted faithfully, I can point to God for that, too.  But doing so has credibility because I’m very clear about the times when I’ve face planted and God picked me back up, when I waded into the miry clay and he pulled me right back out.

Theologically, there are many reasons to give God glory.  The most pragmatic is this:  you need to know who God is.  This is how I know.  My life does have a purpose, I do enjoy being alive, and–I’ll say it–I am changing the world for the better.  I get credit for exactly none of that.

I am loved.  Though trainwreck and wretch I may be, I am God’s beloved.

I take no credit for that, either.

It’s grace.