Several months ago I wrote an article about the joy of pausing in the moment of confession; telling God about my total unworthiness, acknowledging my wrongs, and even admitting ways I acted wickedly. I suggested we stop right there in that moment.
A Christian leader canceled his subscription and emailed me to explain. He said my suggestion that “we chronicle our wrongdoing” is “just wrong.” His approach in life is to remember he is made in the image of God and that he has been given a new heart.
Then he explained how he deals with criticism. When friends say he “seems arrogant,” he says that they confuse his confidence with arrogance; but they can have his high level of confidence if they would just realize their own goodness. He suggested I try it.
My inner response was a bit different. I thought, “What a jerk! Doesn’t he know the difference between gospel confidence and worldly arrogance? Can’t he examine himself honestly when others criticize him?”
The more I thought about it, the more confident I became that his approach is just wrong. And the more I thought of him, the more I became … arrogant.
Like my friend, and many before him, in my attempts to feel good about myself, I abandoned grace. I realized I often really misunderstand grace.
Many of us misinterpret grace, because grace is an ecosystem.
An ecosystem is a complex set of interdependent parts. They are interdependent because they rely on the other members of the environment for their own life.
Yellowstone Park was formed to preserve an incredibly beautiful and varied ecosystem. But early in the park’s history, “bad” predators such as wolves were hunted to extinction. When the wolves were eliminated, the elk herds expanded exponentially, and the entire ecosystem—plants, landscape, and other animals—began to collapse.
Virtually every Christian culture claims to love the idea of grace. What’s not to like? But we only like parts of grace, we reject the package. And our grace ecosystem collapses.
When Yellowstone got rid of the “bad” animals, the “good” animals began to die too. When we rid grace of the parts we don’t like, the good parts die too. If we want a confident and humble life, we need to understand (and embrace) the interacting elements of grace.*
The complementary—seemingly conflicting—components of grace
The gospel means that we were so broken—the puritan preachers said we are so wicked!—that the only cure was the death of God’s Son, AND we also are so loved that Jesus suffered for the joy of a having us back again.
Some preachers like the “we are so wicked” part, but they are silent about the love part. Their messages leave us condemned, insecure, constantly striving, and joyless. We never know if our hard work is good enough. Because it isn’t.
Some preachers like the “we are so loved” part, but they are quiet about our sins. Those messages don’t change us either. Of course we’re loved. We’re good people. I’m okay and you’re okay. That love hasn’t electrified us. We’re still angry, anxious, and arrogant.
Earned-love isn’t awe-love. Of course we’re loved, we are quite attractive. But earned-love is fragile. In the twinkling of an eye, we lose our beauty in an accident, lose our wealth in a stock rip-off, or lose our athletic prowess through an illness.
When my wife married me, she thought I was Prince Charming; I opened doors, tipped the wait-staff, and paid attention to her every word. Only after marriage did the Ogre in me appear; I was irritable, inattentive, and demanded the remote.
But it was her love for me in my Ogre-ness that changed me. If she could love as I grabbed the remote, she finally offered a love that created confidence. And humility.
Grace-love isn’t marrying Prince Charming; grace-love embraces the Ogre.
When we first meet the Lord as a person, we are amazed that a God so great could love us who are so small. We are aware of our unworthiness and moved by his unmerited love. We sometimes try to recapture those lost feelings of long ago.
The only way to recapture that awe is to embrace the whole ecosystem. Yes, we’ve been given new hearts, but not because of our innate goodness. God’s unmerited love creates and sustains.
Sustaining the joy of unmerited love means an ongoing recognition that we still allow weeds of greed (arrogance, pettiness, jealousy, and anxiety) to grow in our hearts. As we admit our weeds, and as we recognize God still loves us, then (and only then) will we recapture that love we had at first.
It’s both/and … not either/or
Unmerited love means we are both loved and unworthy at the same time. We continually know our unworthiness, and we continually know that we are loved. That’s when the wonder of grace continually explodes—over and over—in our hearts.
Meditating on God’s grace—the whole ecosystem—will cause a nuclear explosion of joy. It’s the only joy that finally empowers us to live the lives we were designed for, lives of humble confidence, and confident humility.
As I criticized my friend’s arrogance I fed my own Ogre-ness. The last thing our ecosystem needs is more Ogres.
* See Tim Keller’s article, Gospel movement.