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.
Interesting approach. I am more inclined to say, “don’t linger on your shortcomings and ways you have acted wickedly.” That approach will only cause you to focus on your sin…and we become what we behold. Instead, let’s acknowledge our wrongs and repent (change our minds). Ask God for understanding and to show us why we acted wrongly (what false belief fueled the action). Then, focus on the Lord, his love, and my identity as his child. Of course, if someone criticizes me, it’s important to know why and take this to the Lord, not dismiss it. There’s probably (but, not always) a valid reason for criticism.
So, that’s my initial (defend my viewpoint) response. After reading your post, I’m reconsidering my approach and willing to see if it is out of balance. I think I tend to dwell on my sin and unworthiness too much so that I over-correct by telling myself that I need to immediately confess the truth of who I am in Christ and say “that person who sinned is not the real me….I’m a new creation.”
Good stuff to ponder. Thanks.
Yeah, I understand the problems with negative thinking. As you say, we begin to become what we behold.
Like many spiritual matters, it’s tricky. God is a trinity, but sometimes we treat God uni-personally, and sometimes we treat him like poly-theism.
We first fall in love with God when we realize he loves us as we are; and the power in that first falling in love is our own knowledge of our faults, and being overwhelmed that he loves us at the same time.
I think there is a way to continually do that, but we have to make sure we don’t slip to the left in despair or to the right in arrogance. We can recognize (not deny) our weakness BUT/AND/AT THE SAME TIME, we embrace God’s love for the unworthy. And his love changes us, it purifies us, it makes us into his true sons and daughters.
Thanks for your comments. I always appreciate it.
Yes, God has given me a new heart…one that can truly see my wretchedness and wickedness if I think I can do anything good in my own strength. The reality is that as long as we are earthbound, our flesh will want Christ to be an actor in OUR movie…the story we’ve “written” for ourselves, the movie we want to direct and star in.
Thanks for sharing.
As long … as we don’t get to proud of our seeing our wretchedness!
Like all spiritual matters, it often involves holding two seeming conflicting ideas in our heads at once. We are humbled because we don’t deserve it, but we are incredibly confident–even supremely so–because we know he loves us and has made us new.
Only God could invent something like that.
Good points Sam and GN. I prefer to keep my accounts short and not save them up in a list. We are supposed to be “Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead” (Philippians 3:13) Its true We must consider both the “kindness and severity of God” (Romans 11:22) but “The kindness of God leads to repentance” (Romans2:4). Focusing on His kindness automatically reveals our sinfulness. It is more fruitful to meditate on His loving kindness for we “become what we behold”. (2 Corinthians 3:18) As we grow in his character and become more like Him we will sin less. “ Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh”. (Galatians 5:16) God is not nearly as displeased with our falling as He is delighted in
our getting up. He knows what we are made of.
Thanks for commenting.
There are always good and bad ways to think about things. If I look at a friends success, I can be jealous of his success (and hope he fails), or I can rejoice for him (and hope God blesses him even more).
The same is true for looking at our sins. I can see them and feel condemned (which is not God’s plan), or I can be convicted and rejoice in God’s love when I don’t deserve it.
Yes, there are too many of us who feel constantly condemned (we probably all feel that at times), and the solution is to remember God’s kindness, as you say. But there are also many of us who only think of his love, forgetting the unmerited part of his love.
Even as we remember his kindness, it means we have to remember it is undeserved. Otherwise it wouldn’t be kindness. It is God’s kindness–the unmerited nature of his love–that leads us to joyful repentance.
If our list of sins leaves us feeling condemned, we are missing the package deal of God’s love–his incredible love that nothing can separate us from. It means no sin is greater than the greatness of his love. The Mt. Everest of his love squashes the molehills of our rebellion.
We really see his love when we remember his kindness is undeserved.
Thanks for sharing.
The only thing I know about grace is that I cannot understand it, but I can continually accept and be astounded by it. I don’t have a grasp on grace, but it has a grasp on me. The only two quotes I run continually through my mind about grace are; “It Is Finished,” JESUS, and “His grace is enough for me.” PAUL.
If those those two verse are all you remember the rest of your life, I think you’ll be living a rich life.
What I meant to say is; My grace is enough; it’s all you need. (MSG)