I know it’s sometimes hard to see signs of grace when it comes to religious circles. Especially those cast in the media limelight. Christianity is passed around these days like an old glove that seems to fit just about any hand, but not every hand that wears the glove is a Christian hand.
And grace still matters.
Throughout my teenage years the church was a lifeline that allowed me to escape the effects of an imploding family dynamic. But as I grew older, and made a series of terrible choices, I found myself slipping further away from the church I had come to think of as my second family. And as I slipped further away there were no hands reaching out to pull me back in. I found myself in a self-made vacuum where my choices kept me from seeking help from the church, but also kept the church at a distance from me.
Now, let me say one thing to this point. People are people, whether they’re religious people or not. I’m not blaming anyone in my childhood church for my choices. Those were mine to own. Most of the people in my church were good-hearted, and they all led busy lives like most of us do. It’s easy to blame the church, but we’re all guilty of not paying attention to those around us who might be drowning.
I will say, though, that while going through that time, I certainly felt forgotten. It felt like a great big door had closed on my life, and while those behind the door were supposed to be my friends, instead of going after me in the flames they stood back and watched me burn. Perception isn’t always reality, but this feeling has haunted me for a long time, and its one of the reasons I still struggle finding comfort within the modern church.
But what I learned from stepping outside the church walls was an incredible lesson that would forever change the way I saw God. No matter what choices we make, no matter how far we feel we have drifted, his grace is a powerful hand that is/ waiting to pick us back up and put us on our feet again.
Grace is transformative. It is purpose driven, which allows it to be patient and longsuffering. Grace is an extension of the kind of revolutionary love that this world desperately longs for.
And sadly, this form of grace is not often found within the traditional church walls.
I spent several years going down a road of recklessness and self-destruction, only to find that God was never far, no matter how distant I felt from his love. His grace is ready and willing to enfold us when we reach the end of ourselves, and its the only thing capable of restoring our lives when we have made a mess of it. I don’t think I could have discovered that inside the church. Others have, I’m sure of it. But for me, the authentic form of grace that turned my head upward was found in the gutter.
Jesus told the Pharisees (Mark 2:16) that he didn’t come for those who were well, but for those who were sick and needed a physician. It’s funny because we are all sick and in need of restoration, but what makes this exchange even more interesting is that the Pharisees, who were scrutinizing Jesus for eating with tax collectors and prostitutes, were themselves much like what many people view the evangelical church today. Jesus called them white washed tombs, because they took great effort to make themselves look good on the outside, but inside they were rotten. And when they found Jesus ministering to the “sinners” it offended them. Eventually they even killed him for it.
But Jesus came to this world with a purpose. It was to restore what has been lost and to free what has been held back. We would do well to remember this as we argue over sin and who should and shouldn’t sit in the pews of the church. We often get hung up on the obedience and righteousness part, and both are important to the Christian experience, but we forget what lays the foundation for those two things to even happen. We obey him because we love him, and we love him because he loved us first. And how did he show us his love?
Transformative grace meets us where we are. It sets the stage for repentance, and creates the condition in which all the other things (obedience and righteousness) take place. The heart must change before the actions of the person will change.
Grace changes hearts.
“Then Jesus told them this parable: Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me, I have found my lost sheep’. I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.”
Notice the sheep is not beat for wandering away. It’s not euthanized. Instead its carried tenderly back to the flock.
What an outstanding picture of the heart of God. He will stop at nothing to go after the one who has slipped away, and when he finds that person he will carry them home rejoicing. Hearts are restored. Wounds are wrapped up and healed.
There is no better image of grace than that.