A few years ago I had to find another doctor. My previous one couldn’t help me. He was able to diagnose the problem, but not able to suggest a remedy that would fix things once and for all. I kept going back to him week after week. My appointments began to sound like an old vaudeville routine:
“Your problem is you’re sick.”
“Of course I’m sick,” I replied. “That’s why I’m here.”
“Have you had this before?”
“You know I’ve had this before. I had it the last time I was here.”
“Well, you’ve got it again.”
I tried demonstrating the problem: “It hurts when I do this.”
“Well, don’t do that,” he advised.
“Doctor, is there any hope for me?”
“Of course there is. Take two aspirin. You’ll feel better when you’re dead.”
After 15 years of being told I was sick, always receiving the same prescription, and always coming back with the same complaint, I began to wonder if my doctor knew what he was talking about. I’m one of the lucky ones because it only took me 15 years to wonder what was going on.
OK . . . I made that up. But many of us have been returning to the same place, year after year, with the same problem. We are offered the same solution and we leave feeling as if there should be a better remedy available, but the professional assures us that we are on the right track. If you haven’t guessed already, the professional is not a doctor but a pastor, and the “doctor’s office” is our regular gathering for church.
Whether it is the repetition of liturgy separated from our daily experience, or it is the repetition of preaching that finds new ways to express the same old message, many followers of Jesus go to church only to experience what Yogi Berra called “Déjà vu all over again.” We are reminded of our sin and God’s grace toward that sin.
Of course this is correct: we are sinful, and the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross pays the price for our redemption. And, of course, the grace of God should be celebrated and declared by the church. But grace, understood as the one-time event of redemption, is not the sole message the church or the full content of the gospel of the Kingdom of God. It is the common experience of church-goers to re-enact the drama of forgiveness each week, or to hear the gospel presented again and again as the call of God to wayward sinners to make things right. If the preaching ever varies from this content, then we are told that we need to carry this good news of God’s grace into our community so that others may be forgiven and redeemed.
This is a great challenge facing followers of Jesus today: we have a limited view of God’s grace. The grace of God, which is a reality greater than the human intellect can gasp and more accessible than the air we breathe, has been captured and domesticated for weekly use. To those of us who have been in church for some time, grace means that Christians have gotten a great deal. In church circles, grace has variously been defined as “not getting what we deserve,” or “God’s unmerited favor,” or “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense.” I am coming to see that all of these ideas about grace are true, but tell only half the truth.
The more I read the New Testament, the more all-encompassing grace becomes. Instead of presenting grace as a repeatable sin-cleansing bargain, the Bible seems to present a grace that continues to reach into our lives day after day and in more ways than we expect. The Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote to a young pastor:
For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age (Titus 2:11-12)
What kind of grace is this? If grace means getting off scott-free, why is grace appearing to me and teaching me a new way to live? Most believers are very comfortable with “the grace that brings salvation,” but why would grace instruct us to “deny ungodliness?” Isn’t that a little judgmental? I thought God loved me just the way I am.
Apparently God’s grace is after more than wiping the slate clean week after week. The grace of God wants to teach us a new way to live. “God loves me just the way I am.” Everyone is comfortable with that statement, but how about this one: “God loves me so much he won’t let me stay just the way I am.” First his grace saves, then it teaches. I think everyone is OK with “being forgiven,” but perhaps we skip school when it comes time to learn how to deny ungodliness, deny worldly passions, live sensible and upright lives.
Richard Foster, a man who has spent his adult life encouraging Christians to grow in the grace of God, points out that the message of grace is something more than merely a means for gaining forgiveness. Sadly, many Christians have been taught that any effort to learn how to live a holy life right now runs counter to God’s forgiving grace. Many church-goers are told week after week that they are miserable sinners in need of the grace of forgiveness. They are told week after week that that there is nothing they can do apart from the grace of forgiveness. And, hearing the same message week after week, along with the same remedy, they remain in the same place. “Having been saved by grace,” Foster writes, “these people have been paralyzed by it.”
Do you have any examples of grace teaching you a new way to live?