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Putting a FACE on GRACELiving a life worth passing on
By Richard Blackaby
Multnomah PublishersCopyright © 2006 Richard Blackaby
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Paradox of Graceless Christians
Sometimes my travel schedule can get pretty stressful. Last year I was flying to Jackson, Mississippi, to preach at a church, passing through Denver on my way. When I arrived in Denver, everyone in the airport seemed to be in a bad mood. There were frowns on most faces. As I approached the gate to board the plane, I heard an announcement that the gate had been changed to one at the opposite end of the terminal. A small herd of disgruntled passengers wearily arose and trudged to the new gate. They were not happy travelers! One couple was having a heated argument. Two sets of parents were snapping at their children. One elderly man was muttering to anyone who would listen (no one was).
Then the agent announced that the gate had been changed once again. Now the crowd was in danger of degenerating into a lynch mob. By the time I arrived at the third gate, no seats were available in the waiting area. I stood leaning against a wall. Suddenly there was another announcement, but this one was for me. "May I please have your attention? Would a Richard BlackBaby please see the ticket agent?"
Now I was annoyed. These airline employees truly wereincompetent. They couldn't even pronounce a simple English name like Blackaby. I marched up to the desk. "I'm Richard BLACKABY," I said. "That's 'Bee' as in bumble." The agent asked for my ticket so I handed it to him. Without batting an eye, he ripped it in two. "We need your seat," he explained matter-of-factly. Then he handed me a business-class ticket. "I hope you don't mind if we upgrade you to business class," he said with a smile. Suddenly the sun came out and I could hear birds singing. Everything was going to be okay. "Richard Black-Baby at your service," I said. "And God bless us, every one!"
The moment they announced that business class could board, I scurried to find my place. It was a large, comfortable seat, and I quickly settled in. I watched exhausted travelers and bedraggled parents muttering instructions to their kids as they made their way to the cramped recesses at the rear of the plane, and I lifted a prayer of thanks to God that I did not have to pass "behind the veil" with them. We had a cheerful flight attendant who continually asked, "What else can I bring you?" I had already gulped down a soft drink, a bottle of water, and a cup of coffee before we even taxied to the runway.
As soon as we were airborne, our Johnny-on-the-spot flight attendant was asking me whether I would prefer sirloin tips or salmon. Both were a far cry from the offerings a few rows behind me: stale pretzels or no stale pretzels.
As time passed I overheard a disturbing conversation between a woman across the aisle and our flight attendant. This passenger had been called to the podium shortly after I was and she, too, had been upgraded. It seemed she was not as enamored with her good fortune as I was. When told what brand of coffee they served on the plane, she said, "Oh, I can't stand that stuff!" When the flight attendant told her he did not have the necessary ingredients to mix the drink she requested, she snapped, "Well, what do you have then?" When she took her first bite of salmon, she spit it out, complaining it wasn't fresh.
I couldn't believe my ears. I wanted to stand up and say something to her. I knew she should be choking down twisted little pieces of salted, baked dough, not eating salmon. I knew the overworked flight attendants in the economy coach were far too busy to give her the polite attention our smiling steward was giving us. I wanted to ask this woman, after all that had been done for her, how she could possibly complain. How could she be demanding and impatient with someone who was trying so hard to help her? Of course I didn't say a word. I had already watched her make mincemeat out of our courteous flight attendant.
Christians are people who have been more than upgraded. We were headed to one destination and God rerouted us to a vastly better place (Ephesians 2:3-10). We were traveling with limited, perishable resources. Now we have the Holy Spirit guiding us to receive everything God has prepared for us (1 Corinthians 2:9-16). We were alienated from God; now we are children of the King, with access to all the treasures of God's kingdom (Ephesians 2:7, 13). We were living in defeat; now we are assured of victory. We used to rely on our own strength and wisdom. Now almighty God walks with us day by day. We used to stumble in darkness; now we walk in the light. We were spiritually dead and now we are alive. Christianity is truly a miracle of enormous magnitude.
Yet, like my malcontented fellow traveler, many Christians have lost the wonder of what God's grace has done for them. Tragically, they have fallen into a debilitating sense of self-centered entitlement, behaving as if God exists solely to serve them and to make them happy. These people forget how hopeless their situation was before God rescued them by His grace. They overlook the fact God is not obligated to redeem them or to walk with them daily or to answer their prayers or even to continue loving them when they act intolerably.
Our generation may be one of the most self-centered in history. There is a chronic condition in our society that is far more widespread than is generally acknowledged. It affects most Christians. Its causes are difficult to understand but its symptoms are obvious. And it seems to be contagious. It is perplexing to witness. It is as inexcusable as it is pervasive. It contradicts the very purpose of Christ's death on the cross. It is the paradoxical epidemic of graceless Christianity. A baffling reality is that the richest people in the world can be some of the stingiest tightwads. Those who have the most can be the least willing to show generosity to others. While "Amazing Grace" may be a popular hymn among millions of believers, it is not the lifestyle of choice for many. Consider just a few examples of graceless Christians:
People complain they "got nothing out of the service" because the worship leader did not schedule any of their favorite hymns. Members angrily leave the church because the pastor changed the format of the service. Believers become resentful toward God because He did not answer their prayers the way they wanted Him to. People leave the church auditorium promptly at the twelve o'clock hour whether the pastor is finished speaking or not. Church leaders are slandered by people who have been "overlooked" for prominent positions. Two Christians refuse to forgive one another. Members leave the church because the pastor talks too much about giving. Christian parents refuse to speak to their adult son or daughter because he or she did not heed their advice.
A Graceless Prodigal
Do you know people who have forgotten how much they depend on God's grace? They are all around you. John grew up in a Christian home. He professed faith in Christ as a child and regularly attended church with his family. But during his teenage years, he became a full-fledged rebel. He pursued whatever pleasures the world offered. He indulged in drugs and drinking and he ran around with the "bad" crowd. He broke his parents' hearts. They reasoned with him and argued with him. They pled with him and prayed for him. Yet it seemed he would never abandon his destructive ways. After several years of hard, wild living, he finally hit rock bottom and came to his senses, turned to God, and returned to church. John was back, with a vengeance.
This former prodigal became the most faithful church member. He had his family in church at every opportunity. But a strange thing happened to John in his return to God-he forgot about grace. He became a legalist. He was judgmental toward those who did not measure up to his standards of righteousness. He would frequently chastise his pastor for not using more scripture in his sermons or for not preaching vehemently enough against sin. He was vocal in church business meetings, freely pointing out where he felt the church and its members were in error. Some people refused to serve on church committees because they feared John's interrogations during congregational business sessions. John spent Sunday afternoons dissecting the church and its members, exposing their shortcomings to his family.
There was trouble at home, too. John ran his household with an iron fist. He had seen firsthand the pain caused by teenage rebellion, so he aggressively prepared for that eventuality with his own kids. He established a formidable set of rules and curfews along with strict punishments for infractions. His children discovered they could never fully please their father. Always afraid of letting down his guard, John was vigilant to be firm and authoritative with his kids. As John's children became teenagers, they responded to his domineering parenting style by concealing their struggles and failures from him. Even when John's daughter was flunking out of university, she pretended all was well to avoid her father's wrath. John's children knew better than to expect grace from him.
In his youth John had been a party animal; now he was all business. His wife dutifully agreed with him, but his marriage was joyless and sterile. Their home was filled with anger and disappointment. Even John's relationship with his parents altered. They used to plead with him to return to the Lord; now their son condemned their lackadaisical religious practices and criticized their "weak" theology.
John had experienced a 180-degree transformation. But he had turned from his stubborn, carnal, bull-headed ways into a stubborn, bull-headed Christian. He once rejected his parent's faith; now he piously discounted everyone's opinion but his own. This once intractable prodigal now believed he might be the only truly righteous member in his church. He once cared nothing about theology; now he was the self-appointed chief of the orthodoxy police. John had changed alright, but not as much as he thought.
What happened? John lost sight of grace. To be more specific, he lost sight of the grace he had received over the years. He overlooked the copious tears his parents had wept as they prayed for him night after night. He forgot about his blasphemous comments and his cavalier rejection of God even as the Lord lovingly pursued him. He minimized the numerous occasions where people forgave him. He felt uncomfortable, even embarrassed, when reminded of his rebellious past. After all, that was then, and now he was a devout Christian. God had forgiven him, so why belabor the point?
John's story exemplifies the malady of countless believers. We have enjoyed a generous outpouring of God's grace, yet we are stingy about sharing grace with others. You would think someone who freely receives forgiveness from Holy God would be eager to forgive others. Surely one who has experienced God's longsuffering will readily show patience to others. But why don't we? Christ's followers, of all people, have known mercy and grace firsthand. Yet Christians are often characterized by judgmentalism and intolerance rather than mercy and compassion.
The Grateful Sinner (Luke 7:36-50)
Jesus witnessed this enigma firsthand: Simon, a Pharisee, invited Jesus to his home for a meal. Simon was an influential leader in the community, one of the religious elite. This was a notable occasion -Simon was inviting Jesus to mix with the "Who's Who" of local society. Or rather, he was offering his colleagues access to the current religious celebrity. Perhaps they all watched eagerly to see if Jesus would perform one of His famous miracles. Some were probably pondering difficult questions they might pose to their guest, matching their theological expertise against this relative upstart.
Almost unnoticed, a woman slipped into the house. Those present would immediately recognize her as a notorious sinner. She found Jesus reclined at the low Middle Eastern table and stood sobbing behind him. Her tears splattered onto His feet making water marks in the dust that had collected. Then she unfastened her long hair, a disgraceful act in that society, and humbly wiped Jesus' feet with it. She took an alabaster flask of expensive perfume and poured the fragrant oil over Jesus' feet, filling the room with the sweet aroma. The woman continued to weep as she bent to kiss the feet of Jesus.
Simon did not comment aloud about what was happening, but his mortified expression communicated his displeasure. Jesus broke the uncomfortable silence and addressed Simon's unspoken question with a story.
He told of two men who fell into debt. One owed fifty denarii, the other five hundred. A denarius was roughly a day's wages for a common laborer, so the one man owed his earnings for a month and a half of work. The other was indebted for a year and a half 's pay. When neither was able to cover his debt, their creditor forgave them both. Then Jesus asked: "Tell me, therefore, which of them will love him more?" The answer was obvious. "I suppose the one whom he forgave more," answered Simon.
Then Jesus pointed out that since His arrival at Simon's home, no one had cared for His needs. Simon had not provided for Jesus' feet to be cleaned, as a conscientious host usually did. Yet the outcast woman had cleansed Jesus' feet with her own hair. Simon had not greeted Jesus with a customary kiss on the cheek, yet the woman had continually kissed His feet. Jesus made His point: "To whom little is forgiven, the same loves little" (v. 47).
What was Simon's problem? Unlike the fallen woman, he had not committed heinous, public transgressions. Since he did not see himself as "one of them," Simon felt little compassion for those who were so obviously sinners. Simon's myopia to his own sin made him oblivious to how much he needed God's grace. He did not comprehend his many reasons to be grateful, so he did not live a thankful life. Simon's problem was a lack of awareness. He was truly ignorant of his own needy condition. Scripture says such a lack of awareness may be the result of a hardened heart (Mark 6:52). When you fail to recognize how much God has given you, you will not live a life of gratitude.
Principle 1: The more aware you are of your need for God's grace, the more generous you will be toward others.
Arrogance in the Temple (Luke 18:9-14)
Two men entered the temple. They represented the social extremes of their community. One was a Pharisee, known for his religious practices and scripture knowledge. Pharisees were usually treated with deference as they were considered religious experts of their day. The other man was a tax collector, making his living by perhaps the most despised profession in society. This man would be considered a traitor, a thief, and a liar. Fellow citizens would have detested him, refusing to socialize with him or to show him the most basic courtesy.
The conduct of the two was a study in contrasts. The Pharisee stood tall in a prominent spot and began to thank God for making him such an outstanding man of piety. With disdain he noticed the tax collector and expressed his thanks to God that he wasn't like that sinner. Then he listed all the righteous deeds he routinely performed in God's name, including tithing and fasting (two practices particularly indicative of religious fervor).
Meanwhile the tax collector was also praying, alone in an inconspicuous place. He was too ashamed of his sinful life to look heavenward. As he beat his breast in sorrow and repentance, he cried out from the depths of his heart, "God, be merciful to me a sinner!" This man knew he deserved only one thing from God-condemnation. In humility and brokenness, the tax collector could say nothing more to God than "Have mercy!"
Jesus said the one who truly sees himself as a sinner before God and seeks His mercy is the one who finds forgiveness. The one who thinks of himself in no need of grace goes away unforgiven.
Excerpted from Putting a FACE on GRACE by Richard Blackaby Copyright © 2006 by Richard Blackaby. Excerpted by permission.
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