FOLLOWING THE WAY OF CHRIST
By GAYLE HAGGARD
Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.
Copyright © 2013 Gayle Haggard
All right reserved.
Chapter One My Epiphany
Let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone! John 8:7
ONE OF THE GREATEST TESTS of our character is how we respond when someone else errs. When other people fall short of doing what we and they know to be good and right, when they suffer loss or shame, or when they hurt us, how we respond speaks volumes about the condition of our own hearts. We may find that we possess tremendous ability to encourage others, to heal and restore, if only we choose to do so. Untold lives have been changed, reprobates have become saints, and cowards have become heroesall because of the response of some kindhearted soul in another's moment of trial.
An ex-convict becomes a benevolent mayor who employs the poor, rescues a dying prostitute, and provides for her orphaned daughterall because an elderly bishop refused to press charges against him for stealing his silver and instead covered the thief's sin with kindness and protected him from his accusers. This elderly bishop turned the ex-convict's life around by encouraging him to become a new man and offered these kind words: "My brother, you no longer belong to evil, but to good." By now you may recognize this as the story of Jean Valjean in Victor Hugo's classic Les Miserables.
A failing student makes the honor roll because a caring teacher sacrifices her time to tutor him after school.
A parolee becomes a star employee because a kind employer takes the risk of giving him a job.
An addict is given a warm meal, a safe bed, and hope for a better future by an empathetic halfway-house worker.
We've all heard these heartwarming stories. They inspire us to extend grace to others.
I used to think extending grace was easy. I used to think it was simply the hope-filled, life-giving message of our faith. I understood the word grace to refer to God's kindness and forgiveness, which not only redeem us but also empower us to get back up again when we've fallen. In my mind, human grace was all about offering to others what God has so freely given to us.
Isn't that what the Bible teaches?
But in 2006, as I sat alone on a Florida beach one overcast day, I had an epiphany about grace. My family was going through a dark time. My well-known and highly respected husband had suffered a moral failure, and we'd been whisked away to a secluded beach house to escape the clamor of the media at home. During the initial days following the devastating news, I went on long walks on the beach until I was sure I was out of view of any beachcombers. Then, alone, I would plant myself in the sand, feel the magnitude of my pain, and sink deep into my own thoughts. A storm of accusations was raining down on me. I felt weakened by their onslaught. But those near and dear to me needed me more than ever. On this particular day, my predicament became clear.
Grace Isn't Easy
Grace isn't easy after all. It challenges the core of our character and uncovers what we truly believe about God, about ourselves, and about others.
Forgiveness is tough. Sometimes it requires sacrifice on our part.
And offering mercy isn't the easy way out as some people, who associate it with weakness, suggest. On the contrary, it often demands unusual courage.
I knew my epiphany that day was a call to courage to stand with what I believe about God, about the teachings of the Bible, and about marriage, family, and friendships. I determined on that day that healing and restoration are worth the challenge, the sacrifice, the fortitude, and even the pain.
If you're experiencing anything similar to what I was as I sat on that desolate beach under a sunless sky, you know full well the pain I'm talking about. Maybe someone has wronged you and betrayed your trust. As a result, you have been struggling with a mixture of anger, bitterness, and confusion deep inside you for monthsmaybe for years. Extending grace to someone who has wronged you can be hard work.
Or maybe you're the one in need of grace. (The truth is, we all need it.) Perhaps you have strayed somewhere along the path of life. Othersmaybe even those who once called themselves friendsare accusing you. Or perhaps you're hiding secret shame. You may think that if others really knew the truth about you, they would reject you. Your own soul sits in judgment over you. Learning to forgive yourself is sometimes the hardest work of all.
Here is what I heard clearly that day and what I want you to hear: offering grace and mercy may take every ounce of strength and courage you have, but reconciliation is worth it all. It is worth the pain.
As I contemplated these ideas that day on the beach, I felt as if a beacon of light had broken through the gloom surrounding me and illumined my clouded mind. I began to understand our personal plight as a picture of the human experience. We all come to a point in our lives when we recognize our own fallibilityeven after we've professed our Christian faith. None of us is immune. Some of us suffer with debilitating physical sickness and disease, some with brain dysfunction, others with destructive behaviors or addictions. It's our human condition that makes the gospel so meaningful for all of us. God sent Jesus to rescue us from the power of sin and death in our lives, and this is an ongoing process.
Suddenly, I no longer felt weak or hopeless. I felt my heart lift and my spirit fill with resolve. I could see clearly what had to be done to bring healing and restoration. In that hour, my epiphany became a call to courageously demonstrate the grace and love that the Bible identifies as the foremost expressions of our faith.
What Did Jesus Do?
Have you ever felt caught in the middle? At some point in your life, you will find yourself there, if you haven't already. On one side you have a broken person, someone who has erred. On the other, a crowd of accusers. When that day comes, you'll have to decide whether to do nothing, to side with the accusers, or to stand with the accused. Which choice do you think demands the most courage?
John the beloved disciple tells the story of a woman who was caught in the act of adultery. When the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought her to Jesus, they asked him if she should be stoned for her sin according to the laws of Moses. Their intent was not only to condemn the woman but also to trap Jesus so they could validate their judgments against him for not complying with their Jewish customs and laws. I can only imagine the fear and embarrassment the woman felt as perhaps hundreds of accusing eyes stared down at her. No doubt some in the crowd were aligning themselves with the religious leaders and were readying themselves to pick up stones and shout insults.
On one side was the woman, stained by sin, shielding herself from an impending onslaught of rocks and stones. On the other stood her accusersthe religious leaders and the crowd trained to follow their cues.
In the middle ... was Jesus.
Everyone was waiting to see what he would do.
Jesus knew the woman's sins. He also knew the expectations of everyone present. He responded by simply stooping down and writing in the dust with his finger. We don't know what he wrote. Some speculate that he began listing the sins of those present. What I appreciate most, however, is the way Jesus remained unruffled in the face of the accusations and intended entrapment.
His goal was to point out to the accusers that not one of them was in a position to judge this woman. His response to them was, "All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!" (John 8:7).
The Bible goes on to say,
When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, "Where are your accusers? Didn't even one of them condemn you?"
"No, Lord," she said.
And Jesus said, "Neither do I. Go and sin no more."
Jesus refused to yield to the religious leaders' demand that he condemn her. Instead he offered her grace.
I've read this story many times. But I had never before lived it the way I did when I sat on the sandy beach that day. I realized that those dark days were my moment "in the middle." I had a choice. Was I going to stand with the broken onein this case, my husbandor was I going to join his accusers and the people who were so ready to throw stones?
For me, the choice itself wasn't all that difficult. I had a long history with Ted. We'd built a family and a great church together. I knew he loved me and was himself heartbroken and ashamed. I knew he was earnestly seeking restoration and reconciliation. And I was determined not to let his sin negate everything good I also knew to be true of him. I also knew it was my opportunity to put into practice all that I had said I believe as a Christian.
The challenge I faced was that in choosing to stand with my husband, I was going to have to stand against the tide of condemnation that was swelling against him. I knew I would need courage to stand beside him as the arrows, the stones, and the accusations rained down upon him. I had to be prepared to withstand the brunt of those attacks. And I'll be honest. They hurt deeply.
Yet it took this public scandal in my family for me to grasp the truth that God extends his grace freely toward people we humans are prone to condemn. He doesn't withhold it as we humans can be tempted to do. We may be afraid of extending grace because doing so will dissociate us from the crowd. We may be afraid the recipient of our grace will take advantage of us. We may be afraid that the one receiving it will not prove trustworthy and will fail us, hurt us, or embarrass us again. But God does not withhold his grace in this manner. Instead, he pours out his grace time and again, knowing full well that we are human and weak and will continue to stumble and fail. Yet he extends his grace all the same.
I experienced this grace. When I felt alone because many people I knew had pulled away, God drew near. He came looking for me when I was most dejected. When others avoided me, God threw his arms around me and welcomed me home. I can't tell you how much I learned from my family's public humiliation. Through the swirl of pain and confusion, personal failures and weaknesses, all the way to the core of my being, I felt safe with God.
There will be times when you experience the differing elements in the story of the woman caught in adultery, just as I did. You may be the one who is "caught in the act," the one who has erred and is suffering under the weight of guilt and shame. Consider how you would want others to respond to you. You may be called on to join the crowd of accusers and stone throwers who cloak their own deceitfulness and sins. Or you may find yourself caught in the middle between brokenness on one side and accusations on the other. Consider how you would want to respond when you are called upon to make choices about someone who has erred: like Jesus, who chose not to condemn but to offer grace, or like the accusing crowd?
Excerpted from COURAGEOUS GRACE by GAYLE HAGGARD Copyright © 2013 by Gayle Haggard. Excerpted by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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