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Falling into Grace
Exploring our Inner Life with God
By John Newton
Church Publishing IncorporatedCopyright © 2016 John Newton
All rights reserved.
"The American Church today accepts grace in theory but denies it in practice." — &Brennan Manning
"Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see." — John Newton
"For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind." — John 9:39 [ESV)
The month after I graduated from college I went with a church group to build a house in Tijuana, Mexico. After our work was completed, we spent a day at Disneyland before flying back home. During the trip I lost my contact lenses to the dusty, Mexican desert. I could not see a thing. I had my glasses with me but was too stubborn to admit that I actually needed them to navigate the Magic Kingdom.
Around lunchtime I thought I saw a fruit stand that flaunted the most gorgeous bananas I'd ever seen. They looked freshly plucked from the Garden of Eden. With enthusiasm I approached the young lady working the stand, "One banana, please!" "That will be four dollars," she replied. A little steep, I thought, but still a small price to pay for perfection.
I handed her my money and reached for a banana only to find that the banana would not cooperate. I wanted the banana, but it was as if the banana did not want me. I tugged and tugged but could not break a banana free from the bunch.
I then noticed the woman laughing at me. "Perhaps you'd like one of these," she giggled, as she pointed to a much more inferior batch of fruit. "I don't think so," I said. "Well, I don't think the bananas you're holding will taste very good," she replied. "And why is that?" I sneered back. "Because the bananas you're holding are fake."
I obviously felt embarrassed. So I covered my tracks by doing what I suspect any aspiring minister would do. I looked exactly eight inches to her left, opened my eyelids as wide as I could, and, before dramatically storming off in anger, responded by saying, "I am soooo sorry ma'am. I can't help it. I'm legally blind."
In a spiritual sense we are all born blind. Our default state is not to see God, ourselves, and other people accurately. We're programmed to stumble through life in darkness, and the pathos of our condition is that it is painful to constantly collide with one another.
The gospels portray Jesus as a man who loved healing people's blindness. The author of John's Gospel tells one such story about blind people. It centers on a man who has been without physical sight from the day of his birth (John 9:1–41). But the irony of the story is that no one with physical sight possesses the spiritual sight they need to see God, themselves, or other people accurately. The people in the story that can "see" are indeed blinder than the blind man himself. For instance, the disciples assume the man was born blind because his parents are sinners. They are blind to the goodness of God. Similarly, the man's parents care more for their reputation than their own son. They are blind to what's important in life. The Pharisees feel outraged because Jesus heals on the
Sabbath. The Pharisees care more about rules than restoration. They are blind to the Christ that stands before them. Meanwhile Jesus, who sees into the soul with crystal clarity, responds by stating His divine purpose: "For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind" (John 9:39, ESV).
Subverting Our Paradigm
I saw a bumper sticker recently that read: "Subvert the dominant paradigm." It made me realize why people responded to Jesus with so much hostility. It was because Jesus intentionally subverted their view of God and how the world should work. Jesus was a wrecking ball, and his first order of business was never to confirm his listener's view of the world, but rather to shatter it.
The word paradigm has Greek origins and refers to how we see, and therefore experience, the world. Our paradigms are our mental maps of the world. We don't experience the world directly, but we have mental maps we rely on to navigate the world. We don't just perceive, understand, and interpret life as it comes. Rather, we have a very particular frame of reference that we use to make meaning out of the people, circumstances, and events that we encounter. We all carry unconscious assumptions about God's character, how the world works, and what abundant life is all about.
What's challenging about the spiritual life is that we don't see our paradigms, at least not naturally. We inherit them. Life, religion, the government, our family, the culture, our church, the media, and our peers just dole them out. For example, I was raised in the western United States. My paradigm for living well is certainly more individualistic than had I been reared in a traditional Asian culture. I am also a Protestant. I carry ingrained views about what sort of behavior is acceptable that a person practicing Wicca, for example, might not have. But I am also a particular kind of Protestant. I grew up in a very traditional, liturgical church setting with pews, an organ, and prayer books. I see God differently than someone that grew up in a contemporary, Pentecostal setting.
We all have a unique mental map, and this map is never the same as the real world. A mental map is what we use to navigate the real world. It is the lens through which we view God, ourselves, and other people. In the spiritual life, it is this lens, this mental map, which so heavily impacts our experience of God, ourselves, and other people. A distorted lens always leads to a distorted life, and to navigate with a bad map is to live our lives perpetually lost.
Sociologist Christian Smith studied the religious beliefs of young adults in America. He coined the term "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" to describe the lens through which many of them viewed God. Smith claims that most young adults in America believe in God and even self-identify as Christian. However, when it comes to important questions of faith, he noted that very few people have solid convictions. Smith claims Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is the new religion of America's youth. Here are a few highlights of this particular religious paradigm.
1. God's chief concern is that people are nice and good. Good people go to heaven when they die (moralistic).
2. God wants me to feel good about myself and to find happiness on earth (therapeutic).
3. God doesn't want to be overinvolved in my life. But it is fine to reach out to God from time to time when I am really in a jam (deism).
I offer Smith's work as just one example of a less-than-useful religious map. There are of course others — for instance, the belief that God punishes sinful parents by striking their child with blindness. But in my experience most religious paradigms, ancient and modern, have one key ingredient: they are fueled by an intense passion to get what we perceive to be fair.
An Unfair God
The "Laborers in the Vineyard" (Matt. 20:1–16) is perhaps Jesus's most subversive parable. This parable has a timeless ability to tick us off. It's a story about a landowner who hires some day laborers to work his farm. Some began work at nine o'clock in the morning, some at noon, and some at three in the afternoon. Finally, a few others began work at five o'clock.
When the time came for the landowner to hand out paychecks, the five o'clock workers were paid the exact same as everyone else. This outraged the early morning workers because it violated what they perceived to be fair. To which the landowner, who represents God, responded: "Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you" (Matt. 20:14, italics mine).
People struggled with the God map Jesus gave them in his teaching and parables. Jesus spoke of a God that wasn't fair, at least not as we understand fairness. Of course, the God Jesus spoke of was good, loving, merciful, compassionate, and kind. But for Jesus, fairness wasn't His Father's strong suit.
George Bernard Shaw once said, "God created man in His image and then man returned the favor." I believe that Shaw was right; we instinctively understand God through the lens of how we experience most people: as a bookkeeper. Our world keeps score, and so we reason that God must keep score, too. It may very well be that simple. We think it only fair that the first shall be first and the last shall be last. We imagine that God's chief concern is that I am nice and that I live a good life and, assuming I keep my end of the bargain, that God owes me happiness in return. After all, it would only be fair.
We like bargaining with God. It's the reason our default religious instinct is to hand God a contract with incredibly childish terms. "Lord, I'll obey. I'll go to church. I'll read my Bible. I'll be a good person. And in return, I want you to bless me. Make sure nothing bad happens to me, that the market performs well, and let me die in my sleep when I'm ninety-three years old. And in the meantime give me X, Y, and Z because I need X, Y, and Z to be happy. Amen."
What typically follows is chaos. Perhaps we keep our end of the bargain, only to discover how painful it is that God refuses to play along. "How unfair," we think. Or maybe we come to terms with the fact that we're not as virtuous as we imagined ourselves to be, and when life turns sour we conclude that God is fair to punish us. We may even believe, as James Bryan Smith points out, that God is "eager to punish us for even minor infractions." But in either case we are like people using a map of downtown New York to navigate the streets of Los Angeles. We can try harder, work on our behavior, or join another prayer group. But when it comes to seeing the Living God, we're still lost. Thankfully Jesus came to "seek and save the lost" and to give us a better map (Luke 19:10).
The Biblical Paradigm: One-Way Love
Eugene Peterson once said that the oldest religious mistake in the book is to assume that God has the same plans for us that we have for ourselves. I invite you to see Jesus's ministry as an attempt to remedy that mistake. God's plan for our life looks radically different than we think. The God map we've relied on may need to be torn to shreds.
Jesus offers us a completely new map. It's a map that reminds us that God doesn't love us in spite of our weakness, but rather that God loves us in our weakness. The purpose of Christianity is not to grow up spiritually so that we need God's mercy less. Rather, with Jesus we grow downward, we descend, to reach the end of our rope so that we might depend on nothing but the mercy of God. In Jesus we see that God loves struggling, broken people and that God delights in showering them with grace. Brennan Manning states:
[God] is not moody or capricious; He knows no seasons of change. He has a single relentless stance toward us: He loves us. He is the only God man has ever heard of who loves sinners. False gods — the gods of human manufacturing — despise sinners, but the Father of Jesus loves all, no matter what they do.
Grace is the love of God that emphatically proclaims that I am loved and worthy no matter what I do. It is precious, good, and empowering, but there is one thing grace is not: fair.
I understood grace for the first time in college. I visited Auschwitz, an internment camp in Poland where millions died during the Holocaust. Among those murdered was a Catholic priest named Maximilian Kolbe. It was at Auschwitz that I heard Kolbe's story for the first time. His final hour illustrates grace in a powerful way.
In July of 1941 ten men in Kolbe's barracks were randomly chosen to starve to death. One man in particular cried out in fear. "I have a wife! I have children! Please, I beg you, take someone else!" When Kolbe heard this man's plea, he stepped forward, raised his hand, and spoke the following words: "I will die for that man."
Christians believe that this is what Jesus Christ has done for us. We have fairly been sentenced to die for our sins (Rom. 6:23). But Jesus Christ has died in our place. By the grace of God, Jesus has tasted death for everyone (Heb. 2:9). There is nothing fair about it.
Jesus's substitutionary sacrifice for us is God's grace made visible. The cross shows us a God that does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. No wages are due to us, and the cross reveals that we have not a single bargaining chip. As Thomas Merton puts it, God's love is so "infinitely good that it cannot be the object of human bargain." To see God otherwise is to use a bad map. As Paul Zahl explains, "Grace uses no sticks and no carrots. It just dies for our life."
Grace and Human Nature
Grace is the best news in the world. But for grace to offer true comfort, it must first offend our sensibilities. Indeed Jesus's message to our instinctual self is the worst news in the world. It announces that the first person singular we refer to as "I" has gone extinct. We can talk about Jesus being in the driver's seat all we want. But talk is cheap and Jesus invites us to relinquish our illusions of control. We're simply not competent to drive the car. Not even by a long shot.
Grace paints an incredibly flattering picture of God before it says anything good about us. God chooses to delight in us. God chooses to celebrate us, not because we are good but because God is. The bad news of grace is that my instinctual ego, which I wrongly label as my "self," is a spiritual corpse. The good news of grace is that Jesus raises the dead.
One of the things I am learning as a preacher is that people don't like being told that they're dead. We prefer the illusion that we are alive and free. Grace insists that we are not. Yes, we have a will, or a "chooser" as my friend Nathan likes to call it. We all make many decisions. Our decisions, at least without a certain degree of mindfulness, are so heavily influenced by our unconscious instincts and our social setting that it would be wrong to say that they are made freely. For instance, suppose I put a whiskey in front of an alcoholic and he drinks it. It would certainly appear that he chose to take the drink. But would any of us say that in that particular moment he was free? Surely, he was not. And the same holds true for us.
I am aware that this is not the mental map most of us use to navigate life. We believe we are free to do what is right and that God fairly rewards those who make good choices. We may even see the Bible as God's textbook on how to choose good over evil.
But the Bible paints a much different picture of instinctual human nature. For instance, consider Abraham. Abraham was faithful, but was he good? This is the same man that gave his wife to a foreign king for sexual enjoyment on two separate occasions in order to protect himself. Then there's Elisha, a prophet whose self-esteem was crushed when some kids mocked him for being bald. Elisha's response was to pray, not for forgiveness, but that God would send a bear to come and eat them. Peter "the Rock" also fails to qualify as good. On the toughest night of Jesus's life, Peter took a power nap, chopped off someone's ear, and denied his Lord three consecutive times. What these examples illustrate is that God doesn't call us because we are good. God calls us because God is good, and for some reason unbeknownst to us, God thinks it a swell idea to shower us with love. This is the heart and soul of grace. We cannot describe ourselves as free any more than we can describe God as being fair. Paul Zahl describes grace like this:
Grace is a love that has nothing to do with you, the beloved. It has everything and only to do with the lover. Grace is irrational in that it has nothing to do with weights and measures. It has nothing to do with my intrinsic qualities or so-called "gifts" (whatever they may be). It reflects a decision on the part of the giver, the one who loves, in relation to the receiver, the one who is loved, that negates any qualifications the receiver may personally hold.
Atonement, Imputation, and Righteousness
Trying harder to be a better Christian is perhaps the most deflating thing we can do. It seduces us into thinking that a perfect moral record is the bargaining chip that God wants. But trying harder never works. I can try as hard as I want to dunk a basketball. I can put myself through rigorous training. But that won't change the fact that I am 5'6". Only if someone lifts me will dunking a basketball be possible. Otherwise, I will never be free to do a slam-dunk.
Jesus's sacrificial death on the cross for us is the elevation and freedom we need. Our deep shame weighs us down and keeps us from leaping. The impact of Jesus's death with us and for us is that all of humanity's shame is absorbed and dealt with. We have a new and unshakable status before God. Our current God map may or may not permit us to see that reality. But our inability to see that "there is therefore now no condemnation" does not make it any less true (Rom. 8:1).
Excerpted from Falling into Grace by John Newton. Copyright © 2016 John Newton. Excerpted by permission of Church Publishing Incorporated.
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