Monthly Archives: March 2014

He Won’t Be A Means To An End

My last post was mostly written on a Sunday morning. I had made it to worship practice, but quickly realized that the grief, guilt, and deep sadness that I was wrestling with was going to leave me completely incapable of keeping things casual. There was no way I was going to be able to sing a lyric like “Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on when we will be forever with the Lord. When disappointment, grief, and fear are are gone, sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored. Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past, all safe and blessed, we shall meet at last” without completely breaking down. As I’m pretty sure there’s something in the Shorter Catechism about public displays of emotion, I left church and went to the coffee shop. (Sorry if that’s not very Jesusy. It’s where I was at.)

When I finished writing, I got up and stretched my legs. “So, You want to be everything I need,” I said to God. “That sounds pretty great, and right now I’m even feeling like I could believe it enough to trust-fall backwards into Your arms.”

I felt Him smile.

“So,” I said, ruining the moment, “how do I get access to this provision?”

I felt Him just look at me intently with a half-smile, waiting for it to sink in.

“Oooh … I’m still doing it, aren’t I?” I dropped my head.

Then He said this:

“I do not dwell in temples made with hands. I need nothing. Worship is what you owe me, but it doesn’t add to Me.

“Everything that is in the earth and in the heavens, visible and invisible, all things, all powers, all authorities were created by Me and exist for Me.

“I am the beginning and the end. I am before all things, and it’s only through Me that they hold together.

“I give life, breath, and all things to all people. By me rulers reign and decree justice. The hearts of kings are like water in My hand. It is in and through Me that you live, and move, and have your very being.

“I am able to do so far beyond anything it could possibly even occur to you to think to ask of Me.

“I am.

“I will not be a means to any end in your life but Myself, Rick. Anything else would be less than what I have promised you.”

I cried in the coffee shop. No one seemed to mind.

I am beginning to know Him. I am beginning to believe. I am beginning to be slowly persuaded that He is really able to sustain and grow the fledgling faith I have in Him, and that He will continue to sanctify and make me more like His Son. That’s what I want.

I’m trying not to want less by adding more.

Nothing But You

I’m a verbal processor. Frequently things come out of my mouth/fingers when I’m talking/writing to someone that had never occurred to me before. I often find myself listening to things I’m saying for the first time, and thinking “That’s interesting.” One such instance happened recently as I was praying for a friend of mine. In the middle of the prayer, I said this:

“Give him the courage to follow You with no promise but You as reward.”

I remember stopping and lifting my eyes. I stopped and wrote it down, realizing that I’d just prayed something for a brother that I desperately needed for myself. I strongly suspect God was being sneaky.

I am so not there right now. I know that I should be, but I’m not. That’s terrifying.

I am not content to give everything I have to follow Jesus with no guarantee of anything from Him but Jesus Himself. There are so many things I add to my list of requirements.

Friendship/Intimacy. I don’t have her anymore. No one to go home to and tell my day’s stories to. I don’t have anyone to share life with, to share space with. I’m not looking for a lover. My heart belongs to one woman. I just need people I can do life with. I need guys with whom I can wrestle through the difficulty of this season. Guys for whom the demands of career, family, kids, or other life activities hasn’t rendered genuine brotherhood an unrealistic drain of resources. I want to walk closely and intimately with other men who want to push me toward Jesus and want me to do the same. I need that.

Stability/Comfort. I’ve got nothing. I live in the corner of a friend’s basement. I drive a borrowed vehicle. I got fired from my last job because my boss was insane and thought the universe was telling her to protect herself from me. I need a job. But, I’m 44. Could the job be something that might conceivably be in an area of marketable skill for me? Could it be something that could possibly be construed as career potential? Could it be something that would build my portfolio? Something that would grow me as an artist? I feel like that’s all I really have. Do I have to go to work at Starbucks?

Restoration/Respect. I feel shame and guilt everywhere I go. I haven’t tried to hide what I’ve done. I guess it’s good that I don’t really know how to do that. But I feel the looks. It’s probably partly projection, but the behind-the-hand whispers are sometimes almost audible. “Poor Rick … If only he’d been able to resist temptation … He really screwed his life up … He’s so broken and needy … It’s sad, but he has no one to blame but himself … etc.” I feel the judgement. Not the kind that looks like wagged fingers and public condemnation. More the type that comes from withdrawn connections, less frequent phone calls, aborted weekly meeting commitments, and awkward silences. It’s a double edged-sword of shame and frustration. I feel frustrated that I can’t find the help I feel I need, while also feeling intense shame that I even need it in the first place.  Can I ever be respected again? Can I be restored? Can I get back to that place of people looking at me and not pursing their lips and shaking their heads?

God, help me. I don’t value You above all else. I am not content to chase after You and leave You to fill in the blanks on everything else. There is so much I feel like I need that I insist that You bring with You in order for me to sign off on this whole “surrender” thing. I have to know that You’re going to meet my needs in ways that are sustainable and viable for me. I have to know that it’s going to be just a little bit about me. I have to know that You’re not going to lead me into even more uncomfortable waters. God, the level of pain and shame and fear and heartache is already at the point where I don’t know how to bear it. Please tell me You won’t give me more. Please tell me that from here on out, things will get easier. Please.

Even as I write that all out, I strongly suspect that Your Holy Spirit is praying something very different for me. It probably goes more like “Help Rick to see the mind-numbing value of what is being offered to him. Help him to see that when his Maker comes down and says ‘I want to provide personally for everything you will ever need,’ that it means more than any temporary fixes and fleeting hole-filling activities could ever hope to signify. Help Rick to understand that anything that You don’t offer and provide is something that will kill his soul instead of save it. Help him to rest in your ridiculous, nonsensical love for him, and to trust in Your completely sufficient mercy, grace, and provision. Right now, he’s not able to do that. Do it for him.”

Probably You should listen to His prayer instead of mine.

Things I Don’t Believe

I got word a few hours ago that a friend of mine is dead.

I don’t know much more than that. He was an internet buddy, a connection made through a mutual friend. I’ve known him for years. We weren’t close, but we spoke pretty often. He was always an encouragement to me when we did connect. I spoke to him last about a week and a half ago. I was in a pretty dark place. Evidently, so was he. He obliquely mentioned a cancer diagnosis, but when I tried to follow up on it, he deliberately changed the subject and asked how I was doing. I made a mental note to ask about it next time we talked, and proceeded to talk about me. (Those of you who know me won’t find that shocking.)

He struggled with addiction, chronic illness, and depression. He was a broken man who was deeply in love with Jesus. He realized that his only hope, in this life as well as the one to come, lay in God’s ridiculous, senseless love for him. The last time I spoke to him, he laid aside his suffering to try and hold mine for a few minutes. I let him.

I don’t know if he died of cancer, of an overdose, or because he took his own life. I have no idea. I’m not going to try to tell you his story. I’m not qualified. I didn’t know him that well. I’m going to try to tell you why I’m so disgusted with myself right now.

I am growing increasingly repulsed and furious at the idea that you can hold to a belief about God solely in the theoretical abstract, while never really allowing it to make any practical difference in your behavior. I am getting weary of holding up under the weight of a reality characterized by half-measures of commitment to truths about our faith that never seem to create lasting change in the functional outworking of day-to-day life.

I’m weary of people whose compassion for those struggling with habitual sin is not mitigated by the reality that God has forever forgiven their own cosmic treason and made relationship with Him possible through the death of His perfect Son. I’m tired of those who have been at the Prodigal’s welcome home party long enough that they’ve genuinely begun to believe that God looks more favorably on their struggles with pride, dishonesty, and selfishness than He does on more pigpen-smelling struggles like sex, addiction, and alcohol abuse. I’m repulsed by the mentality that greedily sucks in grace and mercy and forgiveness and unwarranted favor and unconditional love and never looks for ways to be a selfless conduit of the same in the lives of people God has so clearly placed in their lives. I’m disgusted by the kind of person who could know deeply the importance of sitting on the ash-heap with someone, yet use the last earthly conversation with a suffering friend talking about their own mess and putting off dealing with someone else’s to a more convenient time.

There’s a phrase for the kind of beliefs that don’t translate into action … they’re called “things I don’t really believe.”


Peterson on Snake Oil

“The great danger of Christian discipleship is that we should have two religions: a glorious, biblical Sunday gospel that sets us free from the world, that in the cross and resurrection of Christ makes eternity alive in us, a magnificent gospel of Genesis and Romans and Revelation; and, then, an everyday religion that we make do with during the week between the time of leaving the world and arriving in heaven. We save the Sunday gospel for the big crises of existence. For the mundane trivialities … we use the everyday religion of the Reader’s Digest reprint, advice from a friend, an Ann Landers column, the huckstered wisdom of a talk-show celebrity. We practice patent-medicine religion. We know that God created the universe and has accomplished our eternal salvation. But we can’t believe that he condescends to watch the soap opera of our daily trials and tribulations; so we purchase our own remedies for that. To ask him to deal with what troubles us each day is like asking a famous surgeon to put iodine on a scratch.”

Eugene Peterson, A Long Obedience In The Same Direction

Jesus Wept

Waves of emotion rolled through him, the kind of emotion no man born of woman could have known before. Anger that burned with an undying fire. Sorrow that endlessly ached for the realities of brokenness and darkness. Joy that ever whispered silently of a day when death would die … a day that was coming far sooner than any of the mourners gathered could have known.

He heard the quiet sobbing, the tired cries of grief four days old. He saw them watching him, the silent accusation in their eyes no quieter than the unmistakable point of the words that still hung in the dusty air. “If you had been here … if you had come when we called …”

He turned to look back at Martha, saw the grim resolve in the set of her jaw. She had been steeling herself against the agony for days, but there was still a little hope there. Perhaps senseless hope, but hope nonetheless. He looked back to Mary, met the fierce intensity of her leveled gave with one that spoke a compassion flesh had never felt. Her lip quivered with barely restrained ferocity, love, fear, and pain. His eyes started to fill.

He dropped his gaze. He looked at the dirt at Mary’s feet, dirt she would return to one day. Cursed earth. Earth that had already claimed his friend.

“Where is he?,” he asked her, his soft voice breaking. He started to cry, tears running down his face into his beard.

One of the mourners saw, and turned to her friend. “Look, the Master really loved Lazarus,” she said, following the crowd as they began to shuffle toward the tomb.

It’s my favorite moment in the New Testament. I know it probably ought to be something in Romans. Even if I limit it to the gospels, it probably ought to be the Resurrection or the Ascension. But this is the moment I pick. Jesus, Theanthropos, the God/Man … crying. Why? He knew He was about to rip his friend back from death’s cold grip. Why did He cry?

Was it because he saw and felt the grief of people He loved? Was it because He knew that Lazarus’s resurrection was only a tease, that he would have to suffer that cruel fate again? Was it because he was overcome with anger at sin and death itself?

I don’t know. I’m not sure it’s knowable. But today, this story whispers a new comfort to me.

Jesus, God incarnate, stands in front of a tomb and cries. He walks out of heaven and into the earthy work of art He painted, sits down on the ash heap of our suffering, and He weeps. Yes, He comes to redeem. Yes, He comes to undo sin and death and darkness. Yes, He comes to show us a better way. But let’s not miss that in the process, He stands before us and looks us in the eye as we suffer loss and heartbreak.

What He says to us in that moment perhaps doesn’t speak as eloquently as what He does not say. He doesn’t say:

“Suck it up.”

“This is your cross to bear.”

“You should be over this by now.”

“If you really trusted Me, this would be easier.”

“The consequences of sin suck. Sorry.”

“Isn’t this all a little bit you-centered?”

“Could you try NOT being so broken?”

“Have you tried chamomile tea?”

What He does say is “You’re going to have hard times here, in this world. But I have overcome the world.”

And He weeps.

Near to the Brokenhearted

I’m going to preach to myself a bit. Feel free to listen in.

One of my heroes tweeted this just a few minutes ago.

Tullian Tchividjian Tweet

If Tullian’s isn’t a familiar name to you, I would strongly urge you to get to know him. He’s a successful author and conference speaker. He’s Billy Graham’s grandson and the senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church. But he’s not a guy unacquainted with brokenness. He doesn’t have a super glitzy past. He’s been places and done things. It’s because of this that when he speaks to me of God’s “One Way Love” for me — His completely unconditional acceptance that disregards my sin in favor of Christ’s sinlessness credited to my account — I listen more attentively than when I hear similar things from shiny, golden people. (Clicking on the graphic above will take you to a collection of his blogs for The Gospel Coalition.)

The message was one I needed to hear today. That’s a really sanitized way to say it. It hit me like a life-preserver, honestly. In the last week, I’ve almost shut this blog down at least three times. I’m nearly 75% convinced right now that the ideas I write about, while theoretically and biblically sound, are utterly unrealistic in any sort of practical application. I guess I just continue to find far more evidence that it won’t work. I had a 4.5 hour phone conversation this week, one where I really opened up about some of my past and struggles. The unmistakable response was that I should suck it up, keep it to myself, and abandon the idea that I was ever going to find a community to proactively help push me toward Jesus. No one wants to know about deeply dark struggles, Rick. It’s not fair to tell them and place the weight on them of figuring out a response.

Sometimes I get tired of admitting that I’m struggling again. “Again?” Sometimes I get tired of admitting that this is a nearly perpetual struggle for me. I long for a community that walks and wrestles together … really together. I know the guy I had the marathon phone session with isn’t alone. I’m sure I have a lot of friends who wish I would abandon this idea. People for whom it’s awkward and difficult to really reach out and grab hold of someone’s messy hand. Particularly the hand of one who keeps needing it. I know this is hard. I get it.

I know how pathetic this sounds. I probably won’t even re-read it before I hit “publish.” It makes me sound weak, helpless, and needy. In short, it makes me sound like all the things I am. That’s why I almost shut down the blog. I’m tired of looking like what I am. I’m tired of not being able to pretend I’m “shiny.”

Okay, enough of that. Here’s the preaching.

Tozer has a quote I found recently that I also grabbed hold of like a drowning man. It says “It is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.” Here’s the quote in context:

The flaming desire to be rid of every unholy thing and to put on the likeness of Christ at any cost is not often found among us. We expect to enter the everlasting kingdom of our Father and to sit down around the table with sages, saints and martyrs; and through the grace of God, maybe we shall; yes maybe we shall. But for the most of us it could prove at first an embarrassing experience. Ours might be the silence of the untried soldier in the presence of the battle-hardened heroes who have fought the fight and won the victory and who have scars to prove that they were present when the battle was joined. Thus, it is necessary for God to use suffering in his holy work of preparing his saints, it is doubtful whether God can bless a man greatly until he has hurt him deeply.

A.W. Tozer, The Root of the Righteous

God, I hope that’s what’s happening. I hope You’re doing all of this for some reason. I’m so tired of hurting.

What if it’s just blind, legalistic consequences of sin? What if it’s just brokenness for the sake of brokenness? I’m not sure I can face the long view with that sort of prognosis. Yeah, we all want to gently speak to the righteous sufferer … “Hey, God uses all things to work out His eternal glory and your eternal good.” But what about the sinner? What about the guy who’s suffering because of his actions? What about the guy that wouldn’t be where he was if he hadn’t done bad things? What do we say to him?

I’m just going to end by saying these things to him (me), and continue to hold out hope that God was talking about him (me) when He said them.


For he will deliver the needy when he cries for help,
The afflicted also, and him who has no helper.
He will have compassion on the poor and needy,
And the lives of the needy he will save.

Psalm 72:12-13


Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are ours in abundance, so also our comfort is abundant through Christ.

II Corinthians 1:3-5


After you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself perfect, confirm, strengthen and establish you.

I Peter 5:10


The Lord sustains all who fall
And raises up all who are bowed down.
The eyes of all look to You,
And You give them their food in due time.
You open Your hand
And satisfy the desire of every living thing.
The Lord is righteous in all His ways
And kind in all His deeds.
The Lord is near to all who call upon Him,
To all who call upon Him in truth.
He will fulfill the desire of those who fear Him;
He will also hear their cry and will save them.

Psalm 145:14-19


Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it to life eternal. If anyone serves Me, he must follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also; if anyone serves Me, the Father will honor him.

John 12:24-26


The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
And saves those who are crushed in spirit.

Psalm 34:18

Josh Garrells on Suffering and Community

Sometimes, on days where I’m feeling pretty lonely, one of my heroes shows up and tells me I’m not crazy. It helps a bit. It actually helps a whole lot.

Josh Garrells on Suffering and Community

Clicking the picture will take you to an article on the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship website. Scroll down to the second video. It’s 4:40 long. It’s beautiful.


A Conspiracy of Plasticity

I forget where I first read the quote that total depravity is the only empirically demonstrable Calvinistic doctrine. It’s a cute statement, but behind the joke of it, there’s a cringe and a wince.

The truth about ourselves is unavoidable. We are confronted with its proofs every day, even days we stay home in our pajamas and don’t interact with others. We all know the problem, believer and non-believer alike. We all know that:

  1. We are broken and sinful
  2. It is shameful and embarrassing
  3. We can’t do anything about it on our own

When faced with a dilemma of that magnitude, we all do what it is our nature to do. We hide, direct attention elsewhere, and look for loopholes.

It doesn’t work, it never does. The problem affects every part of everything we do. Even the best efforts of the most self-disciplined of us won’t help us bite the bullet and grind it out. We are hopelessly broken and we all prove it to each other every time we turn around.

So, what do we do?

The gospel offers us one option. We can be honest, stop hiding and pretending, and openly own our brokenness. We can bring it to the foot of the cross and exchange it for perfect, spotless righteousness lived on our behalf. But in doing so, we know that we lose the right to define ourselves forever. In coming to Him for help, we’re acknowledging our Maker’s divine right to fix us in a manner of His choosing. So, uh … absolutely not! Right? The fear that God will mess with our priorities and idols and deepest desires is too much. Honestly, I don’t think even the majority of believers ever really do that.

We do the other thing. We all agree to adjust the standard to which we can’t possibly measure up. We come to a silent consensus to lower the bar enough that we can all jump over. We cooperate in a conspiracy of plasticity, an agreement to not talk about the elephant in the corner, and we live our lives with fake smiles plastered across our faces. We avoid looking too long into another’s eyes. We decide that questions like “how are you?” are social constructs and not really requests for information at all. We pick and choose ideas that make us feel connected to a higher reality, ideas like “judge not” and “the greatest of these is love,” and we build an ethical hierarchy around them that has no root in anything but the way we selfishly want to be respected and loved.

The church isn’t exempt.We collectively agree that phrases like “bear one another’s burdens” and “love like Jesus loved you” and “forgive as you have been forgiven” and “be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful” are hyperbole and not realistic goals to which we should be held accountable to aspire. “Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly before God” gets so much added to it, just so we can feel like we’ve at least got part of the checklist covered. We hide the shortcomings of our horizontal love behind a manufactured zeal for “loftier” ideals like Calvinism, Presbyterianism, Eucharist doctrine, or cessationism (those are some of the ones my circles are super proud of … yours might differ). We throw ourselves into what really amounts to a second job, a construct where we do our best to appear to be something we know we’re not. Those of us that are really good Christians and respectable members of the community make sure that we serve on pulpit committees, sign up for set-up crews, show up for every youth group function, and sing up front on Sundays. We position ourselves where people will see the best of us, because success ultimately comes down to being defined as shallowly as it is in our first job: going through the right motions in the right way, and keeping the right people happy with us.

Before we know it, we’ve become a social club of people completely happy to keep gently adjusting the wool over one another’s eyes, listening to Oprahesque rehash with itching ears. We’re happy sleep-walking because it’s been years since we’ve really demanded anything else from one another.

The gospel will shatter all of that, in exhilarating and terrifying ways. Which is why we continue to be very, very careful to make sure that the gospel stays theoretical.

I Don’t Get Mercy

I’m having trouble writing this. This is the fourth reboot of this post, and that’s just not something I usually do. I’m starting to learn more about my blind spots, and I’m beginning to think my struggles with this topic are because I really kinda don’t want to tell you how much I don’t understand this grace stuff.

Let’s get the shiny, positive stuff out of the way first and then I’ll dive into how much I suck at this. I’ve got a couple of stories to share.

The first is from C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce. For those of you unfamiliar with the novel, it’s told from the viewpoint of a narrator who finds himself in a “grey town,” a dim and dark place, and takes a bus trip to another place that ends up being the outskirts of heaven.

Once they arrive at their destination, the narrator and his fellow travelers realize that they are ghosts and are unable to even walk on the grass of this new place, as it is so “solid” that it hurts their insubstantial bodies. Even leaves are far too heavy for them to lift. Bright and shining resident spirits come to meet the ghosts and promise to help them on the journey deeper into heaven. They tell them that they will become more solid as they journey toward the mountains and sunrise. Most of the ghosts find excuses to not take the journey, and return to the town.

One such ghost is met by a spirit that he had known in life. The spirit had worked for him and had actually murdered a friend of the ghost’s. The ghost was not pleased to see that the spirit sent to assist him was one he considered his moral inferior. The wispy ghost angrily tells his helper that he won’t appeal to charity in order to be escorted into heaven by a murderer.

“If they choose to let in a bloody murderer all because he makes a poor mouth at the last moment, that’s their lookout. But I don’t see myself going in the same boat with you, see? Why should I? I don’t want charity. I’m a decent man and if I had my rights I’d have been here long ago and you can tell them I said so.”

The other shook his head. “You can never do it like that,” he said. “Your feet will never grow hard enough to walk on our grass that way. You’d be tired out before we got to the mountains. And it isn’t exactly true, you know.” Mirth danced in his eyes as he said it.

“What isn’t true?” asked the Ghost sulkily.

“You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. We none of us were and we none of us did. Lord bless you, it doesn’t matter. There is no need to go into it all now.”

“You!” gasped the Ghost. “You have the face to tell me I wasn’t a decent chap?”

“Of course. Must I go into all that? I will tell you one thing to begin with. Murdering old Jack wasn’t the worst thing I did. That was the work of a moment and I was half mad when I did it. But I murdered you in my heart, deliberately, for years. I used to lie awake at nights thinking what I’d do to you if ever I got the chance.”

In the end, the ghost walks away grumbling and whimpering across the piercing grass. Unable to accept that none of what he thought were his greatest accomplishments were worth anything in this new reality, and that all the things he thought were the worst in others really weren’t, he returns to the grey town. He chooses hell over heaven.

The part that wedges the most hurt into my heart is that line by the shining spirit of the former murderer “It isn’t exactly true, you know … You weren’t a decent man and you didn’t do your best. We none of us were and we none of us did.” 

The second story I want to share is one that Jesus told. He had a point in telling it. He always did. Here He is dealing with a spectacularly “Peter-esque” question once again:

Peter came and said to Him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him? Up to seven times?” 

Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you, up to seven times, but up to seventy times seven.

“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he had begun to settle them, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. But since he did not have the means to repay, his lord commanded him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all that he had, and repayment to be made. 

“So the slave fell to the ground and prostrated himself before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you everything.’ And the lord of that slave felt compassion and released him and forgave him the debt. 

“But that slave went out and found one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and he seized him and began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay back what you owe.’  So his fellow slave fell to the ground and began to plead with him, saying, ‘Have patience with me and I will repay you.’ But he was unwilling and went and threw him in prison until he should pay back what was owed. 

“So when his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were deeply grieved and came and reported to their lord all that had happened. Then summoning him, his lord said to him, ‘You wicked slave, I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not also have had mercy on your fellow slave, in the same way that I had mercy on you?’ And his lord, moved with anger, handed him over to the torturers until he should repay all that was owed him. 

“My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

Matthew 18:21-35 (NASB)

I often wonder how many times Jesus had to struggle to avoid rolling His eyes at Peter. Here we have him asking the Son of God, “Hey, how many times do I have to forgive my brother? … like, maybe seven times? Is seven good? That’s a good, biblical number, right? Let’s say seven!”

Jesus, of course, turns conventional wisdom on its ear. He takes the good, biblical number and multiplies it by another good, biblical number, arriving at what everyone there would have understood as a large, symbolically significant number. It wasn’t likely that Peter was thinking “Crap! That’s 483 more times.” But just in case he was, Jesus tells a story, and it’s a doozy

It’s easy for me to gloss over some of the crucial elements of this familiar tale. I sometimes ignore numbers (particularly when they serve to illustrate a point I find uncomfortable). In this story the numbers are really important. Talents and denarii aren’t common units of measure for me, so I’m going to translate. Let’s assume for the sake of our story, that both slaves in question make the same wage. Let’s further assume that they make the equivalent of the U.S. median income, which last year was just over $51,000.

A denarius, which was a day’s wage, would then be somewhere in the neighborhood of $195. Slave #2 owed Slave #1 one hundred denarii, which would come out pretty close to $20,000. That’s not a small amount. It’s close to half a year’s wages. It’s hard to fault Slave #1 for wanting his 20 grand back … at least until we do the math on his debt.

Matthew tells us that Slave #1 owed the king 10,000 talents. My study bible tells me that a talent would have been equal to more than fifteen years of the slave’s wages. If we do the math with $51K as our base, we come up with a ridiculously large number. 10,000 x 15 (rounded down for ease of calculation) x $51,000 = $7,650,000,000. That’s $7.65 BILLION dollars … billion with a “B.”

Slave #1 was going after Slave #2 for .00026 % of the debt he’d just been forgiven. And he wasn’t just saying, “Hey, when you get around to it. No rush.” There was choking involved.

I employ lots of tactics to avoid the clear lesson of the parable. I identify with the wrong character. Some days I choose the king (“If I am kind to someone, that person ought to be kind to others”). Some days I choose Slave #2 (“That person who won’t forgive me should do so because they owe God more than I owe them”). I want to choose the part in the drama that’s easiest on me, but in doing so I miss the point.

When I’m honest with myself, I think the lesson Jesus is trying to teach Peter (and me) is this:

I cannot hold another image-bearer of God to a legal standard to which I will not submit myself.

I cannot appeal to God for grace and mercy for myself that I will not also extend to my fellow image-bearers.

I do not get to hold someone else to the requirements of the Law unless I am also willing to submit myself to them. If I am going to say that a friend who has hurt me must be held accountable for his actions, then I must also be held accountable for my shortcomings. There is no karma. There is no scales to measure good against bad and plot us out on some divine acceptability chart. We either get grace or we get the law. There is nothing between them. If I say that I want justice for someone else, I am saying that I want justice for myself. (And I don’t. I really, really don’t.) If I beg for mercy and grace for myself, then I am asking for mercy and grace for you. It’s a package deal. God may get to decide who gets mercy and who gets justice, but I don’t.

It is cosmically nonsensical for me to stand before the King of the Universe and beg for His mercy for what I know that I owe, and then demand that He hold the person who slighted me accountable for his failures. But I do it every day.

When I’m even more honest with myself, I will admit that the moment I start to really understand what Jesus means, I load the cannons with lots of truthy devastation and take aim at anyone but myself. Let me give you a real-life, excruciatingly painful example.

By now, anyone reading this will know that I’m divorced. Lots of you probably want me to move on and stop writing about it. Not sure what to say to that except “Sorry.” The divorce has been the most painful thing I have ever navigated, and it still hurts like hell every day. It’s far from over. One of the things that keeps it so fresh and eviscerating is this ongoing mental game that Satan plays in my head. When God shows me something like the powerful truth in bold above, the sad reality is that the first person I aim it at is the woman I love the most on the planet.

“God, she should have done this/that differently! She shouldn’t have behaved this/that way! She started this whole thing when she hurt me in this/that manner! Your word clearly states that there are things she should have done that she didn’t, and things that she shouldn’t have done that she did! She appeals to grace and mercy to cover her faults and demands the letter of the law for mine! I had 174 forgivings to go! She’s wrong!”

I won’t embarrass myself by telling you how often God and I have this very conversation. I get so angry. I’m spitting and crying and shouting, and I’m indignant and my chest is puffed out and I’m demanding justice from my Maker. And the irony of the situation always initially passes right over my head.

This is a woman that I loved and failed. I didn’t lead her well. I didn’t serve her in a Christ-like manner. I backed down from confrontation out of fear of upsetting the delicate balance of uneasy truce. I willfully allowed myself to be deceived into believing that a lack of conflict was equivalent to marital health. I was weak and fearful. I was selfish and dismissive of her. Ultimately, I gave in to depression, grief, and mental anguish and chose to self-medicate by being unfaithful to her.

That’s the truth. That’s who I am. That’s what I’ve done. That’s the moral platform I bring to the table as I puff my chest out at God and make demands of Him. There’s not a scales that exists that could level the sin I’ve committed against this woman I adore with the petty crimes she’s committed against me. But I keep trying.

I remember another offense, some trifling thing she did. Some other way in which I was betrayed, in which she failed me. I dig through my memory on my hands and knees and when I stumble upon one, I leap to my feet shouting with self-satisfied glee. I run to the scales and drop the coin onto her side.”See! She WAS wrong! She DID sin!” I wait for a moment to see if the scales will tilt, and then return to my search.

I’ve gotten good at even finding farthings of damnation in scripture. I know just where to go to appeal to the law and I wield it like a brutal hammer, demanding my rights, demanding what is just. And all the while, I’m standing in a giant blind spot surrounded by all my own shortcomings. I cut myself slack I wouldn’t dream of extending to her. All while lobbing flaming chunks of law and requirement at her that I would never even consider trying to fulfill myself.

It’s a ridiculous cycle that I’ve repeated many, many times in the last year and a half. And I will continue to go through the stupid, pointless motions of it until I learn the truth. Here is the truth:

The key to seeing my value and righteousness has nothing to do with comparing my sin toward my ex-wife with her sin toward me. It has everything to do with comparing her sin toward me with my sin toward God.

In the story Jesus told, I’m not the king. I’m not Slave #2. I’m Slave #1. I owe $7.65 billion and I’m trifling about your outstanding drink tab. I’ve committed cosmic treason, and I’m mad at you because you don’t love me in the way I feel I deserve. I’m the bad guy in the story, and I know it.

I don’t get grace and mercy. I’ve received it, but I don’t “get it.” The extent to which I get it is the extent to which I will extend it.


Robert Capon on House Parties

“Listen! I am standing at the door and knocking! If anyone hears my voice and opens the door I will come into his home and have supper (deípnon) with him, and he with me.”

I choose this passage not because I intend to make a full commentary on the letters that Jesus, in a vision, told John the Divine to write to the seven churches in Asia but because it enables me to ring some changes on the image I just introduced of the house set in illusory darkness. In those early sections of Revelation, Jesus speaks to John in a vision of light: he is holding seven stars in his right hand and he is walking in the midst of seven golden lampstands. So much for the outer darkness: even as he stands out there on the world’s front step and knocks—even there, outside the door of the swept and ordered house (Lk, 11:25) he has provided for us in his death and resurrection, there is light; even those of us who perversely choose to love the darkness are standing in the Light. And so much for the threat of the seven devils worse than our first uncleanness (Lk 11:26) whom we might possibly invite in to make that house dark again: the judge of the world is on the doorstep and there isn’t room for a single one of them.

For the judge who stands there is not alone. There is a crowd with him, and it isn’t the cops. It is a party. It is all the guest at the Supper (deípnon) of the Lamb—plus the chefs and the caterer’s crew and the musicians and the stars of the evening—all making an eternal racket, all pleading to bring the party into the house. And they have found our address not because they looked it up in the “books that were opened” at the last judgment before the great white throne (Rev. 20:12)—not because they examined our records and found us socially acceptable—but only because he showed them our names in the “other book that was opened” (Rev. 20:12, again): the Lamb’s book of life.

Do you see? If he had looked us up in those books, we would all have been judged according to our works (Rev. 20:12, still), and the eternal party would never even have come down our street. But because he only looked us up in the book—because he came to save and not to judge, because in the Lamb’s book we are all okay, all clothed with his righteousness, all drawn infallibly to himself by his being lifted up in death and resurrection—because of that only because of that, he finds the door of every last one of us and lands the party on our porch. All we have to do is say yes to him and open the door. We do not have to earn the party; we already have the party. We do not have to understand the party, or conjure up good feelings about the party; we have only to enjoy the party. Everything else: the earning, the deserving, the knowing, the feeling—our records, our sins, even our sacred guilt—is irrelevant. “No man,” Luther said, “can know or feel he is saved; he can only believe it.” And he can only believe it because there is nothing left for him to do but believe it. It is already here. There is therefore now no condemnation. The Light has come into the world.

Even at the judgment, therefore, the gracious Light—the Phōs hilarón—is still the only game in town. When the Lamb stands at the door and knocks, only an inveterate nonsport would say, “Darkness, anyone?”

The Parables of Judgment, Robert Farrar Capon