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.