Tag Archive: grace


One of my dearest friends is an officer in the army. In what we think, the ways we think, the convictions and beliefs we hold, it wouldn’t be too much of an exaggeration to say that we are diametric opposites. He once said to me, “Steph, we’re never going to get anywhere talking about religion. You’re as stubborn as I am!”

I remember grinning at him, sheepishly.

The funny thing is that it’s totally true, but also totally not.

1. There is a world of difference between a person who is stubborn, and a person who holds a conviction strongly.

I think one of the many blessings of university, is that the longer you spend time in an environment where your views are constantly rubbing up against the views of other people (who are often a heck of a lot smarter than you are), the less likely you are to be overconfident about what you think.

I think it is possible to listen to a person attentively in such a way that you genuinely seek to see the logic, or at least merit, of their opinions. Even if it is an opinion that you really disagree with to start out with. Especially when it is an opinion that you really disagree with.

I think there must be a way of listening in which, instead of calculating in your mind all the ways in which you could undermine their argument with interjections of your own, you listen. Not just attentive to the argument. But attentive to the person. Because until you understand the person, you won’t really understand the argument. Because you won’t understand the worldview that underlies the argument.

But I don’t think it’s accurate to say that if, after listening to the other person sincerely, you hold the same opinion you did to begin with that you are stubborn. It might just be that the other person has not presented you with evidence convincing enough, or an argument compelling enough, to sway you from your strongly held conviction. And that’s legitimate!

2. The pride residing at the root of stubbornness is a poison that we cannot root out by trying harder

Every day for a month last year I wrote “Phil 2:3” on my hand, to try to retrain my mind to resolve to “consider others better than myself.” It was an attempt to train my mind and my mouth.

I think it was a good thing to do.

But it didn’t go deep enough.

You see, I don’t just have a stubborn mind. I have a stubborn heart. Gosh, even when I’m thinking to myself in a conversation, “Consider this person better than you,” another part of me is thinking, “And aren’t you just GREAT for trying to think of them (a person who is clearly inferior to you) better than you?”

!!

You see, I am fundamentally incapable of considering other people better than myself; it’s going to take a lot more than looking at scrawls of ink on my hand throughout the day for me to consider others better than myself!

I need to go deeper. To trace back my words to the thoughts underlying them, and the ways of thinking underlying my thoughts, and to the genesis of these ways of thinking. And, maybe you’ll agree – the spring from which these ways of thinking, from which all of my life flows, is my heart.

3. It takes a heart transplant

I do not think that holding an opinion strongly is necessarily ‘stubborn’ in a negative, ignorant, unresponsive sense.

But I do have a stubborn heart.

When I jotted down this thought a few weeks back, I had just had a week of many refreshing conversations in which I had been reminded of my spiritual amnesia, of my inability to root out these stubborn and poisonous weeds in my heart.

When I say stubborn, I mean this: like a smoker, my heart returns time and time again to the same unsatisfying addictions; like a disobedient dog, I stray back into bad habits; like a distrustful two-year-old, I deliberately forge on towards decisions that I know will upset the ones who love me, and I can’t change it.

I genuinely can’t change it.

Sure, I can change the behaviours: I can stop speaking badly of a person, I can try to think differently about them and rebuke myself every time I slip in the hope that, like Pavlov’s Dog, my behaviour will change. But changing behaviours doesn’t change a heart, and if the heart doesn’t change, then the root which bore the fruit of the behaviour will simply crop up in a different part of my life, in a different way.

4. Persistent grace

The reason these conversations were refreshing and not depressing?

I was reminded of the astounding work that God has done in me by regenerating my heart and giving me new cravings and affections to replace my old ones. I was reminded of the relentless pursuit of God in His endeavour to reclaim ALL of my heart for Himself. I was reminded of His faithfulness in saving me from myself, from my stubborn heart, and from the unkind masters I am prone to devoting myself to.

He hasn’t withheld any of His infinite resources in His redemption of this death-bound creature. It does not make sense to think that He would save me on a cosmic, eternal scale, only to leave me to change myself, alone.

No. His grace is persistent. He persists in wooing me to return to me from the rebellion of sin, and He persists in the gradual work of regenerating all the cravings and desires of my heart.

I am fundamentally incapable of changing my own heart. But He is not. He is the only one with hands that are strong enough, delicate enough, and loving enough to change my stubborn heart. But the incredible thing is that unlike my manufactured self-resolve, His purposes cannot be thwarted. He will overcome my stubborn heart.

Heck. Yes. !

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)

Loose change

It had actually happened.

I’m sure you can relate, but I often will say, off-handedly, that I ‘have no money’, or ‘have run out of cash’, but in truth, I usually have about $15 or $20 in my bank account, at very least.

Not this time.

Let me set the scene for you: it was a cold Friday’s morn. I had returned to Sydney from Byron on Wednesday night to an empty house. Well, it had stuff in it, but no people. It was weird; the house felt remarkably different. In any case, there were 3 eggs, 100mLs of milk, and tins of food. No probs.

As I headed off to uni the next day, I bought some food for a lady, got the Big Issue from Bill, and paid for a Law Revue ticket in $20’s worth of shrapnel, leaving me with about 50 cents. It was good to get rid off that loose change. I went to buy some lunch, queued up at the ATM, only to be greeted with that horrible, horrible message: ‘Your account has insufficient funds to make this transaction.’ Tried again for a lesser amount. Same message.

First world problems, hey.

In any case, wasn’t fussed, just went to class, then skittaddled off home. My brother asked me to pick up a suit for him from the tailor, so I trundled up the stairs to his shop, only to find that I needed $48 in cash to get the jacket. In hope, I dashed over the road to the local grocer, hoping that I could get some cash out by overdrawing my account. No such joy. Went home, cooked something up with an array of canned goods, then Em came over with a lemon and coconut cake. We had tea, using the last of the milk, and all was merry.

.. This is becoming an unnecessarily long story.

Come Friday morning, I realised that there was nothing for breakfast. Well, I’m exaggerating. There was rice, pasta, lentils, and – wait for it – KIPPERS. To be honest, it was luxurious relative to what billions around the world nourish themselves with daily. And my kippers were totally tasty. The issue came when I realised that I didn’t have money for a train ticket to get to work.

I genuinely had access to 50 cents, in 5 and 10 cent pieces.

I assessed my options with calm calculation. Thoughts of God’s provision at just the right time to those who needed something crossed my mind; maybe God would move a kind stranger at the station to help me out? Immediately my mind dismissed the notion that God would provide for me in this way. After all, I’d spent the last of my money unwisely, on a Law Revue ticket! I didn’t deserve that kind of timely providence. I went to leave to the station anyway, but then remembered to feed the dog.

15 seconds later, my brother walks in the door.

He had come back home unexpectedly, to pick up his jacket from the tailor. I asked if he could lend me $4 for a ticket, after explaining my predicament; he laughed, and gave me $10.

The thought that sat in my mind for the next hour or so was that how foolish I was to think that God’s providence was proportionate to my deserving it. If God provides what I need on a cosmic, soul-rescuing level, and He did not withhold even His own Son to rescue someone who was His enemy; why on EARTH do I keep slipping back into the thinking that He will only bless me if I have earned it?

I don’t deserve it.

And that’s the point.

You don’t earn grace. You receive it, in thankfulness, and you receive it to bless others. This little provision of loose change was a reminder to a spiritual amnesiac that I can also afford to spend to love others, even if I feel uncomfortable because I don’t have the security of having enough cash, because God will provide what I need. I believe this is true even if He hadn’t orchestrated by brother to come home and given me $10. His provision isn’t always in the ways we want or expect. But I believe this: His grace is an abundant sufficiency. His grace to me may have been in refining away something in my heart by causing me to lean more heavily on Him, not food, just as equally as His grace to me happened to be the provision of some loose change.

His grace is sufficient for me, for His power is made perfect in weakness. Amen.

It was offensive to respectable society.

It wasn’t just that Jesus the Nazarene carried incidental conversation with them out of politeness; he sought them out at his initiative and engaged in the social norm which was an expression of the closest social acceptance – table-fellowship.

‘They’ were the hamartōloi, the resha’im… the wicked. Although there was a degree of factionalism involved in the use of the word (‘if you don’t subscribe to my interpretation of the law (and accordingly, breach it), then you are a sinner!’), there was a considerable degree of commonality in the use of the term. It was derogatory, to say the least; these were not the kind of people that respectable people would trust with their kids.

It was offensive to respectable society in first century Palestine that Jesus associated with them so closely. And it is offensive still today.

My thought yesterday was approximately this: the fact that those who follow Jesus are often ‘worse’ people than those who do not grates with a lot of people. To an extent, this is attributable to people affiliating themselves with Jesus who aren’t in a relationship with Him, yes; to and extent, this is a smokescreen complaint for someone who wants to keep the claims of Jesus at arm’s length, yes; and particularly, to an extent, this is just the inconsistency of those who follow Jesus but are still plagued by their daily disobedience. Yes.

But what I was reflecting on yesterday in the car was that Jesus associated with those who respectable people didn’t think were kosher. Similarly, although respectable society today looks different (pluralistic, tolerant, PC, etc..), it remains offended by the people Jesus chooses to draw to Himself. It deems them inappropriate candidates for who God would want to be in relationship with. It assumes that because these people are flawed, broken, and inconsistent, that the One they say they worship must not be God. The only real difference between now and then, is the qualities that we associated with ‘the wicked’ have changed. Whereas it was once ‘tax collector, prostitute, thief, liar’, it is now ‘arrogant, narrow-minded, rigid’. Respectable society is hugely resistant to the idea that these people would ever be acceptable to God.

The crucial point is exactly this: those who are otherwise unable to be acceptable to God are approved by Him on the account of Jesus’ blood.

Jesus dined with those who people didn’t like, and didn’t think should ever be able to get a hearing with God, let alone share table-fellowship with Him.

Granted, of course, I’ll be the first to fall to my knees and cry out to God about the way Christians treat other people; our lovelessness and selfishness isn’t normative! It’s residual of who we were when we met Jesus, not a fruit of our relationship with Him. And there is more of a lesson in Jesus’ dining with ‘sinners’ for those who claim to know God, yet exclude those with whom Jesus appeared to be closest.

But this is so important to understand: the fact is that awful people are just the people who Jesus sought out then, and they are just the people He seeks out now. Why? Well, because when by His grace they are transformed into better, truer, fuller, more whole, versions of themselves, it will not be attributable to them ‘just being a nice guy/gal’; JESUS will get the glory.

It’s not to give them a licence to stay in the clothing of their old self; far from it. Jesus’ practise of dining with sinners was not acquiescence to their ways, but a practical parable of his message that the kingdom of God was breaking in, and that it was a free gift to any and all who would accept it through repentance. Repentance required a change of mind about God, about themselves, and about other people. Jesus’ contact with them over a meal triggered that repentance, which in turn brought them into a relationship which would gradually transform their external behaviours.

I’m not sure if this makes sense. Or if I am propagating a total heresy. Indeed, I am so so grieved by the loveless contempt displayed by many who profess Jesus as Lord. I think that they often represent the religious elite against whom Jesus reacted vehemently. And, to be honest, there is more to be said for an analogy of the church as Pharisees than as the ‘sinners’ with whom Jesus associated (maybe they are both?). But that is matched by the contempt of those who react against their sin (lovelessness) and their designation that these people are beyond redemption.

Jesus tells us that no one is beyond redemption. Even the most despicable and contemptible among us.

Because His grace goes deeper still.

Physics

1 Six days before the Passover, Jesus came to Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. 2 Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honor. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. 3 Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

4 But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, 5 “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” 6He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

7 “Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. 8 You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

(12th Chapter of the Gospel according to the apostle John)

I did physics for a while. I quite enjoyed it, truth be told. I wasn’t very good, though. Why? Well. I sat next to the smartest guys in the class at the back of the room. You would think that would be conducive to effective learning/leeching. Unfortunately, these guys were the UBER nerd type, who could afford to not be focused the whole time. They were also pretty much the funniest guys in the world. The result was that I spent most of my physics classes laughing hysterically at the jokes the boys would mutter back and forth. A brilliant time. Unfortunately, it meant that I didn’t take class that seriously. I also rarely did my homework. Not deliberately. I just never seemed to get around to it.

In any case, the point of this diatribe is to say that the only thing of use I’ve extracted from that time (apart from a lot of fun, laughter, and the foundation for enduring friendships), was a vague memory of Newton’s Laws of Physics.

Namely, the third one: That every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

I have tutoring in 4 minutes, so to cut straight to the chase:

It makes no sense to be lukewarm about the gracious expression of love and mercy God has shown us through Jesus Christ.

If grace enters a heart, surely it can’t help but cause a reaction that is proportionate to the weight of the grace that has entered the heart and displaced what once resided there? How does it make sense to be calculating and measured about how much grace or love or mercy I show others?

Mary’s actions were not financially sensible. They were, however, an extravagant reaction to an extravagant action. I think that if someone raised my brother from the dead, I wouldn’t be cautious or calculating in expressing my thanks and joy and delight. The reality is that we ourselves have been raised from death; we who were dead in sin, unresponsive to God, and far away, have been given new hearts, regenerated hearts that are responsive to God, and a new life, characterised by the living hope secured by Jesus’ resurrection.

When we have been shown extravagant love, the grace of that experience enters our hearts, brings us to life, transforms us, and overflows into a desire to love back. And not just to love back with a sense of duty or sensible, measured frugality. To love back with extravagance.

 

 

 

[Subsequent Edit/Qualifications/Elaborations]

It’s not a matter of ‘should’; it’s not that grace obliges you to act proportionately. Because that’s not grace, right? That’s still you working to earn what was already freely given to you. No. It is the natural effect of grace. It’s the fruit of grace. Just as the healthy function of an apple tree is to produce apples (it’s not obliged to; it just DOES), so too the healthy and natural function of a heart regenerated by grace to follow Jesus is to produce the fruit of grace.

Those who follow Jesus do things that look like Jesus. It’s not that followers of Jesus ought to. It’s more that, if they don’t, then aren’t they detouring from the path that Jesus took? Like Dallas Willard said, it’s the things you DO that reveal what you actually believe, not the things you say you believe.

To qualify: for sure – EVERY follower of Jesus is inconsistent. Unequivocally. We will bear fruit that looks nothing like Him, sometimes. But that is evidence of an unhealthy tree.

Furthermore, the fuel for bearing fruit isn’t your own effort. You don’t look more like Jesus by trying harder to live like Him. It’s impossible, and will only leave you frustrated, and in bitter self-condemnation. You become more like Jesus when His Spirit reclaims more and more of your heart, and grace takes hold. That is not passive. You have to lean into what He is doing, you have to yoke yourself to Him, you have to abide in Jesus. But He is the one who grows the fruit.

So when I talk about how God’s action of grace towards us “needs” to produce an “equally” extravagant reaction, let me make two clarifications. Firstly, it’s not so much a mandate or a prescription, as a description. God’s action of grace WILL produce a reaction in us. It’s not about you trying harder to manufacture an appropriate reaction. It’s about His Spirit working the reaction in you, and you leaning into that work. “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling”. Secondly, our reaction can never be “equally” proportionate to what He has done for us. But’s that OK. It’s not like grace is a debt we’ve incurred and need to pay back through our reaction. Maybe what I mean to say is that it’s not about quantity, as it is about quality. A reaction to extravagant grace ought to be stamped with the character of extravagance; extravagance derived not from obligation or our own resources, but extravagance which is derived from the GRACE which gave birth to it. It is stamped with the DNA of radical love, it has a quality of recklessness and self-disregard. This will look different in different people’s lives; different people have different capacities. I need to be careful when comparing my reaction to Jesus with other people’s. Yes, there needs to be a degree of commonality; the Scriptures say what the fruit of the Spirit look like. Jesus tells us what following Him will look like, in part;  loving God, loving people, denying self, suffering for His sake, not chasing after the things of this world… But there’s a difference between “fruit inspecting” and being condescending.

I feel that there is a danger in circles of Christians who are on fire for social justice to be condescending towards other Christians who aren’t on fire for social justice. To think that they aren’t being radical disciples. I know because, shamefully, I am often one of them. Maybe there is some truth in thinking that if they’re not on board with God’s purposes to bring restoration to all creation, then they’re missing something. But, hey; we’re all missing something when it comes to God, aren’t we? I know I’m missing several things. But if they’re not missing Jesus, they can still be faithfully, if inconsistently, following Jesus. “But they don’t get what He was on about!!”

Neither did the disciples, and they shared life with Jesus every day for three years. They didn’t get what the “Kingdom of God”/ “reign of God” was about, probably not until the Spirit illuminated their hearts.

What I’m trying to say, in a very longwinded manner, is that we cannot look down on our brothers and sisters who are not zealous for the same things we are. It is only by God’s grace that we have had this reaction stirred up in us to fight against injustice. There is no room for condescension. More than that, we are to in humility consider them BETTER than ourselves! (Phil 2:3)

This is massive for me. I struggle with it hardcore. But I trust that when I fall to my knees, lift my prideful heart to Him and cry for help, that He will move into action. And that his work of renovation in my heart will cause a reaction in my life that will not just enable me to be extravagant in the way I live, but it will enable me to be extravagant in the way I love, particularly those who don’t get the things that I am passionate about.

This was born out of a season of frustration.

Time and time again I had tried to improve myself by trying harder. To love people more selflessly; to honour God more fully; to die to myself and live for Him who died to bring me life. But these were goals unattainable to my own resources. I got to a pretty low point, where I just felt a bit battered, to be honest.

That’s the thing about the grace, though. It comes and ministers to you when you are most broken. Like a cool breeze on a stifling night, grace whispers that you will never have enough fuel to be enough; but that that is the point. You don’t have to muster it. You can stop striving.

There is an inarticulable release over your heart when you abide in grace. Falling to your knees to cry for help isn’t so much an experience like grazing your knees before a stony and distant dictator, who will consider your plea with callous disregard. It’s more like crumpling into your sofa after a horrible day, sobbing without dignity, and just letting your confusion, vulnerability and inability to do it all be transparent before your father as he collects you in his strong arms and lets you feel a strange comfort in dropping your bundle at his feet.

The closest approximation I can give is this:

It was a few months ago, I think. I had overloaded my day with things to do, and was already running late when I sauntered up to get the train. I passed a neighbour whose Mum had been very ill, and he unloaded everything on his mind to me. Twenty minutes later, I was meant to be at my destination, coffee ordered, and catching up with another friend. I called ahead to apologise and got a stony reception. I remember the moment when my heart breached its capacity. Climbing the stairs, two at a time, I had reached the top when the pins began to needle my eyes. Two steps further, and it was like I had been physically bruised. This sounds melodramatic, and I certainly felt embarrassed, but, in short, I began to tear up, then turned around and ran home. By the time I fumbled my key through the keyhole and prized the door open, I was sobbing. But in those silent sobs that sound more like emphysema than tears. My brother was at the piano just adjacent to the door, and I could just hear him call my name over the music thudding in my ears. He came from behind, and silently took my arm, swiveled me around, laid my bag on the ground and wrapped me in his arms.

That moment was the safest I have ever felt in my entire life. I just cried and cried like a little girl, but he didn’t care and neither did I. Five minutes past before I began to speak, but when I did, the things I spoke of were so unfiltered that I was surprised I was letting my brother see my thoughts for what they were: of how even when I try with all I am to please people, I still let them down, time and time again; about my devastating lovelessness for other people’s pain; about my claustrophobic selfishness; about my overwhelming tiredness that resides in the marrow of my frame. As I spoke these words, unveiling the most undesirable parts of my self, my brother said nothing. He just held me with his strong arms and let me deconstruct the facades I painted myself with each morning. When I had finished, he spoke gentle words that filled my heart like the crisp air of a morning run after a night in a stuffy room. The relief I felt was physical.

What I’m trying to illustrate in this tangential rambling is that sometimes we have to get to a point where we have been so assaulted by life that we are just too tired to try to fix it all anymore. We have to get to a point where we feel in our bodies, not just know in abstraction, that we can’t. We just can’t.

Sometimes that resignation can lead to a disengagement from the troubles of the world. ‘If I can’t fix it, I will detach from it.’ For me, it’s usually the point when I feel almost numb and indifferent to the pain of others that I realise that my heart has reached its saturation point. When I went to pray for the people traumatised by the earthquake and tsunami in Japan yesterday, I felt nothing. I tried to conjure up empathy, but none was forthcoming. I realised that it had been building for weeks; in disinterest towards a friend’s burdens, an absence of any desire to go out of my way to show love to those in need… It builds silently, but its mortar is robust. For me, it takes the painful realisation that not even detachment will insulate me from everything that is broken before I let my guard down.

It’s from that posture that we can run to our Father and collapse into His arms, and be real about our inadequacies. When I stop spending my energy holding up the pretence I have constructed about my competencies to do it myself, and (I’m sorry if this is unbearably sentimental and cliched for you) literally just cry it out to Him who is able… the relief is palpable.

Anyway, I’m sorry if that was a bit over the top for you. That’s me! Melodrama Central.

The point of all that was to say that crying to God for help, rather than trying to manufacture the things you observe as deficient in yourself, is not only healthier for your sanity. It’s also practically far more fruitful.

This is a song some friends and I wrote. It’s kind of about that cry for help.