Last week I wrote about wonderful truths I had learned and experienced as I walked through some hard times. I learned God can be trusted. His plan for redeeming us as broken sinners is as real as the wine and bread we partake of in holy communion. I can testify, as David does so beautifully in the Psalms, that God is “our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”
But there is another part of my story and experience that is harder to write. I have thought long and hard about doing so, but I believe it is a part of the story Scripture teaches us we have to grapple with, and I believe the whole of it needs to be said.
I referenced the adulterous woman, the prodigal son, the apostle Peter, and the demon-possessed man as wonderful examples of Jesus’ amazing grace, forgiveness, and restoration. But involved in these stories are other people who played roles. And while Jesus never fails, wow, are we as human beings hard on each other.
The adulterous woman was about to be stoned to death by people who thought they were more righteous than her and tried to use her to trap Jesus. If they were genuinely concerned about the gravity of sin, then there would have been two people standing before their execution squad. But in those days #metoo went in the other direction, and men were shielded from taking responsibility for their sin because women were all to blame. None of the accusers were quite willing to declare themselves “without sin,” hence they dropped their stones, but it’s hard to imagine they were actually repentant of their sins either. I think I’m on pretty solid ground in thinking this woman didn’t have a very easy time going forward after Jesus forgave her and instructed her to “sin no more.” It was surely a life-altering moment for her that put her on the right path again. But I would suppose many were not as filled with grace and forgiveness as Jesus was and were not happy to see her move forward in a positive direction. Someday I hope I know exactly who she is in heaven. I want to hear the rest of her story. One thing I know we will proclaim together is the amazing grace of our Savior!
The story of the prodigal son actually makes us deal with the harsh reality that although our Father is watching for the return of His wayward children and is full of grace and forgiveness toward them, that definitely is not the thinking of everyone. The elder brother is anything but happy. He thinks his younger brother doesn’t deserve forgiveness and restoration. He is angry to see his father give it to him. The father entreats him to rejoice that his brother who was lost is now found, but this self-righteous brother will have none of it and even lectures his father on why he is wrong to give it. There appears to be no real concern for his brother and the love the father had for both of his sons seems to elude his understanding. The older brother enumerates his younger brother’s sins and states he is owed something for his years of “slaving” for his father. (Again an indicator that love doesn’t inform his actions). The father forgave because he loved his son and was full of compassion, while the older brother harshly judged not only his little brother but his father too! What a picture of where our self-righteousness can lead us!
One of my favorite Christian authors, Sharon Jaynes, puts it like this:
“If you remember, not everyone was happy when the prodigal son returned. His big brother resented the fact that he got another chance. And you know what? There will be those who resent the fact that we get another chance as well. ‘Big brother won’t mind if you come back as long as you hang your head and wear your shame. But when God has the audacity to give you a little dignity back and you dare lift your radiant face to heaven in liberated praise, big brother may be appalled! … It’s pride that can’t celebrate with the prodigal-come-home. Folks who won’t celebrate are still kidding themselves into thinking they did something right to be loved by their Father.’ I say, let them be appalled. Nothing makes some people angrier than grace. Big brother is invited to the party too, and it’s his decision whether or not he wants to join the celebration. I’m just glad he’s not the one in charge.”
Self-righteousness is certainly a part of our sinful human makeup. We can seem to enjoy the failure of others sometimes if we feel superior to their broken circumstance. It’s often the root behind gossip too—taking a certain pleasure in someone else’s failures or pain. Some Christians even seem to think that it’s their responsibility to pile on the repentant sinner. They feel the need to point out and remind people of the depth of their sin, even though the person is clearly already very aware of it and has suffered under the weight of it.
While we have experienced God’s amazing grace and have seen beautiful examples of Christians full of that love and grace of which they are also recipients, we should understand the reason why Jesus included the elder brother in the story of the prodigal son. David’s Psalms are full of his own brokenness and cries to God for help. They also almost always include the flip side: he has enemies who want nothing but his destruction, even those who he thought were his friends and with whom he had mourned and wept when they were in need (Psalm 35:12-15). It is a hard reality. This is why the Lord has given us a model for forgiveness and reconciliation. It also helps us to realize that God is truly our one and only hope. People fail. Every single one of us. God never does.
Last year I read Denise Jackson’s book It’s All About Him. She is married to country music singer, Alan Jackson. A part of her story speaks of a very difficult time when her husband revealed infidelity to her. She writes of how her faith and trust in God helped her get through this time and facilitated the restoration of her marriage. When she speaks of deciding to forgive her husband it is an amazing testimony of the work God did in her heart to help her realize the brokenness and need for forgiveness we all have. She also says she is thankful for the courage her husband showed in being willing to confess his sin and do whatever was needed to restore their marriage. I think I can understand what she means by courage. It can be an extremely difficult thing to do, made even harder when there is a “public” who behave like a person’s private life and marriage is somehow their business and have no motivation other than judging and gossiping. Their situation had plenty of detractors.
It’s odd isn’t it? You would think everyone would rejoice and support such a positive outcome. It has been a shock to me to realize that too many who claim to be followers of Christ seem to like the thought of grace and redemption for themselves but are not so happy when it is granted to others. The motivations behind this can only truly be known by God. Is it jealousy? Anger? Self-righteousness? Whatever the case may be, when a person is facing up to his or her sin and seeking restoration with those who have been sinned against, and he or she has to deal with the kinds of things King David writes about, it does take great courage to keep going down the right path.
I have come to understand why some people in these circumstances leave the church and never return to it. We love to talk about grace and brokenness and forgiveness in our churches. We love stories about it. But when it comes to us showing it, we find reasons to justify our hard hearts. We are certain we have a good reason to deny it not realizing that we are asking God to judge us with the same harshness (Matthew 7:1-5). So, it takes firm determination on the part of the repentant sinner that God’s ways are right and true to be willing to walk the gauntlet of Christian self-righteousness and endure the attacks of the enemy who will do anything to prevent healing and restoration. I can testify, it is an incredible encouragement to watch God do such a work in someone’s life. It is seeing the saving, restoring, wonderful power of God that is able to overcome all.
I write this primarily to try and encourage those who have had to face such things. Please keep on going. Keep trusting God. I know the deep struggle it can be. What a shock to experience God’s incredible plan of redemption and then have arrows flying at you from those who claim to be followers of Jesus but continue with harsh judgments, anger, or hateful words directly in opposition to the amazing grace received from Jesus. James 3:8-10 speaks of this tendency in us this way: “but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so.” Clearly, it’s a struggle common to each and every one of us, like all sins are.
I pray we will all be more mindful of our own need for God’s grace before we pronounce judgement on others who come seeking it, too. If we’ve received God’s grace and mercy, we should want to show the evidence of its work in our lives by demonstrating it to others. Truly this is what is pleasing to our Heavenly Father. It is what Jesus modeled for us. It is what we are called to be as His light in this world (Matthew 5:14-16).
In recent years, Alan Jackson has sung more hymns than in past. Here he sings one of my favorites. I hope you enjoy it.