Amazing Grace

David Hilfiker

November 11, 2018

     Luke 15:11-32
     Romans 5:15-17

A month ago Gail talked here about “amazing grace.” Today I’d like to follow up on her teaching by sharing with you what I find not only amazing but also so disturbing about grace.  I’d like to suggest that God’s grace is so startling that none of us really believes it, especially when it comes to ourselves.  We talk about grace, we may even teach about grace, but when it comes down to it, we really can’t believe it.  In fact, in some ways, I don’t think we even want to believe it.

Let’s remember that grace is always available to us.  It doesn’t depend on how major the sin is, how sorry we are, whether we make amends, or whether we even want that grace.  God always offers grace, that is, God always forgives and never holds it against us.  Whether we can believe it, accept it and make it real for a different question

For me, one of the most amazing lines in the Bible comes in the parable of the prodigal son.  By asking for and receiving his portion of his inheritance in advance, the son has humiliated and betrayed his father in front of the community… and then squandered that inheritance… and then he returns home.  Luke writes:

“But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.” (Luke 15:11-25)

When I hear those words “when he was still far off,” tears sometimes well up in my eyes.  The father doesn’t know anything about why his son is coming home.  Maybe he just wants more money.  Maybe he’s sick and needs a healer.  On his way, the son does practice his repentance speech, but there’s no indication that it’s sincere.  In fact, the main reason he’s coming home doesn’t seem to have anything to do with repentance; the fact is, he’s hungry.  There’s no evidence that the speech he’s rehearsing is anything but a plan for manipulating his father.  In any case, the father certainly has no idea whether the son is sorry or wants to ask for forgiveness or what!   And the father doesn’t even seem to care.  He offers complete forgiveness and goes about ordering the banquet “while his son is still far off.” I still find that incredible.

I once heard a story.  There was a man who had just been discharged from prison after a 10-year-sentence for burglarizing many of the homes in the community. Feeling responsible for his son’s crimes, the father had tried to reimburse as many people as he could, leaving the father and the rest of his family impoverished. After his discharge, the son wanted to see his family and ask for forgiveness.  But he found it hard to believe that his family would even want to see him much less forgive him. So he just sent a letter to his father, saying that he would be passing through town on the train.  Since the tracks passed near his house before it got to the station, the son asked that if his father was willing just to talk with him, he should tie a white handkerchief to one of the branches of an apple tree in the corner of their property.  If the son saw the white handkerchief, he would get off the train in town and find a way to get to his family’s house.  On the train home, the son was understandably nervous, fully prepared to pass on through and make a new life elsewhere.

As the train rounded the bend just before the family property, he looked anxiously for the apple tree.  It was covered with hundreds of white handkerchiefs.

So happy to see his son, the father required nothing of him.  That is like God’s grace.

In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey (p 45) writes:

Aware of our inbuilt resistance to grace, Jesus talked about it often, describing a world suffused with God’s grace: where the sun shines on people good and bad; where birds gather seeds gratis, neither plowing nor harvesting to earn them; where untended wildflowers burst into bloom on the rocky hillsides.  Jesus never analyzed or defined grace, and almost never used the word.  Instead, he communicated grace through stories. 

Here’s a question for you: Which of Jesus parables bothers you the most?  … Okay then, one more hint: Which parable seems so patently unfair that most of us can’t really  For me, it’s about the landowner who hires workers at different times during the day and then gives them the same pay regardless of how many hours they worked.   

How is that even remotely fair?  What does that reveal about the nature of God?  Do we even want to believe it?  Growing up in our culture, such grace is unfathomable, completely unfair.  It is a rejection of everything we’ve ever been taught about our mistakes.  The notion of God’s love coming to us free of charge, no strings attached, seems to go against every human instinct.  It’s so disorienting that sometimes we’d rather not believe it than deal with its implications.  Mostly, we don’t even want to accept God’s grace, even for ourselves, because it will turn our world upside down. 

So what do we do about the expectation that we, too, are expected to forgive unconditionally. If we find it difficult to believe that God forgives unconditionally, how are we are we to respond?  We certainly can’t expected to do that!

But there’s an experience I had that really turned that question around for me.

As most of you know, I worked as a physician for 10 years here in the inner-city.  Some of my patients would occasionally tell me of the things they had done, stealing, child abuse, unfaithfulness, once even murder.  Taking their medical history, I would sometimes interview them deeply about their history and their behaviors.  Frequently I heard stories of having been abused as children, being deprived of an adequate education, living in dangerous neighborhoods where murders were a common occurrence.  What I realized ultimately was that most of these people had, as children, suffered from conditions of trauma and stress severe enough to cause PTSD. They were in fact doing the best they could under these circumstances. We have learned that PTSD after a war experience can sometimes lead to awful behavior. But in a sense we understand and forgive them for their behavior because of their PTSD; we believe they are doing the best they can

Yet, as a society, we don’t forgive the people of the inner-city who have grown up with constant “warlike” conditions and consequent PTSD when they sometimes do something offensive to us.  “They’re to blame for their behavior,” we say.  “We can’t just let bad behavior go unpunished.”

The people of the inner city have had terrible experiences engage my compassion. But all of us experience brokenness. That experience as an inner-city physician brought me to a personal belief that everyone, regardless of their background and behavior, is doing the best they can.  If I really understood what had happened to a person, I would realize I have a responsibility to forgive. 

Just to be clear I’m not here saying anything about need for society to hold people accountable for what they’ve done. There are, for instance, good reasons for imprisoning people:

  • to remove one who remains a danger to the community;
  • to deter the offender and other people from future criminal offenses;
  • to allow time and space for rehabilitation
  • and to restore the relationships with the victim and the community. 

You’ll notice, however, that I said nothing about punishment or vengeance, which I believe are contrary to the forgiveness that is part of our faith.

When I talk with acquaintances about my belief that everyone is doing the best they can, almost everyone objects rather vociferously.  I’m not sure that anybody agrees with me. What’s interesting to me is that they don’t bring up counter-examples like Hitler or Stalin or mass murderers.   They tell me about themselves and how frequently they don’t do the best they can. 

Perhaps that’s the paradox, the way it’s supposed to work: perhaps we’re supposed to see others as doing the best they can so that we can offer grace and forgiveness to them.  But perhaps we should also hold ourselves responsible for our sin to motivate ourselves and understand how best to improve ourselves.

Of course, the more difficult issue is that we’re to forgive others as we have been forgiven.  Fred talks often about the meaning of the word “holiness,” namely “closing the gap.” And we are to be holy as God is holy. 

As Kingdom people, we are to offer to others the same kind of grace and unconditional forgiveness as God does.  (Unconditional, by the way, means “no conditions”: no requirement for admitting guilt, no need for remorse or apology; no recognition of harm that’s been done, and so on.)  On a practical level, we may need to make conditions for the purpose of reconciliation and restoration, but unconditional forgiveness comes first.

You’ll notice that I haven’t said anything about repentance. It turns out that repentance isn’t a condition of forgiveness. It’s a result. If a person can experience the grace of God (or of another person), that can open the way to repentance. The overwhelming love of God allows us to see who we really are and can bring about repentance. As hard as it is for us, however, the offender’s repentance is not a condition of God’s or our forgiveness.

Just to be clear, I don’t think this call to forgiveness means that we aren’t going to get angry and express that anger. It doesn’t mean that we have to forgive in the middle of our vengeful feelings or even that there’s a time limit for us to come to forgiveness. That kind of rule-based forgiveness is not the holiness to which we are called. The call to forgiveness is to work as hard as we can to deal with our feelings of anger and vengeance and then forgive with our whole being.

Let me read from Wikipedia’s definition of forgiveness

Forgiveness is the intentional and voluntary process by which a victim

  • undergoes a change in feelings and attitude regarding an offense,
  • lets go of negative emotions such as vengefulness,
  • forswears recompense from or punishment of the offender, however legally or morally justified it might be, and,
  • with an increased ability, to wish the offender well.

Now that’s hard! So I’d like to suggest that the definition of forgiveness be shortened to “wishing the offender well.” For me this is really a two-step process: first to come to believe that the other person is doing the best they can. On the basis of this, it is not too difficult ultimately to wish them well.  And if I can wish the person well, the other elements of forgiveness—a change in feelings and attitude, a reduction in negative emotions, letting go of the need for punishment, and so on— these can all eventually come.

Even wishing other people well seems hard, of course. There are ways, though, we can practice wishing other people well. We can work on wishing well people who just cause us inconvenience. There are people who commit more important crimes that don’t personally affect us and we can work on wishing them well. There are political leaders who seem intent on damaging our country — the President comes to mind — and we can work on wishing them well.  William, who prays for the President every week, might serve as an example.

It may take a while to come to the place where we can wish another well, and I don’t think we can rush it.  Our emotions can be very strong and the habit of hanging on to anger, vindictiveness, and the desire for vengeance that are so characteristic of our culture may make it difficult to get to that place.  But I do believe that we can consciously choose to wish another well and that holiness is a matter of choosing to do that (or at least choosing to work to the emotional space where we choose to wish the other well.)

Let’s pray that experiencing God’s grace and forgiveness will give us the grace and forgiveness to extend it to others.