It’s been well over twenty years, but I can still recall the place on the path near the North Sea where God confronted me. I had been on a prayer walk in the dunes, as was my regular habit. This part of the Netherlands had always provided a certain solace, an escape from the rigors of ministry, a time for self-examination, and a time to hear from God.
To my surprise, God spoke. It wasn’t audible, but it may as well have been. Reflecting on the words “Be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus” the Spirit of God brought before my mind a man—a man of dis-grace, and told me to go and show grace. Be resolute. And hard as it was, I did.
I’ve discovered, perhaps like you, that few things require such spiritual mettle as extending grace—especially when it is undeserved. But then, if it is deserved, would it be grace? It’s much easier to hold back, carry resentment, give an offender what one should receive. After all, this man had hurt me. It’s natural to be critical. Our present culture reinforces this. Tragically, our times have turned aggressive, disruptive, and unforgiving, and much of this has seeped into the church. We are prone to shame rather than honor one another.
In a most troubling article in a recent The Atlantic, “The Evangelical Church is Breaking Apart,” Peter Wehner writes, “Many Christians have embraced the worst aspects of our culture and politics.” Relationships are splintering at multiple levels, and behind much of it is a community that is no longer a repository of grace but a storehouse of grievances. The church has become a place where one’s politics and tribal identities are reinforced, where fears are nurtured, and where, as Wehner puts it, “aggression and nastiness are sacralized.”
The exhortation I heard, the one from Paul to Timothy, seems as relevant and needful as ever. It wouldn’t hurt for many of us to go back and reflect on 2 Tim 2:1, as well as read a book like Philip Yancey’s, What’s So Amazing About Grace? Grace is the church’s great distinctive. Churches that are strong in grace, grace that is sourced in God, extend patience to those who don’t perform and generosity to those who can’t give back. Grace is kindness to those who disagree—love expressed to those contrary to their merits—indeed in defiance of their demerits.
For those who need stronger spiritual medicine, they might consider reading Yancey’s more recent book, a memoir entitled Where the Light Fell. But this is pretty stiff stuff and not for the weak of heart. I can’t remember a time I have read such a difficult book. It’s not because the writing is bad or the subject is dense. On the contrary, it is a page-turner that is uncomfortably comprehensible. It is a tough read, an unnerving read, because Yancey takes the reader on a harrowing journey, describing what gracelessness looks like from the inside of a home, a church, and a school. Begin to read, and you find yourself in Yancey’s dark, sorrowful past.
Yancey and his brother were “straightjacketed” by a mother’s vow that they would redeem their father’s tragic death by taking on the mantle of his life. They would have to fulfill their mother’s missionary dream. Whenever they fell short, any love was replaced with guilt—even betrayal. All of Yancey’s early memories involved fear. As a teen, he constructed a psychic survival shell. In their fundamentalist upbringing, caged in by a perfection theology, both brothers lived with the reality they could never measure up to mom, let alone God.
What concept they had of God was one who is a graceless arm-twister, a cosmic bully who schemes to break and crush anyone who dares to resist. In Bible college, Yancey resigned himself to an identity as the campus apostate who argued with professors. His books, Where is God When It Hurts? and Disappointment with God make more sense now. Suffering and grace became his two life themes.
When ungrace is allowed to reign, it fuels the dark energy. That’s what Yancey experienced. Lives around him—particularly his brother—came completely apart. But God never gives up. He began to shed the light of beauty in the place of darkness. Gradually, through a God-ordained relationship, God’s goodness became more believable. Music, nature, and romantic love “formed a ladder of ascent” from his emotional and spiritual flatlands. Divine grace, as he put it, took him unawares. Like Paul, a self-described chief of sinners, Yancey began to sense an undeserved chosenness. “I felt the light touch of God’s omnipotence, the mere flick of a divine finger, and it was enough to set my life on a new course.”
This is who God is. This is the church’s hallmark. The church must find this course. It has to. Those who claim to be its members need to become strong in grace. It must not be our weakness. Otherwise, we can make no claim we are any different than the world.