Meeting Grace: Diary of a Rehabbing Pharisee

I have written and written and re-written several posts on this topic, and the process has been equal parts humbling and frustrating for me; humbling because it’s completely embarrassing to have been a Christian this long without actually “getting it”. . .particularly after all the (very sincere) spiritual insights I’ve delineated via this medium over the last several years. Frustrating because I wish so much to use my experience to draw others toward freedom, but I have no new insights, no new truth to offer; my journey of late has primarily entailed the heart application of ‘old’ truths, truths that tend to be served up with a heaping side of cliché.

But let me back up to a few months ago, when fresh off a week of ministry to a wonderful group of TCKs, I sat down to read a book called “He Loves Me,” by Wayne Jacobsen. I’d read it before for a class, but my counselor wanted me to read and work through it without academia to shield my heart from its impact. I picked it up, flipped to the chapter I was supposed to read. . .four words in, something snapped and I was suddenly gripped by a white-hot fury. What a load of crap, I thought, and shredded the book to pieces with the calculated precision of long pent-up wrath.

When pieces of the book littered the living room floor, I fumed my way into a 4 hour crying jag, fueled by more anger and hurt than I could ever remember feeling before. I managed a few restless hours of sleep, then cried through the rest of the day, missing my first class because even the history of testing procedures was too emotionally taxing for me to handle. I was spent.

I was as perplexed as I was emotional; how had I gotten to this point? I had done everything right. I had praised and thanked when I wanted to kick and scream. I had tried.

More than anything else over the past 24 years, I have tried.

Tried to think right, act right, live right, feel right, at the right times and with the right motivations. I bullied my spirit into being everything I thought God expected me to be–until that night in August, when my malnourished and embittered heart staged a coup.

I had gotten the gospel backward. As an overly sensitive kid raised by occasionally-too-strict parents, I quickly internalized the message that there was no room in life for mistakes, let alone sin. My life therefore became structured around thinking and feeling the right thing in the right way at the right time. Frustration toward God could be vented in a Psalm, perhaps, but it would quickly be sublimated by my ironclad determination.

As for grace? I’d played a one-time-use grace card to ‘attain justification’ (or, in real person terms, to escape hell) and never looked back; in my understanding, God had justified me–now I had to live up to it. Grace was my last resort, asked for only in situations where I just couldn’t eek out the correct response, and then hoped for on the basis of all the other hard work I’d put it. I was doing the right things, built on the wrong foundation; and though I was insightful enough to recognize that the foundation wasn’t quite right, the only response I could think of was to try harder to revamp it.

It wasn’t until that week in August, culminating in a tearful and deeply redemptive drive through a deserted stretch of South Carolina, that the insights finally clicked in my soul. I lost it on that drive, coming at God in uncensored and unrepentant fury. For the first time in my life, I didn’t care that He could squish me like a bug if I took a misstep. I didn’t foresee any time of repentance in which I would try to grovel my way back to Him. I wanted Him to know exactly how I felt, and I was willing to face the consequences. I told Him that I was bone-weary of playing this game. I pointed out that I had ignored years of internal angst in order to praise Him, because it was what He told me to do, and He’d still ‘failed’ me. What more could He possibly want? I told Him that I’d done basically everything right. And I told Him it wasn’t working.

As I drove the cold awareness that I had done a bad, bad thing started to creep over me. I had shaken my fist at the God of the Universe; and I wasn’t going to take it back. I wasn’t going to ask for forgiveness. For one of the first times in my life, I felt like a sinner. Prior to that moment, my knowledge of my sin had been head-limited; but this. . .this sin was heartfelt. I meant it.

And in that moment, when I saw myself exactly as I am, I collided with grace. It was raw, gritty, totally unlike the neatly formulaic principle by which I’d lived for so long. Effort was abruptly dispelled from the grace equation; I was no longer the key player in this holiness game. It was more a matter of standing nakedly before grace in the bewildered conviction that I couldn’t possibly make it come to me, that I had done everything possible to drive it away. . .and yet, there it was. Stubborn. Steady. Reassuring. Love motivated, love personifying.

Everything I thought I knew about God’s love was suddenly irrelevant. Every demand I’d placed on Him, every effort I’d made to have the right insights, to be the right person, no longer applied. Grace was mine, just as I was, and all I needed to do was reach out and grasp it. The problem had never been that God wasn’t coming through for me; the problem was that I didn’t understand how and where I needed Him to come through for me.

I drove to who-knows–where that night, sitting in the rubble of my shattered worldview, a blubbering mess of snot and sin and grace and mascara. I knew I was facing a long rebuilding process, but it was shrouded in hope.

For where I couldn’t, grace could. When I wouldn’t, grace would.

Note: I would hate to give the impression that after that point I skipped happily on with life, “never to angst again”. That night was culmination of several years spent demolishing my misinformed understanding of God, and while it was a step in re-building, I knew there was a lot of work ahead of me. A whole lotta ugly was likely to surface on the pendulum swing from fear-based ‘righteousness’ to Spirit-led righteousness; I stood to lose reputation and even friendships if I stopped working so hard to maintain them. But having tasted the reward I couldn’t settle, and with the help of a wonderful support system and a lot of prayer, I’ve been learning what it means to stop trying to sanctify myself and instead to submit to the Spirit’s work of sanctification in me. It’s rough at times, and I keep learning new dimensions of my sin nature. . .and grace, the grace offered me by this crazy wonderful God who wants to be in a rich and personal relationship with me for reasons I will never understand, because (let’s face it) I’m mostly kind of a turd. . .that grace continues to draw me back.

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