The Slippery Slope of Grace

xkcd has been one of my favorite webcomics for a long time, and today’s entry is absolutely fantastic.

Sure, taking a few seconds to be respectful toward someone about something they care about doesn’t sound hard. But if you talk to hundreds of people every day and they all start expecting that same consideration, it could potentially add up to MINUTES wasted. And for WHAT?

What would happen if you took time to care about the people around you? What would result from actually showing kindness and concern for your bank teller, your waitress, your cashier, your plumber, or a telemarketer? Might you start to make the world around you a little better? Might it eventually make you into a better person? We get so worried about so-called slippery slopes in our church cultures, but this is one I can get behind: a slippery slope of grace.

Peter describes this slippery slope in I Peter 1:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.

Jesus has shown us grace in His love, and we come to know that grace through knowledge of His word. We then let that word help us grow to the same love He showed us, and part of that love is grace. Every time we practice grace toward others, we grow more like our Savior. This might mean we use kind words where we might want to be harsh. We listen where we might want to dismiss. We show kindness when we feel wronged. We forgive where we might want to begrudge. We take time to understand before we pass judgment.

When Paul was verbally or physically assaulted during his ministry, he never responded in kind. When Jesus confronts Peter about denying Him, he shows mercy and forgiveness instead of resentment. Jesus challenges us to resist conformity with the harshness of this world at the end of Matthew 5:

You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even n the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

These statements are not suggestions or truisms. This is how we grow closer to being like our Savior. This is what it means to be like Christ.

If we do this though, we will indeed be on a slippery slope. Because if I show kindness to those around me, even those I do not like, I might begin to care for them. If I care for them, I might be concerned for their well-being. If I’m concerned about that, I may begin to love them. And if I love them, I will begin to care about their souls. Then I will start focusing more on God’s work of seeking and saving the lost. If I do that, I might lift my head above worrying about all of the things that seem so important in this world and focus on something higher.

The slope is indeed slippery, but unlike others, it’s on an incline. It’s a risky journey worth taking.

Worth & Others

worth

Over the last couple of posts, we’ve looked at the value God places on each of us — that you, as an individual, are worthwhile and valuable to God. Knowing we’re valuable to God then changes how we treat ourselves, how we conduct ourselves, and how we present ourselves every day. I’m not simply some office worker living a mundane work-home-work existence; I’m a child of God. I’m a light on a hill. I belong to a royal priesthood, set apart and sanctified by God. So I should act like it.

The next big step comes when we realize that God views everyone as valuable. The Spanish-speaking girl working behind the Subway register? Valuable. That senator saying things against your chosen party? Valuable. That person texting and driving? Valuable. That telemarketer who just mispronounced your name? Valuable. The lady paying with food stamps right in front of you at the grocery store? Valuable. God places just as much value on every one of them as He does on you.

Jesus shows us just how far this thinking should go toward the end of Matthew 5:

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers,what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Even people who mistreat and misuse us are valuable to God, so Jesus says to care about them and to pray for them. This goes against our sense of justice, against our desire for retribution, against our instincts. Immediately prior to these statements, Jesus says:

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic,let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

I’ve heard numerous reasons for denying mercy or forgiveness, but none hold up against Christ’s teachings. Every person has worth, and it’s my responsibility as a child of God to treat them as worthwhile. If someone cuts me off in traffic, I don’t rail against them or begin driving unsafely to make a point of how affronted I am. If a politician says something I disagree with, I don’t go to Facebook to berate them. I don’t joke about shooting “illegals” or “liberals”. I don’t take joy in misfortune visiting any person or group of people, no matter how much a part of me wants to feel they deserve it.

Instead, I visit kindness wherever I can. Someone in line at the grocery store says something disparaging about our cashier? I make it a point to say something nice to her or him. The table next to me is giving our waiter or waitress a hard time? I tip extra. My coworker is late meeting a deadline that affects our project? I help out. Little moments of self-sacrifice and mindful kindness can go a long way in making others feel better about themselves and, in the long run, more open to spiritual matters. Depending on the dispositions you’ve grown used to living with (optimist, pessimist, trusting, skeptical, etc.), this may take some adjustment, but it is an adjustments God expects all of his children to make.

Finally, Galatians 6:9-10:

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

Sometimes it can be tough to keep a positive attitude and treat everyone with the love and grace God shows, us. There will times we need to recharge, but the more we make kindness and goodness a part of our daily routines, the easier it will get. What starts out as effort becomes habit when practiced consistently. It begins with recognizing the value God places on all of us. If I can see you as a creation of God first, and all other qualities secondary to that, then I can go a long way toward treating you as I should. I know that God loves me and cherishes me. When I can realize that God loves and cherishes you as well, then I can begin to imitate that love.

Lessons from Daniel Tiger: Find a Way to Play Together

DanielTiger

In another episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, the kids are playing house at preschool when Prince Wednesday storms in roaring. He wants to pretend to be a dinosaur, but the others are worried his roaring will wake the pretend baby. Katarina doesn’t want Wednesday to play with them at all, but Teacher Harriet encourages them to find a way to play together. Prince Wednesday decides to be a quiet dinosaur, and all is right with the world in the Land of Make Believe.

Solutions may not be so easy in the real world, but I sometimes worry that we Christians are too quick to throw up walls when disagreements arise. Whether they are differences over the correct distribution of the Lord’s Supper, times of worship, the number of times we gather on Sundays, which benevolent opportunities to pursue, or even secular issues like politics – we often find it easier to disfellowship than work things out together or simply drop or concede a point of contention. Instead of finding a way to play together, we’re guilty of gathering up our toys and going someplace else. The result is congregations that shrink and swell based largely on whoever is refusing to worship with whom at any given time.

Jesus’ apostles were a diverse group, and they were prone to disagreements. When these arose, however, Jesus did not separate them into different groups. He didn’t cater to the arguments. Instead, He refocused their minds away from their contentions and onto things above. Even when Paul and Barnabas separate ways over a disagreement regarding John Mark, they all eventually end up reunited as a Christian family. Disagreements arise. Some are more legitimate than others, but we cannot view each other as disposable in these times. You are vital to my salvation, and I hope you see me as vital to yours.

You and I may have a lot of differences. We may have different opinions about the age of our world, about environmentalism and humane treatment of animals, on gun control, on immigration, on taxation, on head coverings, on hymns versus praise songs, on any number of things – but those differences cannot and must not define our relationship in Christ. If we’re going to get to Heaven together, then we have to find a way to set our differences aside and get along in this world. We have to find a way to play together.

The Dangerous Assumption

I was reading a church bulletin lately that contained one of those stereotypical articles about a contentious point of doctrine, and it ended with a declaration: “Those who love the Lord will honor His Word!” And it’s one of those phrases that always leaves me a bit uncomfortable. It contains the same dangerous assumption as the oft repeated refrain: “If someone really loves God, then they’ll…” fill in the blank.

Indirect Self-Praise

It boils down to this: “The struggles you have are different or more obvious than mine. Therefore you can’t possibly love God as much as me.” It’s a way we collectively pat ourselves on the back. When we say things like this, the unspoken part is, “I’m doing the right thing, so I’m showing love for God better than this other person.” We aren’t admitting it, but we’re practicing comparative spirituality. I may not be perfect, but at least I’m not worshipping with a piano like some folks I could mention. Isn’t God lucky to have someone like me on His side?

Isn’t this the error Jesus was addressing in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector? Two go up to pray, and the Pharisee prays to himself like this:

God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.

Isn’t the Pharisee comparing the evidences of love between himself and this tax collector he has probably never met before? “I evidently love you because I do these things…unlike some tax collectors I could mention.” We think we’re making the point about God, but it’s not. We’re putting ourselves up front. We’re placing ourselves on a pedestal.

The Conversation Ender

In my head, what comes out of my mouth (or gets typed by my fingers) is measured by this one metric: how would someone outside of Christ respond? If someone who does not believe as I do sits in on a Bible class I’m facilitating or in which I’m participating, what will the words said in that class do to and for them? Will they be brought closer to Christ or driven farther away? Condescending comments divide, and they serve to end a conversation before any meaningful dialogue can occur.

Seriously, try a similar approach with your husband or wife: “You know, if you really loved our children, you’d do the laundry more often.” “You’d get that garage clean if you’re really dedicated to being a good spouse.” How do you think that would go? What about other settings? “If you respect your boss, you will put in more overtime.” “If you love your country, you’ll vote the way I want you to.” In none of these cases do I see the conversation ending well. How can we then think the “If you really love God” line of reasoning will go any better?

Equal Footing

Now, do I believe God has a definite plan laid out for us? Yes. Do I believe that, to be truly pleasing to God, we must follow His blueprint? Of course. Do I believe godly love leads to obedience? Absolutely. But I’m not going to judge your heart based on our disagreements. In your daily life, your love for God may even shine more brightly than mine. I’d ask my fellow Christians to consider doing the same: drop the dangerous assumption that, because someone views God’s will differently than you or me, their love is inferior. That’s one of the mistakes made by the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, and I’d rather us not be guilty of the same fault.

If we see error, yes we should correct, but we should do so with the love and patience we see in the Scriptures. Critical assumptions get in the way of love. They get in the way of patience. We are less forgiving of those upon whom we look down, and we are looking down when we say things like, “If they really loved God,” even if we aren’t admitting it. We’ve all fallen short of God’s expectations. We all need His love. We all need His mercy. We’re all on equal footing before Him. Let’s be sure to treat each other equitably as a result.

Five Good Things

A couple days ago, I invited  you to concentrate on someone who has helped you in this life, someone who has made you feel special in some way. Didn’t it feel good to stop and think about that person? Well, now I’m going to ask you to go the other way: think about someone you intensely dislike. Think of someone who makes your skin crawl or your blood boil every time their name gets mentioned. They might be a celebrity; they may be a family member. They may be a thousand miles away; they might be living in your own house. Do you have someone yet?

Now think of that person in context of these verses:

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

– Matthew 5:7-9

So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

– Matthew 5:23-24

[Love] does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

– I Corinthians 13:5-7

And I could easily post more, but I hope you’re getting the idea. That person who irritates you – are you a peacemaker with them? Do you believe the best of them? Are you merciful toward them? Can you really say you have a Christ-like attitude about them?

I want you to try something: write down who the person is. Now list out five positive attributes the person possesses. Now if it’s someone like the President, you can’t write, “He’ll be out of office in a few weeks”. That’s cheating. Also, you can’t pick physical attributes: “She has a nice smile” and the like. Pick out five genuinely good qualities about the person, and jot them down. Think about it; five is not a big number.

Done yet? If you’re having a hard time coming up with five, I want you to think about something: chances are you don’t really know the person well enough. You’re mad at, for all intents and purposes, a stranger. You’re being unfair.

On the other hand, if you have come up with five seriously good qualities about the person, isn’t it harder to stay mad at them now? Why put the effort into it? Now, every time you feel angry at this person, get your list back out. Remember what makes that person great. They are a soul with the same shortcomings and the same needs as you, and maybe you could even help them a bit on their journey. Just shelve the prejudices, pet-peeves, and misconceptions; then focus on the positive, and start building a relationship.

“It’s Your Problem”

I see stuff like this all the time on Facebook:

If you don’t like what I post, then it’s your problem. Just delete me if you don’t like what I write because I’m just being myself, and you should go away if you can’t handle it.

Or I see and hear things like:

If I can’t be myself on Facebook, it’s ridiculous. I wish people at church would stop trying to change me. I am who I am, and if they can’t handle it, they shouldn’t be friends with me on Facebook. It’s their problem if they can’t take me for who I am.

To an extent, I can see where these attitudes are coming from. There are people I know, some even pretty close to me, who assume ulterior motives to nearly every lesson I give and every post I write. They have good foundation for their biases but have never come to the realization that I’ve grown and changed since they formed their opinions. They assume the worst of me, and there’s nothing I can do about it outside of trying to keep my conduct and attitudes as good as possible.

On the other hand, we need to remember what the scriptures say about the examples we set to our fellow Christians and to the world around us. Paul, in Romans 15, says we should bear others’ burdens, and he goes on in I Corinthians 8 to warn us against wounding the consciences of our fellow Christians. If I’m causing a brother or sister to stumble, instead of digging my heels in, I need to evaluate myself. We’re to be living peaceably with those around us, and an “it’s your problem” attitude is anything but peaceable.

It’s easy to have knee-jerk reactions. It’s easy to see faults in those who share their concerns with us. It’s easy to push back. As Christians, we should be striving for something better. In this case, it’s a little bit of self-evaluation, a little bit of self-adjustment. We have to ask ourselves what’s more important – preserving our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ or our pride.