Thursday, 8 January 2015

A religious four year old and the problem of maintaining Grace.

A young lady of 4, a relative of mine, has a fairly high opinion of her moral standing. In the light of the frequent tantrums displayed by her sister (Terrible 2) she believes herself to be perfect. Along with this lack of acknowledged guilt goes more. She is religious. 

Their mother was recently reading to the girls: the story of Jesus welcoming the little children. She asked 4 and Terrible 2 if they thought that Jesus checked on who was good or naughty before he welcomed them. Clear and firm came the reply from 4: "Yes."  

She has never been taught that. That concept has come entirely from inside herself. It is as much an early manifestation of a toddler's original sin as disobedience, greed, selfishness or lying. She is religious, in the sense that she innately sees acceptance by God as being based on merit, that we are able in some way to make the grade, and (miniature Pharisee that she is) that she is one of those who would be welcomed. 

The incident got me thinking. Grace is such an amazing thing, but it is also alien to our basic human, proud, sinful mindset. As such, it is always under attack, from one direction or another. In the first place, the simple fact of unconditional acceptance at the point of entry into Christianity is so different to our inborn religiosity that it is always hard to maintain.

If Jesus receives us just as we are, then he leaves no room for our natural tendency to oneupmanship in general and especially for oneupmanship as we come to him. In fact, such a moral pecking order will hold us back from ever really coming - if I think that God would accept me more easily than my little sister, then I haven't really understood what his acceptance means and I have never really run to him. Tragically, the church is full of replicas of the four year old - glad they have made the grade. They make the world want to spew. (Interestingly, such decent religiosity apparently makes Jesus want to spew too.)  

Jesus doesn't ask what we are like before he welcomes us. That is grace. You come as you are, and you don't need to look at yourself and how bad you are (or how "good" you are), still less at anyone else, but only to him. 

But the church also faces another challenge to grace. Having welcomed us in simple acceptance, the idea is around that Jesus never asks us about our lives or lifestyle, and that he certainly never asks us to change anything at all. And that is not the case. 

Grace is the open welcome to those who have done wrong, treating us lavishly with unmerited kindness and mercy. It does not deny or even ignore the fact of our wrongdoing - rather it pays the price for it. It is that costliness of acceptance, that fact that grace is free to the sinner but bloody expensive to the Giver, that challenges me to look at my forgiven wrongdoing and be determined and delighted to change. There is to be no hard examination of myself at point of entry, as if my goodness or badness could alter my possibility of acceptance, but, once arrived, the fact of being accepted, and being accepted through the Cross, shines a light onto and into my life like never before: I see my sin in a dreadful new way, and I find I must change.

Grace accepts me as I am - but it doesn't leave me as I am. It challenges me to the core - my pride, my selfishness, my deceit, my greed, my perversion, my lack of love and honour to my Creator.

Of course that process of gracious acceptance, challenge and change, is not linear. If it were, we would certainly end up with a vicious pecking order firmly entrenched among all who have come to Jesus: "I've made more progress than her...!" But it is a circle. I come to Christ... am accepted... grace challenges my bad stuff... I try to change... see how bad my bad stuff really is... and come to Christ afresh for the unconditional acceptance which is my only hope. Because of that cycle, a Christian is never more than a heartbeat away from coming to Jesus empty handed. Break the circle, start to pride yourself on your "progress", and you will find yourself back in religion with a much loved four year old.

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Jesus calls us to come to him. Not because we are good, but because even the feeling of being good enough to come (or to not need to come!) is a symptom of our bankruptcy. So come and receive his forgiveness. 

You will never be the same again. 

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