I have been a church kid all my life. I am never sure whether that is an advantage or a handicap when it comes to actually being a Christian. By Christian, I mean a follower of Jesus Christ. What I don’t mean by Christian is a member of a church or a very religious person. My church experience (pre-Blueprint that is), while giving me some solid foundational truths from the pulpit, was most often an odd mix of a little doctrine, some moral pleas, and a lot of outright legalism. At times in my Christian walk, this made it difficult to find Jesus among the religious “stuff.” Like most Americans who grow up in church, I pretty easily gravitated to trying my best and hoping God was pleased with me. Of course I was always frustrated, because I never could “effort” my way out of sin or feel good enough to be loved by God. I will leave it to others to say why so many of us fall into that trap. For now, I would like to talk about my journey to escape it.
When I read Caresse’s most recent blog, I was reminded of how much author Brennan Manning’s books have helped me in this area. For those who are unfamiliar with him, Manning was an ordained Franciscan Priest who became an alcoholic after his ordination. Due to his struggles with alcohol and other demons (he was a recovering alcoholic once he began writing), he had a unique perspective on the depravity and utter helplessness of all human beings. I first read his book Ragamuffin Gospel around 10 years ago, and I was floored by it. I had never heard anyone be so open about their struggles with sin and yet so in love with Jesus. I began to see my own sin in a new light. And I now see myself as more and more sinful the older I get. This is not because I believe that I sin more every year necessarily, but because I can now see my sin as who I am apart from God’s grace, i.e. the proof that I am as lost without Jesus as scripture says I am.
Being married for 28 years has also helped me recognize my own sinfulness. As Chad pointed out this past Sunday, marriage and fatherhood has brought my true nature out all too many times and convinced me beyond a shadow of a doubt that if God removes his hand from me I am capable of the worst sins man has ever imagined. But a strange thing has happened as I have begun to see myself as progressively more sinful. I have begun to see God’s grace and Christ’s sacrifice as infinitely more valuable and glorious. To help illustrate my point, here is an excerpt from a book entitled Mortal Lessons, as quoted by Brennan Manning in Ragamuffin Gospel. A facial surgeon is recounting how he witnessed true sacrificial love after a surgery he performed left the patient damaged for life.
"I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twinge of facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be thus from now on. . . . to remove a tumor in her check, I had to cut the little nerve. Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private. Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry mouth I have made, who gaze at and touch each other so generously, greedily? The young woman speaks. "Will my mouth always be like this?" she asks. "Yes," I say, "it will because the nerve was cut." She nods and is silent. but the young man smiles.
"I like it," he says, "It’s kind of cute." All at once I know who he is. I understand and lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a god. Unmindful, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers, to show that their kiss still works.
This story perfectly illustrates Christ’s sacrifice for us. Of course, we are the young lady. Our sin has left us broken and scarred and unable to help ourselves. Jesus, like the husband, has willingly chosen to sacrifice His perfection to cover for our imperfections.
That illustration had an incredible, lasting impact on me. Suddenly, my brokenness was so clear to me. While I am by no means glad when I sin, I am definitely not surprised by it. I have given up on the illusion that I ever had any goodness in me. Realizing this has freed me from the struggle of trying to be good enough to earn God’s love. Like the young lady, I can only be grateful for a Savior that is willing to come to me, because I can’t go to Him. I spent twenty years trying to measure up. I am hopeful that by reading this you may give up your own struggle and rest in what Christ has already done for you.