A Tale of Two Lunches
I was sixteen when my parents kicked me out of the house. What started out as run-of-the-mill adolescent rebellion in my early teens had, over the course of a few short years, blossomed into a black hole of disrespect and self-centeredness that was consuming the entire family. I would lie when I didn’t have to, push every envelope, pick fights with my siblings, carry on, and sneak around. At first in innocent ways; later in not-so-innocent ways. If someone said “black,” I would say “white.”
Eventually, everyone involved reached the end of their patience. And looking back, I can’t blame them. It’s not as though my parents hadn’t tried every other option. Private school, public school, homeschool, counseling—you name it.
Everything they did made me want to rebel more. Eventually, my lifestyle became so disruptive that my parents were forced to say, “We love you, son, but if you’re going to continue living this way, you can’t do so under our roof.”
My parents were well loved in our community, and their friends could see the heartache they were going through with me. I remember two separate instances when people cared enough to ask them for permission to talk with me one-on-one, to see if maybe they could get through to me.
The first time was early on when I was still living at home. Their friend picked me up after school, brought me to Burger King, and read me the riot act. “Look at all that God’s given you. You’re squandering everything. You’re making your parents’ life a living hell, acting so selfishly, not considering your siblings. You go to a private school. You have this remarkable heritage. Shape up, man! Snap out of it.”
Of course, he was 100 percent right. In fact, if he had known the full truth of what I was up to (and what was in my heart), he would have had every reason to be even harsher. But in the first five minutes of this guy talking to me, I could tell where it was going, and I just tuned out. As far as I was concerned, it was white noise. I could not wait for it to be over and for him to drop me back off at home.
This first friend was the voice of the Law. He was articulating the standard that I was falling short of—what I should have been doing and who I should have been being—and he couldn’t have been more correct. His evaluation was correct; his censure was justified. His words gave an accurate description of who I was at that moment. But that’s the curious thing about the Law and judgment in general: it can tell us who we are, it can tell us the right thing to do, but it cannot inspire us to do that thing or be that person. In fact, it often creates the opposite reaction than the one that is intended. It certainly did for me! I don’t blame the man in question—he was trying to do the right thing. It’s just that his methods completely backfired.
The second experience happened about a year and a half later, and by this time I was out of the house. This man called me and said, “I’d love to meet with you.” And I thought, “Oh no, another one of my parents’ friends trying to set me straight.” But I didn’t want to make things any worse between my parents and me, and the free meal didn’t sound too bad either, so I agreed to get together with him.
Once we were at the restaurant, he just looked at me and said, “Listen, I know you’re going through a tough time, and I know life must seem very confusing right now. And I just want to tell you that I love you, I’m here for you, and I think God’s going to do great things with you. Here’s my phone number. If you ever need anything, call me. If you want to tell me something you don’t feel comfortable telling anybody else, call me. I just want you to know that I’m here for you.” And then he switched the subject and started talking about sports.
That guy—the second guy—is still a friend of mine to this day. He will forever be marked in my personal history as an example of amazing grace.
Most parents and spouses, siblings and friends—even preachers—fall prey to the illusion that real change happens when we lay down the Law, demand good performance, persistently point out shortcomings, or offer “constructive” criticism. And then we wonder why our spouse grows increasingly withdrawn over the years, why our children don’t call as much as we would like them to, why our friends don’t confide in us, or why people who have really screwed up don’t even think about going to our churches.
In more cases than not, it happens because we are feeding their already-felt sense of guilt, their deep fear of judgment—by playing the judge. We may say that we’re “speaking the truth in love,” but the voice they hear is that of the Law.
I saw a quote a few weeks ago that nailed it. It said, “People are more likely to be honest and repent of their sins if it’s clear that there’s forgiveness and grace on the horizon.” So true!
In Romans 7:7-20, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that the Law illuminates sin (which is necessary, because we are often blinded by our self-righteousness) but is powerless to eliminate sin. That’s not part of its job description. It points to righteousness but can’t produce it. It shows us what godliness is, but it cannot make us godly. The Law can inform us of our sin, but it cannot transform the sinner. Only grace can do that. The Law may have the power to instruct and expose, but it does not have the power to inspire or create. That job is reserved for grace—grace alone.
In his Commentary on Galatians, Martin Luther said:
“Sin is not canceled by lawful living, for no person is able to live up to the Law…Nothing can take away sin except the grace of God.”
The Law is God’s tool to expose our wandering hearts, but grace is the way God woos our wandering hearts. As Paul Zahl said:
“There is only one answer to human problems: LOVE. The only thing that makes an intrusive difference in human lives is love. Mercy, as opposed to judging, has always been the agent of change.”
I know that has been true for me. And I bet that has been true for you too.