Punk’d by Love
During a radio interview a few years ago, my interviewer told me the following story which gets to the heart of how love produces what the law demands, but cannot deliver.
One summer this man (the interviewer) was a camp counselor, and one of his responsibilities was to go around with another counselor and check the cabins every morning while the students were at breakfast. To help motivate them to keep their cabins clean, awards were given at the morning assembly to the students who had the cleanest cabin.
One morning the counselors walked into one of the cabins only to discover it had been intentionally trashed. The students thought it would be funny to “break the law” and do the exact opposite of what they had been asked to do. Clothes everywhere. Food all over the floor. Words written on the bathroom mirrors with soap. Wet towels balled up in every corner. The place was a complete disaster.
The two counselors were speechless. One looked at the other and asked, “What should we do?” After pausing for a moment, the guy who was interviewing me finally answered, “Let’s clean it up.”
His buddy looked at him like he was crazy. “Clean it up? Are you kidding? These punks need to be punished! I’m not cleaning up their mess.”
The other one said, “Well, I’m going to clean it up. And by the time I’m done with it, these kids will win the award today for the cleanest cabin.”
After some moaning and groaning, his buddy decided to help him. They cleaned the whole cabin while the students were at breakfast. Picked up and folded all the clothes, scrubbed all the soap off the bathroom mirrors, vacuumed up all the food, made all the beds, and hung all the wet towels up to dry on the clothesline outside the cabin. Then they left without saying a word to anyone.
When the students came back from breakfast, thinking they had pulled off a great prank, they couldn’t believe their eyes. They were the ones who were now speechless, and they thought they were going to be in double trouble. They sheepishly made their way to the morning assembly. When the award for the cleanest cabin was announced—and they won—they couldn’t believe it. Instead of being punished, they were rewarded.
These undeserving recipients immediately found the two counselors who had cleaned up their wrecked room and begged for forgiveness. And, according to the guy who was interviewing me, those boys kept the cleanest cabin for the rest of the week.
What those boys experienced was what theologians call “double-imputation.” Not only did someone else bear their punishment (having to clean up the miserable mess they made) but they were rewarded for someone else’s “righteousness.”
The gospel is not only the good news that Jesus wiped out all of our sin and guilt; it’s also that he freely gives us all of his righteousness. As an old friend once said to me, “The gospel isn’t merely the absence of all condemnation; it’s also the infinite presence of God’s unconditional love and delight.”
And notice—the result of this irrational act of one-way love towards these boys was NOT worse behavior. It was sorrow and transformation. These punks were punk’d by love—and they will never forget it.
Over the last two and half years, I have come face to face with the crushing power of the law and the curing power of love in ways I never thought possible. In the form of well-deserved, far-reaching, devastating, life-altering consequences for my willful sin against God and others, the law did what the law was created to do: kill.
Everything my former life was built on, is dead. Dead. Thankfully, lawful consequences have a way of putting to death everything in us that needs to die. But (and this is very important) they do not carry the power to make us alive. Love—and love alone—can do that.
Paul Zahl, one of God’s chief instruments in loving me back from the dead (read about that here), has rightly and wisely written:
Think about it: beneath your happiest moments and closest relationships inevitably lies some instance of being loved in weakness or deserved judgment. Someone let you off the hook when you least deserved it. A friend suspended judgment at a key moment. Your father was lenient when you wrecked his car. Your teacher gave you an extension, even though she knew you’d been procrastinating. You said something insensitive to your spouse, but instead of retaliating, she kept quiet and didn’t hold it against you the next day. One-way love is the essence of any lasting transformation that takes place in human experience—a person loved in weakness blossoms.
That’s it! A person loved in weakness blossoms! You and I both know this is experientially true. Love—not law—makes dead things alive.
The ultimate expression of this, of course, is the One who came into our messiness with His mercy. He came to meet our failures with His forgiveness. Our guilt with His grace. Our badness with His goodness. Our rebellion with His redemption. This undeserved, unconditional love meets us at the bottom of our guilt and shame to replace our heart of stone with a heart of flesh—raising us from death to life.
That’s how it happened with those boys. That’s how it happened with me. And I’m pretty sure that’s how it happened with you too.