In middle school, I would often get the most perplexing response to asking a classmate for gum: “It’s my last piece.” “But” I thought, “it wasn’t your only piece. And someone has to eat it.” Besides, they had the second to last piece in their mouth as we spoke. Why be a scrooge with the last piece?
I didn’t fare much better when it came to giving. A classmate once asked me for a sheet of paper and I proudly declared to his face that since I was such a nice person even though I didn’t like him I would give him one anyway. Though terribly misguided, I did recognize there was something praiseworthy about giving to enemies.
Our selfishness runs deep. Whether it is the tight grip we have on our stuff or our reluctance to give to those with whom we are not close—enemy or stranger, we often miss the mark when it comes to generosity. Either we find a gift too important to give or the requester not important enough to give to. Yet in the gospel we see a treasure of matchless worth given to rebels and riff raff.
My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Generous Day
I remember the day well. I woke up and got dressed to be fired. My office was going through layoffs and I was the newest and weakest member of my team. I had been hired just six months earlier, after 15 long, hard months of unemployment and temp work. One of those months I didn’t have enough to eat and two others I was unable to pay rent on my own. Those memories were still fresh.
When the afternoon came and the office devolved into a chaos of tears, packing up desks and surveying cubicles for survivors as people were called up to HR, I awaited my notification. It didn’t come. I was spared. The hardest working and most beloved on our team was let go instead.We were all stunned.
I walked home that day in my confidence-boosting navy sheath meant to somehow blunt the force of a blow that never came that would have cast me back out into my former jobless misery. Relief and gratitude overcame me. As I passed my neighborhood grocery store, a woman sat outside asking for help and I couldn’t not give it. Never have I given as generously to a stranger as I did that day. I was under the influence of mercy.
Rebels and Riff Raff
“The Lord did not set His love upon you and choose you because you were more in number than any other people, for you were the fewest of all people.”
“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.”
1 Corinthians 1:27-29
Everyday I am tempted to forget who I was when mercy first found me. I strain to recall my once enemy status (Rom 5:10) and how I was as far from worthy as one could be. My insidiously mild assessment of my pre-Christ condition means I do not see my sin as I ought nor what I would be if not for God’s mercy and grace. Caveats and comparisons betray a lack of conviction that I, with even the slightest errant desire of my heart, sent Christ to the cross.
Yet my view of my sin is often tempered by comparison with those whose sin 1 Timothy describes as “going ahead of them to judgment.” Meanwhile, I pitch my tent with those whose sin trails behind them when I am content to keep my sin at socially acceptable levels or concealed in the dank corners of my mind and heart. Because others may tolerate some of it, I entertain the idea that God might too. The cross tells a different story.
In his letter to the church in Ephesus, Paul makes plain to them what’s true of us all: they were “dead in the[ir] trespasses and sins” (2:1) and were “by nature objects of wrath” (2:3). They, like we, were “without hope and without God in the world.” (2:12). We are all recipients of that “while you were still sinners” kind of love (Rom 5:8). We were not a little lost needing a nudge. We were lost lost without hope of a re-route. And our lostness was lethal.
Grace only amazes to the degree we acknowledge our wretchedness. It is not possible to truly grow our appreciation for it without deepening our understanding of our need of it. The one who sings “Amazing grace / how sweet the sound / that saved a wretch like me,” while believing himself more deserving of God’s love than his neighbor or attributing his blessings more or less to his own efforts or “raw” gifts does not know what he sings and prattles off words of a language he does not speak.
Even now in Christ our hands are empty, our spirits poor. Ever the needy. Yet ever rich. Certainly this is a stunning, death-defying paradox.
A Matchless Treasure
“For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
“And a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.””
At the first Passover, the Israelites were instructed to choose a lamb without blemish (Ex 12:5). Sacrificial rules throughout the Old Testament prohibited sacrificing anything blemished to the Lord. (Deut 15:21, Lev 22:20) God’s law demanded impeccable sacrifices. Enter Jesus: perfect, willing to die, all in.
Isaiah says of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him,” while at the same time he was also the exact radiance of God’s glory in whom all the fullness of God dwelt. If ever we find that we can’t avert our gaze for his beauty or imagine anything more majestic, this too is grace.
With the washing of our hearts with the covenant-keeping, sight-giving, bondage-breaking, debt-canceling, peace-making, burden-bearing, wrath-satisfying blood of Christ, our portion swelled from the bleakest of nothings to the sweetest of everythings. Christ secured for us all the promises of God. In him, we have joy and peace and freedom and healing and forgiveness—an eternal imperishable inheritance even. But these are not the ultimate treasures. These accompany Christ, not the other way around. Above and far beyond all of this, we have him who is more than all trinkets of earth, more than the sum of what he gives, the very treasure of heaven itself. “I will be their God” is so much more than a statement of fact, it is our highest honor. And, what’s wild is that it is his great pleasure. God— sacred and divine—went from tabernacle, to temple, to earth, to the cross, to inside us to ransom us from darkness and futility of this world, and claim us for himself. When he set his love upon us, we went from abject poverty to heirs of the Almighty sovereign. From ruined to vessels of the divine. Once dead in sin now alive in Christ.
O To Be Like Him
How is it possible it is more blessed to give than to receive? (Acts 20:35) And why might God love a cheerful giver? (2 Cor 9:7) Because God himself is blissfully, perpetually, extravagantly giving. In fact, as Acts 17:25 states, “he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” That’s right: everything else.
God’s laws are not arbitrary. They’re designed to point in one way or another to God’s character and to what it means to be holy. God longs to be known and he uses his law for that. So when we see passages like Luke 14 where Jesus is exhorting those gathered to invite guests who can’t repay you—the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind—when you throw a banquet, this is a picture of what he does for us. When he says even sinners love those who love them in Matthew 5:46 but instead we must love our enemies, God’s love for his enemies is precisely why any of us are saved.
If God delights to make us like him, who lavishes grace upon grace to the undeserving, how could we be content to only love those who love us, missing the very beauty of his love? How could we be stingy when he graciously gives us all things? If the mystery of the gospel is that he extends the riches of his glorious grace to even we Gentiles, how then could we, the ingrafted, turn around and be insular? How could a mercied soul produce tight fists? We do not learn this from him. They do not teach this at the foot of the cross. Instead, when I love the hard, the distant, the high risk and low return, I am most clearly my Father’s daughter.
When I begin to calculate how close someone is to me, the visibility of the opportunity to assist them, how like me they are, or how I might benefit from this gesture down the road, I can be sure that I am not being compelled by Christ’s life or love. His love made no such calculations. He washed Judas’ feet.
Someone recently asked me how the gospel makes us generous. How could it not? This liberality comes not so much as an undertaking of the will but as the fruit of a heart under the gospel’s spell. Here’s the thing: because of the gospel, we don’t have to be generous, we get to be generous. We get to give of our best to the unlikely for God’s glory, just like he did. The gospel is the work and the gospel does the work.
Unless I go away
“For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the Lord: I will put my laws into their minds, and write them on their hearts, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”
Being like Christ is isn’t a mere exercise in Simon Says. It could be if we let it, but that is not the point. God calls his people to love him with their whole heart, mind, soul, and strength precisely because this begets holiness. Mercy and grace are a part of that. But where does this holiness producing love come from?
Jesus tells his disciples in John 16:7 that unless he goes away the Helper will not come. For their benefit he leaves them not alone. This Helper, the Holy Spirit, the most intimate Emmanuel, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment, guide us into all truth, glorify Christ, and declare to us what is to come and the things of the Father. He will put God’s laws in our minds.
When we read that we love God because he first loved us (1 John 4:19), it is not simply that our love comes sequentially second in return. Rather, our love is the byproduct of his. His love makes us lovers of him. Paul prays that we’d have power to grasp the incomprehensibly sweeping love of Christ (Eph 3:18-19) We know this love because Romans 5:5 says, “the love of God has been shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit who was given to us.” He writes his love in our hearts by his Spirit.
As grateful as I am for Good Friday and Christ’s sacrifice, I’m so so thankful for his resurrection and for access to that kind of power in him : “and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places,” (Eph 1:19-20) It’s the power to love, it’s the power to comprehend, and it’s the power to live. The lives of holiness and mercy and liberality he has called us to live are from him and through him and for him. And we have been “enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God.” (2 Cor 9:11)