It seemed like yesterday. Only it was 11 years ago. January 12, 2003 will forever be burned in her memory. It was as big of a marking point on her life timeline as a birthday or wedding day. It changed her life. It changed her. It MADE her.
She was 16. The time in a young person’s life when they are trying to figure out who they are and where they belong. This homeschooler had finally found her niche in a church. She finally had friends. She finally felt accepted and loved. She felt… normal.
And then it all fell apart. Suddenly it was her family versus the church. She felt like she was on trial sitting in that auditorium. Seemingly her family on one side: the church on the other. The misunderstanding will always be just that. The details are fuzzy, and it might be better off that way. Sometimes it’s better that we don’t know the nitty gritty. Lies only complicate matters and forge mistrust into relationships. But one thing is for sure: both sides were wrong. Whether in deed or word or pride or reaction, neither was without sin. Because churches are full of people and if we preach that all men are sinners what does that make us?
It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of an angry God. Sometimes it’s almost just as scary to fall into the hands of an angry congregation. Being at their mercy is one of the worst feelings possible. It feels surreal when the people you love and have made a church family are against you. “If you can‘t row with us, then row somewhere else,” her family was told.
Weren’t we all rowing to heaven? Weren’t we all building God’s kingdom together? Or were both sides secretly building their own kingdoms?
And so her family was kicked out of that place, although, truth be told, they would have left regardless. And she cried for days and months that turned into years because she felt like she had been forced to leave. And had left God behind. Or, more properly stated, left her god behind.
And today, eleven years later, on another less gloomy Sunday, she sat in a church still trying to find God in a group of people. A people building God’s kingdom and not their own. And she feels her insecurity battling with healing. Sometimes it’s easier to sit in bitterness because it’s comfortable. It‘s become a long-time acquaintance. Because being a martyr is easier than forgiveness. Because a chip on our shoulder, though weighty, gives one purpose and without someone to have complaint with what else is there to live for? Because then if we are unhappy we can only blame ourselves. We can’t have that. It’s much preferred to have people we can drive by and not wave at. It gives us authority and control. And it reminds them of how good we are and how good they aren’t. In our eyes. The pastor’s words caught her attention. “We’re big fans of Jesus making us adequate, but don’t want to treat others like they are.” And if we look deeply enough into our souls, we see that erroneous thought there.
She received the message, meekly at first, and then embraced it. “God’s law was given so that all people could see how sinful they were. But as people sinned more and more, God’s wonderful grace became more abundant.” (Romans 5:20) Wonderful grace. But we want to live above the law. We all think we’re exceptions. But those who live by the law die by the law, because the law isn’t sufficient to save. All it’s good for is to show us how far short we fall. If we refuse to show grace to others in their shortcomings, how can we expect God to show us grace? Oh, but you see, my shortcomings are better than theirs. And so we begin judging and not loving and we are oh, so guilty of that. Living by the law lends itself to contradiction, because there is no way that the law can make us as good as we think we are. It condemns others but lifts up ourselves.
“We are afraid of grace, because it might tend toward a permissive spirit when sin is involved. We are far more concerned about that than God was. Because our God kissed the prodigal.” Despite my long list of “what-fors” to give those in whom I see sin, God said not a word. He kissed, received, loved, forgave. To someone who took half of all he owned, and then came back to ask for more after he had spent it all. “Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of His wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it?” (Romans 6:1-2) But grace isn’t safe and it’s much harder. There is no way to measure it anymore. And that’s how God meant it to be.
“Grace reigns. But we often live as if the law of sin and death reigns. We are bookkeepers of slights against us,” he continues. Yes, and the people I have the most trouble forgiving are the ones who think they’re above everyone else, and the ones who can’t give grace to anyone else but expect it for themselves. “So just as sin ruled over all people and brought them to death, now God’s wonderful grace rules instead, giving us right standing with God.” (Romans 5:21) If sin isn’t allowed to lord over me anymore, I am not allowed to lord sin over others, either.
Was it all worth it? She can actually say that the rending of her heart in two gave way to a wonderful season of redemption. She loves those dear people, this many years later, even despite the slight against her family. She understands that we all mess up. And now, as she faces slights inside her family, she can react with more forgiveness than she ever thought possible. She can also react with courage, because she knows the truth and it sets her free. Free from bitterness, hatred, and anger. As James says, human anger does not accomplish God’s righteousness.
The girl in the pew eleven years ago is not the same girl in the pew today. She is wiser, stronger than she ever thought, and she has more of a grasp on God’s heart than ever before. She is grateful for the path of thorns that grew the roses. And she can promise you that no matter what you’re going through, the Lord is there.
What’s more, when you think you’re leaving God behind, you’ll realize that He’s not in a place. He’s in a person. And that person is you.