I was talking with a client this week. She and her husband have been having marriage difficulties, and they are at that point where they have begun admitting to their part of the problem and asking for forgiveness. For her husband, this is difficult. Not the asking part—he knows how to ask for forgiveness and has asked over and over and over. He really means it too. It’s the forgiving part that he struggles with. He cannot seem to accept forgiveness, or maybe I should say that he can accept forgiveness but has trouble believing that forgiveness is real and permanent.
This is when many people step in and say that those who have trouble believing they are forgiven are reflecting their own inability to forgive others. I don’t disagree that this happens sometimes, but that’s not the issue for everyone. For this man, it is an issue of grace.
You see, forgiveness is a part of grace, which is a much larger reality that encompasses things like unconditional love, self- and other-acceptance, humility, inner peace that is large enough to share with others, and of course, forgiveness.
Grace is a gift of God that is undeserved and unmeasurable. Grace comes at us from all sides even before we believe in God or seek a relationship with Him. Grace is what draws us to God, causes us to seek forgiveness for our failures, and drives us to rise above our fears and our pettiness and become all that God created us to be. Grace is what helps us to accept ourselves as we are even as we know that we can be better. Grace is what allows us to accept others as they are and forgive them their shortcomings even as we encourage them to grow and change.
The problem with grace is that anything that is undeserved is scary. If we don’t deserve it, how can we guarantee its presence? If we didn’t earn it, how can we insure that we won’t lose it? If we can’t do anything to secure it, how can we be certain that it will be there when we need it?
Grace does not adhere to the rules of logic and it is not like material goods. Grace cannot be bought like groceries. Grace cannot be insured like your car. Grace cannot be stored like dried beans. Grace cannot be quantified, like the money in your bank account. Grace cannot be positively identified by everyone present, as if it had a photo ID and was equally visible to everyone. Grace is mostly recognizable to those who experience it and those who are looking for it; attempts to describe grace are difficult because it is so personal. Grace is different for everyone because it is given to each individual separately, based on their individual need. Grace is neither average nor standard. Grace is a gift directly given to each individual on purpose by God.
This is why my client’s husband is having so much trouble with grace. He is a man in his later years who is used to working hard for everything. He earned his nation’s gratitude in the Vietnam War and pays the price for that war with his body and his nerves even now. He earned his wife’s love with his faithfulness and his good provision for his family and did so until she died. He earned his children’s respect and their love with firm parenting and wise words. And now he seeks to re-earn his new wife’s love with efforts to change and admissions that he hasn’t always been kind…but he fears that there is not enough forgiveness in the world to undo the damage. He has earned everything he has ever possessed and is having a terrible time believing that he can receive forgiveness from his wife and from God before he changes anything at all and proves that he is worthy of that forgiveness. It’s a good impulse to want to be worthy of the forgiveness you receive, but the truth is that we can never undo the past or our own actions and the consequences can haunt us and everyone we love in powerful ways that leave the evidence of our wrongs in front of us daily. How do you earn forgiveness if you can’t escape the consequences of your bad actions?
You can’t. It isn’t possible.
Some things must be forgiven by grace alone, and when you have trouble believing in grace…forgiveness seems impossible.
This is when some people say that some things, like grace, must be taken on faith. I say that’s not necessary, not if you can find evidence. Evidence gives testimony to the truth and with evidence, you can move beyond faith alone.
I believe that I have evidence.
Grace is much like love in that love doesn’t adhere to the rules of logic or material possessions. You can’t insure love, you can’t store it, you can’t quantify it, and you can’t guarantee it. In the end, grace and love walk hand. They rely on one another to exist. Without love, there is no grace at all. Without grace, love is terribly fragile and dies easily like an un-watered plant. Grace and love are interdependent and cannot exist separately; therefore, to prove that there is evidence of one is to prove the other definitively. Provide evidence of undeserved, unearned love and you will have evidence of unearned, undeserved grace.
Let me prove love for you, so that I can prove grace.
If you are not a parent, please forgive me. I can only know what I know, and after two children, this is how I understand undeserved, unearned love.
Oh that moment when you first hold your brand new baby! They are so beautiful and perfect! Ten little toes and ten little fingers and that squished look on their face. Their little bow mouth and tiny upturned nose are the essence of adorable. They are so cute you could eat them like candy! The first minute that you hold your child, you are consumed with the most intense love for them. Right?
Okay…first of all, no. Not right. Not everyone bonds with their child immediately. Science tells us that the bonding process is driven by chemicals like Oxytocin that are released during the birthing process. However, most parents bond with their infant very quickly, and since this is not a scientific dissertation, we’re going to stick with the folks who do bond quickly and insert a little reality into that sweet moment of love we have for our adorable, tiny infants.
Adorable my behind! What you are holding in your arms at that moment is a small screaming, eating, sleeping, puking, poop machine!! Infants are not capable of “loving you back” in the most traditional sense. They don’t look lovingly into your eyes as you hold them…they can’t even focus their eyes! They keep you up half the night because they have to be fed every 2-3 hours and then rocked back to sleep. Half the time they soil their diapers before you can even finish changing them, and if you have a little boy, they pee on you regularly. Only a few days after she was born I was in the bathroom giving my daughter Alex a sponge bath. I felt water pouring onto my foot only to realize that she was peeing over the edge of the counter and that’s what was pouring onto my foot. I grabbed her little behind to keep the flow on the counter, and she immediately pooped in my hand. My God how she loved me! Can you feel the love? I felt the love…all over my foot and in my hand, too. To be honest, it felt nothing like love at all, and it took my mom—who was in the room with me—a good five minutes to stop laughing hysterically and come help me. Again, can you feel the love?
Infants are tiny little screaming, eating, sleeping, puking, poop machines! And we love them…we love them with an intensity that is almost insane, and they do nothing to earn that love. They do nothing to return that love. They simply exist and we love them. This is undeserved, unearned love. Some of you will remind me about the Oxytocin and some of you will say that we are biologically programmed to love our infants because we have to propagate the human race. I will remind you that not everyone bonds with their infants and some of us feel no need to propagate the race at all despite our biology. In the end, if we choose to have children and love them, it’s because we choose to give undeserved, unearned love to someone who cannot return that love. We CHOOSE to give UNDESERVED, UNEARNED love.
Of course, by the time our children are toddlers, closer to 12 months or 18 months, we start receiving what we think is evidence that they love us in return. Wet, sloppy kisses and hugs; cuddle fests that end with your toddler fast asleep on your shoulder…surely this is evidence that they deserve our love, that they are returning and trying to earn our love…right? This goes on for years, expressed in macaroni necklaces and scribble drawings posted on the refrigerator. But do we really want those things? If your spouse gave you a scribble drawing, would you feel loved? If your sibling gave you kiss after they smeared their face with food, would you feel loved? This Valentine’s Day, will you open the box with the macaroni necklace in it and think “Oooh, he went to Jared!”??
I am acutely aware that we use our children’s hugs and sloppy kisses to justify our overwhelming love for them. We see their adoration and efforts to ‘love’ us as solid evidence that they truly love us. But the truth is that we wouldn’t let anyone else love us that way. No one in their right mind wants to be hugged and kissed by someone who smells like diaper and is covered in spit, food, snot, and anything else they could smear on their hands and face while playing and eating. No one wants to be laid on like a sofa and have their shoulder turned into a pillow by random folks who sweat and snore away no matter what you actually need to be doing at that moment. The reason that we perceive these moments as acts of love by our children is because we already loved them first!! Any feeble attempt at returning that affection is received by us as if it came coated in diamonds and gold.
In the end, the love we have for our children is proof that we know how to give undeserved, unearned love…and how to accept and value even the most misguided and messy attempts to return that love.
God is just like this with us.
No matter how old we get in this earthly realm, we are just infants and toddlers to the Eternal God, and His love for us and His grace for us comes to us undeserved and unearned simple because we are His. He feels about us like we feel about our infant children, and the depth of that love is very great, very intense, and borders on insanity. Lest you worry that you are the one child that God doesn’t bond with, let me remind you that God doesn’t rely on Oxytocin and other chemicals created during the birthing process to create the bond between you and Him. God’s choice to create you at all was proceeded by His love for the idea of you, and that idea was made flesh only because He wanted it that way. If He didn’t love you, you wouldn’t be here at all. Surprise! You are…because you are loved by God. If you exist, then you are loved…and there is nothing that you can do change that. It was His choice to love you in the first place, and you can’t undo his choice.
And if love and grace are interdependent, then the grace that God has for you…that grace that makes you forgiveable, acceptable, esteemed, that grace that calls you to become all you were ever created to be…that grace is just as unearned and just as undeserved and there is not one thing you can do to make it go away.
And all the times that you screw up or do something awful cannot be greater than the meager, faltering attempts you have made to show your love for God. The times you have gently served God’s creations: his Earth, his children, your loved ones…each of these acts was received by God like a wet, sloppy kiss. The love you have for your own family? the love you have for your children? Every time you express that love you give God a great, big hug. Every time you have been grateful is a scribble drawing on His refrigerator. Every time you have forgiven another person is a macaroni necklace given directly to Him. It’s kind of hard to screw this up, you know? Because in God’s house, you are that messy, silly toddler tripping along, food all over your face…and He thinks you are adorable beyond words. He loves you so intensely it borders on insanity.
If you are a parent, you know exactly how this feels.
If I can prove love, then I can prove grace, and love…is a given. It. Is. Proved. Don’t even get me started on all that Jesus is and was. Love. Is. Proved.
Therefore…GRACE, undeserved, unearned, abounding for you.
It. Is. Proved.
I hope my client’s husband reads this and finally finds the space to believe in grace and forgiveness.
I hope you do too.