Many years ago, Monica and I took our youth group for an all-you-can-eat buffet at Pizza Hut. During the evening, I saw some guys at another table, probably stoned, one ‘resting’ his face in the pizza pan.
I smirked. “Look at him!” Monica, concerned for the youth, whispered quietly, “The only difference between you and him is Jesus.”
Monica was right. My smug sense of self-satisfaction, my snide superiority, my willingness to gloat over the failure of another all pointed in one direction: I had completely misunderstood or, even worse, forgotten the grace of God.
There are two ways to misunderstand grace. One is the way of self-righteousness: I assumed I was ‘more righteous’ than someone else because my life ‘looked better.’ The other is to fail to realise the depths of God’s goodness and love, and so fail to receive – and live in – the reality of this grace.
The two errors are often connected. The first error forgets Let’s get growing … As gospel community Photo: Ricardo Viana/Unsplash Why you might need to mess up your life Sometimes you’ve got to make a mess to improve the situation. My son got a mini Rubik’s Cube earlier in the year. Before long he got pretty good at getting half of it done – but could never complete it. This week however, with a bit of guidance, he finally solved it. Life can be a bit like a Rubik’s Cube. With a bit of effort and perseverance, we get things working well enough. There are a few pieces out of place, but we live with that, because to sort those issues out means a lot of rearranging and complication. Maybe you’re in a season that feels a bit jumbled. You’re waiting for the pieces to fall into place. For things to start making sense. When I go out running, the best, most exciting runs involve finding new routes – new ways of getting places. To a certain extent, you can plan to find these unexplored tracks by looking at a map. But the best trails can’t be seen on a map. They need to be found on foot. that all of us live only by the forgiveness of sins, not our own performance. The second error doesn’t quite believe that God can really forgive our sin. We still feel shame in our hearts and perhaps believe that we are beyond forgiveness. This shame is compounded when we believe that if others knew who we truly were and what we have done, they would never love us. Therefore, we learn to hide what we think is the ‘real’ us; we work harder, wear masks and practice image management, trying to earn our belonging and prove our worthiness. We hide and we perform.
Both errors indicate graceless community. The self-righteous person parades their own virtue and judges others as I did, creating an environment where it is not safe to be less than perfect. They cannot create gospel community because they don’t believe the gospel. Their so-called righteousness is their own work and not the work of God’s grace. They have not learned to receive God’s love so they cannot show it to others. Where self-righteousness reigns, only moralistic communities are formed and these can never become communities of grace and healing. Without a living experience of God’s mercy and grace we are like Adam and Eve in the garden, hiding from God – and from one another – in fear and shame. The possibility of gospel community is destroyed because self-righteousness destroys openness and trust.
Gospel communities are places of healing and growth because God’s grace has become real in the believers’ lives. We find a place where we are truly known, even in our sin, and yet deeply loved. We find a place where God’s love, acceptance and forgiveness are mediated to us through others. Convinced of this love, we take the risk of letting our masks slip. We begin to expose our struggles – our hearts – to one another, and healing grace begins its work. Believing – experiencing! – God’s love and forgiveness through others, we learn to trust him more deeply and to offer the same love to others. This is gospel community.
Author – Michael O’Neil Dr Michael O’Neil is the Dean of Campus at Morling College – Perth Vose Campus. In this regular column, he explores the patterns and dynamics of Christian growth and maturity.