Josh was riding his bike with some friends when they came across an unusual looking paper bag on the side of the street.
Wondering what kind of treasure they had stumbled upon, he jumped off his bike, ran to the bag, and dumped its contents onto the street. As soon as the magazines began to slide out of the bag, the kids knew they had both hit paydirt and found something they had to hide. They stuffed the porn magazines back into the bag as fast as they could so that no one driving by would catch the glimpse of skin that had instantly captured the imaginations and budding libidos of the young men. They hurried to Josh’s house and locked the door to his room to have a look.
As the boys giggled and laughed at the images in the magazine, something began to stir in the back of Josh’s mind. That stirring, and the images associated with it, became the start of a lifelong struggle with porn. Over the years, he was simultaneously titillated and disgusted by himself so much that he hid his secret from everyone. That was, until the search history on his phone became the last straw that ended a difficult marriage.
SKELETONS IN YOUR CLOSET
You know what that sin is in your life. Just mentioning the topic probably brings it right to your mind. Maybe it was a one-time thing. Maybe it’s something you can’t seem to stop. But the thought of it sits like a stone in the pit of your stomach. Maybe you have pursued power or money or pleasure or the appreciation of others and have ruined your marriage and the relationships with your kids in the process. You can’t bear to look at yourself or what you have done. You wish you could just go back in time.
We see that in the repeated descriptions of Israel in the Old Testament. Personified as a woman in Ezekiel 23, she remembered what it was like when she was young, and she fantasized about it and pursued it, hoping to capture some of the glory she felt in those days. The voices in her mind fed her whatever it had to to keep her from becoming who she was destined to be. And she didn’t have the benefit of the Holy Spirit, as we do. So she plunged into her old, familiar sin. But it didn’t satisfy. Her sin was leading to destruction. It’s wretched.
Let’s call it like it is. Every sinful attitude, every sinful action, is a betrayal to God. It’s no wonder that one of the most common pictures of the effects of sin in the Bible is that of a jilted lover.
And yet . . .
To terrible sinners, God offers righteousness and justice. To the one deep in disgusting, harmful sin, he offers grace.
EVERYONE DESERVES GRACE?
Whoa, there! Hold on. Oh no! We don’t want bad sinners receiving grace. That person doesn’t deserve grace. Not that jerk. Not that fallen Christian leader. Not that predator who used his position to prey on the innocent. Not that woman who used her apparent righteousness to cloak her horrible sin.
No. Nope. Not happening. The only part of Jesus’s hand of mercy those people deserve is the back of it as he slaps them into outer darkness.
Oh, yes, we do want them to receive grace. If they aren’t eligible for God’s grace, then neither are you or me. The justice of God was poured out on Jesus. The punishment for our whoredom was paid by Christ and we’ve been washed clean by his blood. The righteousness of Jesus was then transferred forever in steadfast love and mercy to us. To the whores.
Besides, grace says more about the giver than the receiver. Paul Zahl reminds us that:
Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable. . . . Grace is a love that has nothing to do with you, the beloved. It has everything and only to do with the lover. . . . It reflects a decision on the part of the giver, the one who loves, in relation to the receiver, the one who is loved, that negates any qualifications the receiver may personally hold. . . . Grace is one-way love.
AT LEAST I’M NOT . . .
The one-way love of God means that you were a plain old wretch, but because of his grace now you are a wretched saint. What do we do with a God like that? What do we do with a love like that?
Maybe you have spent your whole life trying to not look at the dark, broken parts of yourself. You stuff them down. The voices shouting in your ear describe you in such horrible terms that the only way you can move forward is to not think about them. You secretly judge or quietly compare yourself to others, and that helps you feel better about yourself. But those (false) messages still haunt you.
Tim Keller once said that cultures often have “unexamined assumptions of superiority.” People do, too. Sometimes the barrier that keeps us from embracing the grace of God is that we don’t examine our assumption of superiority. “I’m not that bad,” we say to ourselves. “At least, compared with that guy” (Luke 18:11).
Yeah, you are. You are much, much worse. And so am I.
I’m not saying you should hate yourself. This isn’t “proof ” that you really are outside of God’s love. But when we can drop our “I’m okay because at least I . . .” façade, and once we get that deep in our soul, it sets us free so we don’t have to put up a front. We can let our guard down and admit there are deep dark spots in our life. Because our sanctification isn’t complete yet, and because we still pay attention to faulty sensors.
WHAT THE LOVE OF GOD DOES
God, in his love, relentlessly seeks out fallen, broken, and messy people who are willing to admit that about themselves and who are willing to receive his love at face value, with no strings attached. And for those who really receive it, there comes the desire to change. To become more like God and the love that he offers. To stop acting as if malfunctioning sensors are pointing to actual malfunctions. That’s what the love of God does. It doesn’t require that you become a better person in order to receive it; it simply asks that you receive it, and because of it you become a better person.
Phillip Yancey reminds us that:
Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more—no amount of spiritual calisthenics and renunciations, no amount of knowledge gained from seminaries and divinity schools, no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes. And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less—no amount of racism or pride or pornography or adultery or even murder. Grace means that God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possibly love.
WHAT TO DO WITH GRACE
So how do you respond to that kind of love?
You can ignore it, I suppose. You can go about your life pretending that it doesn’t exist and that you don’t really need it. Even though there’s a longing in your soul that you can’t fill. However, it’s nearly impossible to offer grace to others when you haven’t received it yourself. The deeper grace goes, the more you can extend it to others.
When you begin to see yourself as you really are, you become open to change. God’s grace sees you as fallen, broken, messy, and in need of a love that accepts you where you are.
When you cry out to God asking for his love to save you, you can get honest with him about the other lovers you’ve been running to.
And he will throw open his arms and say, “You are wretched. You are beautiful. You are loved.”
Taken from Wretched Saints (David C Cook) by Noel Jesse Heikkinen 2019. Used by Permission.
Noel Jesse Heikkinen is a pastor at Riverview Church in the Lansing, Michigan area, and serves as a network director for Acts 29. He is the author of Unchained and blogs at noeljesse.com. Noel and his wife, Grace, have four children.