Some years ago when Linda and I were eating at Cracker Barrel she went into the gift shop and bought me something. It’s a plaque with a dog bearing a striking resemblance to our dog So-Fee. Underneath the dog are the words, “Lord, make me the person my dog thinks I am.” I think this is cool, and it now hangs in our kitchen with my full approval. For me this little plaque represents four essential truths about God and Jesus.
#1 – “Love.” God loves me. If you knew me and what’s in my heart at times, you would be wonder “Why?” Because: the core Christian truth is that God is love. That is, God, in his essence, IS love. “Love” is not some contingent attribute of God. Essentially, the being of God is love. God cannot not-love. God cannot not-love me. Or you. In fact, God likes me, and God likes you. “For God so LOVED the world…” I know many Jesus-followers, and I am one of them who, when we think that God loves us with all our inner and outer struggles and sin, we stand astounded.
#2 – “Grace.” C.S. Lewis was once asked about what the distinctive difference between Christianity and the other major world religions was. Lewis responded: “That’s easy, it’s grace.” In the Bible the word “grace” is the Greek word charis. Literally, the word means “gift.” “Grace” is getting what we do not deserve. The grace of God gets experienced when we submit our lives to him, he accepts us like a prodigal son or daughter, and then throws a huge banquet on our behalf.
#3 – “Mercy.” The Hebrew word literally means “to stoop or bend down to another person’s level.” To be merciful is to descend to the level of hurting or suffering of another person and help them. If “grace” is getting what we do not deserve, “mercy” is not getting what we deserve. I would not now want to share with you all that I know of my own self that is deserving, not of love, but of condemnation. One of my personal favorites in the Bible is when Paul writes that “there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
#4 – “Forgiveness.” In a few weeks Linda and I will celebrate our 34th wedding anniversary. I am eternally grateful to God for giving Linda to me. I know I do not deserve her, and she feels the same about me. Through these 34 years we have had many arguments and disagreements. And, at times, in our anger towards each other we have said things we should not have said, or acted in ways we should not have acted. How, then, have we made it this far? The key is: confession and forgiveness. We have always said these words to each other when we realize we have been hurtful: “Linda, I was wrong about that, will you forgive me?” And she says, “Yes, I forgive you.” And vice versa. If “grace” is getting what we do not deserve, and “mercy” is not getting what we deserve, “forgiveness” is cancelling the debt owed to us by the other. Forgiveness is the practical acting-out of grace. And when you experience it… there’s life and freedom.
“Judgment?” Yes, there will be a day of judgment. But on that day you won’t be the Judge. Nor will I. The great Christian truth about judgment is this: the mercy of God triumphs over judgment. James 2:12-14 says: “Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment!” We see this unfolding in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as Jesus continually engages the religious Pharisees and the “teachers of the law.” They are the off-the-chart-law-enforcers, experts in judging other people (which does not take a whole lot of ability). They think righteousness, or real relationship with God, is purchased by the keeping of many rules and regulations. Like, “we don’t work on the Sabbath,” said in shock as they see the disciples of Jesus picking grain on the Sabbath. Jesus calls these “religious” people “white-washed tombs, who look good on the outside but are filled with dead men’s bones.” Jesus the Revolutionary has come to overthrow judgmentalism and replace it with love and grace and mercy and forgiveness, all of which got displayed on the Cross.
If you want to understand real Christianity, this is very important: The essence of following Jesus is not external rule-keeping, but inner heart-transformation. Transformation… into what? Into Christlikeness. Which is… what? Love, grace, mercy, forgiveness, peace, justice… just read Matthew chapters 5-7 to get more of the whole story.
How important is this? For starters, one sign that the Real Jesus is in the house is when mercy is winning big-time over judgment. In a world where the media and churches and families and husbands and wives and employers and employees are constantly judging one another, this is radical, is it not? This has been and continues to be a hard lesson for me to learn. But not only is it real Christianity, it’s the road to personal and corporate freedom. Our heart-cry should be “Lord, make me the person that You think I am!” You and I are meant to be far better than we actually are. We have been created in the very image of God, and that image is about love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
(For two very good books about “grace” see: 1) Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace; and 2) Lewis Smedes, Shame and Grace.)