Imagine, for a moment, that you are a Christian who is a member of a relatively small church. Your church was planted (i.e. newly founded) several years ago in a cosmopolitan city known for its commerce and trade. The founder of your church has since moved on to another city, but you write him a letter because you are overwhelmed by the problems that are everywhere in the church.
You write him about all the chaos and hypocrisy you are seeing…
The church is full of divisive people who align themselves with their favourite preachers and teachers, constantly arguing with each other about who’s right and who’s best.
In line with popular philosophy, some of the people in the church are convinced that the Christian doctrine about “resurrection from the dead” is just a spiritual thing. They’re saying that when we die, our souls go on but our bodies simply stay dead, forever.
There is a temple in town belonging to another religion, and some of the prominent church members are participating in worship there and brushing it off as no big deal. Others who used to be part of that religion are freaking out, afraid even to eat food that has been “tainted” by being prepared at the temple.
Certain men and women in the church are in conflict over gender roles and how men and women ought to behave during the worship service.
People are bringing contributions of food for the Communion meal, but the wealthy people aren’t willing to share their own food and drink, so the poor members of the church have nothing to eat.
At least one individual in the church is suing another in civil court over a financial dispute.
Some members of the church are soliciting prostitutes.
A young man in the church is sleeping with his step-mother (!!), and the church isn’t doing or saying anything about it.
Other members have decided that sex is ungodly and are refusing to have sex with their spouses. There is at least one young man who is postponing marriage to his fiancée for this very reason.
Still others are married to non-Christian spouses whom they have begun thinking of as “unholy,” so that they are considering divorce (not to mention their attitudes toward their now-“unclean” children!).
People are very proud of the “spiritual gifts” which God has given them, looking down on other church members who are gifted in different ways that are less prestigious.
People with the rather spectacular spiritual gifts of tongues and prophecy are dominating the worship service, turning it into a circus of self-expression and leaving everyone else confused by the chaos and disorder.
Everyone cares more about expressing their own desires and their own rights, especially the more prominent members. They aren’t concerned with the effect their actions have on one another. They run roughshod over each other. They don’t really love each other.
The founder of the church is a good and faithful man. Can you imagine what he will think when he reads your letter? What do you expect him to tell you?
Will he tell you to get out of that dysfunctional place? Will he swear off that church altogether? Perhaps he will give up on the Christian faith, saying that religion is useless or worse. Perhaps he will declare that churches are all full of hypocrites, that Jesus would have nothing to do with people like this. Perhaps he will complain that Christians don’t care about the poor and needy after all.
Perhaps that’s what you or I might do. But we might be surprised to discover that the founder offers a very different response.
In fact, the apostle Paul didn’t write off the church he had founded in first-century Corinth. Instead, he replied with a letter we now include in the New Testament as 1 Corinthians. Given the problems in the Corinthian church, it’s a firm but shockingly gracious response. After a brief greeting, his first words are, “I give thanks to my God always for you” (1 Corinthians 1:4). Personally, I would have begun the letter with a little more rage and a little less thanksgiving.
It’s unmistakable: This is a man who loved this church. Despite all their insanities and hypocrisies, he loved them. His love leaps off the page even more when you read his other letter to them (2 Corinthians).
Oh, and by the way, the church in Corinth kept making a mess of things. About 50 years later, they re-established their reputation for dysfunction and hypocrisy. As Clement of Rome lambasted them after yet another schism and insurrection within the church:
Righteousness and peace are now far departed from you, inasmuch as every one abandons the fear of God, and is become blind in His faith, neither walks in the ordinances of His appointment, nor acts a part becoming a Christian, but walks after his own wicked lusts, resuming the practice of an unrighteous and ungodly envy, by which death itself entered into the world.
I have heard and read similar criticisms of Christians and churches, though perhaps none as eloquent and scathing as Clement’s. Usually the modern criticisms come from those who walked away from the church, or from the Christian faith. I know that much of the content of their criticisms is true. I’m no dummy. I see all the same things. From my vantage point as a pastor of a North American evangelical church, I’ve seen firsthand hypocrisy, deceit, spiritual abuse, divisive spirits, uncaring hearts—from the leadership on down. And on top of these things, I hear even worse reports that baffle and grieve me about a multitude of other North American churches. My point in writing about the church in Corinth is that these are not new phenomena. These problems go all the way back to the church in Corinth—a church that tested the patience and sanity of Paul himself (and later Clement). A multitude of screwed-up churches exist in every time and place throughout church history, and they always will, until Jesus Christ returns.
If you’ll “deconstruct” and walk away from the North American evangelical church…would you have done the same in Corinth? Would you have loved that church—or turned away in contempt?
Yes, some people do love the church but have endured abuse and trauma, so that even entering a church building is an overwhelming experience. And others struggle with overwhelming social anxiety. They need patience and understanding. I don’t question their love for the church, which endures despite their weakness. I consider them faithful disciples of Christ, as they learn how to overcome these struggles and slowly make their way back to the church.
My concern, rather, is the more common pathway that begins with disdain for churches and other Christians for all their hypocrisy and dysfunction. I know myself well enough to know how that cancer would spread in me. Any disdain in my heart would metastasize into contempt—turning my back and walking away, hating the church, swearing it off forever. I simply must not follow that pathway.
I know enough to know who I would become if I were to walk away. That cultivation of disdain would only feed my existing tendency toward the venomous sin of contempt. I know what sort of poison can sprout from such a seed. I’m grateful that the Lord has, again and again, put me in churches where my contempt must eventually be dealt with and crucified. I would never have crucified it myself, without the church that has shaped me. Whatever good has been done, has been done in the context of the church, through the Spirit.
The moment I believe that I can do without the church is the moment I begin the long, dark slide back into contempt, with its underlying boast in its own righteousness, cleverness, enlightenment, and maturity. I can’t afford to travel down that express lane to hell. I need to be right where I am. There are people here with righteousness and faith I don’t have, gifts I haven’t been given. People that I need, and love.
Yes, the Lord Jesus Christ has the right to say to a local church, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent” (Revelation 2:5). That is his call to make—not mine. Am I a prophet of the Lord? Do I have the right to remove the lampstand myself? Has he granted me authority to pronounce my own judgment on his church—let alone all churches? May God preserve me from such a delusion. It is not my place to utter any word of contempt against what Paul called the temple of the Holy Spirit.
Do you not know that you [plural] are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.
I still need that temple, and that Spirit, and those people. I still need the church, and I still love it.
 Clement of Rome, “The First Epistle of Clement to the Corinthians,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus (Vol. 1), eds. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, & A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 6.
Please indulge me as I get confrontational for a moment. This is something that really, really matters to me.
Perhaps you would say to me, “I’m a Christian. I love Jesus.” Do you, though?
What “Jesus” do you say that you love?
I know of three kinds of “Jesus” that aren’t real, and I know One who is.
1. Mascot Jesus
When the people saw the sign that he had done, they said, “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!” Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.
Mascot Jesus is more common outside the church, but I’ve seen professing Christians relate to Jesus this way, too. You like this Jesus because he says and does things that you like. You’ve got a cause you’re wanting to promote. You’re trying to get someone else to behave in a certain way. And you need a mascot, a powerful symbol or spokesman for the message you want to send.
Are you a gun control activist? “All who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).
A Second Amendment enthusiast? “Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36).
An LGBT rights activist? “Judge not, that you be not judged” (Matthew 7:1).
A warrior against the corrupt elites? “Making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple” (John 2:15).
A pleasant teacher of kindness? “A bruised reed he will not break” (Matthew 12:20).
A champion of the poor? “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20).
These are useful quotes. Mascot Jesus is a useful Jesus. Never mind the context—never mind why Jesus said that particular thing in that particular circumstance. Never mind the integrated complexity of Jesus’ thought—how he connected all these things with the rest of his teaching. Simple soundbites like these are gold for my cause.
Sometimes I call this “Sock Puppet Jesus.” The way a sock puppet works is that you insert your hand into the puppet, so that it looks like the puppet is doing the talking, but really it’s your own hand operating the puppet mouth, and your own voice saying what the puppet says. Sock Puppet Jesus says whatever you want him to say. He can be a socialist or a capitalist; he can be an inclusive ally or an anti-Muslim crusader; he can be a feminist or a macho man. What’s important to you is that this Jesus is on your side, providing the fuel you need for your cause. And best of all, chastising those who oppose your cause. You get to claim that you’re “following” him, and to demand that others “follow” him—but the voice you’re demanding obedience to sounds remarkably like your own.
Oddly, by their own admission, many people who like Mascot Jesus haven’t cracked open a Bible in years. They just quote the soundbites. It’s almost as though they have no interest in who Jesus actually is, how he actually thinks.
There’s a kernel of truth to this false image of Jesus; Jesus really did have things to say that are relevant and important to issues of justice and righteousness. He really does challenge the status quo. But his teaching goes beyond the simplistic and myopic rallying cries of our own age. Whether you’re a churchgoer or not, whether you claim to be a Christian or not, Mascot Jesus is merely useful.
2. Therapist Jesus
When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This is a hard saying; who can listen to it?” But Jesus, knowing in himself that his disciples were grumbling about this, said to them, “Do you take offense at this?”
Therapist Jesus is popular both outside and inside the church. You like this Jesus because of the way he makes you feel. Whereas Mascot Jesus suits your ambitions, Therapist Jesus suits your anxieties. He’s a comforting notion, a gentle opiate, a love song, a boyfriend pillow.
Sometimes I call this “Teddy Bear Jesus.” When you’re feeling sad or lonely or discouraged, you know he’s always there to give you a big fuzzy hug.
But just like Mascot Jesus, this is a one-sided relationship. You’re getting something out of Jesus, just as long as he says nothing troubling and asks nothing hard or unpleasant of you. You’re showing up to bask in an hour of unconditional positive regard. You’re not really interested in knowing and following the real Jesus; you just want the good feelings that come with “Jesus loves me, this I know.” You want him as your Therapist, not as your Lord.
There’s a kernel of truth to this false image of Jesus; Jesus really is “gentle and lowly in heart” (Matthew 11:29), and he really does bring us comfort and encouragement. But to quote the accidental theologian John Mayer, “Who do you love? Me, or the thought of me?” Whether you’re a churchgoer or not, whether you claim to be a Christian or not, Therapist Jesus is merely useful.
3. Delivery Jesus
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.”
Delivery Jesus is really common inside the church. In this one, you like Jesus because of the good stuff he can bring you. You’re not here to know Jesus as a person. You’re here for all the good stuff Jesus is going to deliver you. Maybe he’ll make you healthy again. Maybe he’ll make you wealthy and prosperous. Or maybe he’ll give you the success and social standing that you’re looking for. Maybe he’ll deliver you the happy marriage and family that you’ve always dreamed of. Maybe he’ll deliver you wisdom to live an untroubled life. Or maybe he’ll deliver the doctrinal knowledge that will make you feel intelligent and mature. Maybe you recognize that Jesus brings atonement of sin and salvation, so you’re here to punch that ticket to heaven, but you’re not here to know him. You scarcely think of him as a real person. After all, who orders a pizza and gets excited about the delivery boy?
There’s a kernel of truth in this, that Jesus does bring the Christian many good and beautiful things for us to enjoy and express gratitude for. But have you lost sight of Jesus himself? Would you be perfectly happy with all the blessings of God’s kingdom, even if you never got to be with your King? Delivery Jesus is merely useful.
The Real Jesus
As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever feeds on me, he also will live because of me.
One day we will all stand before Jesus Christ and give an account to him of how we merely used him. On that day, you will want to say: I have loved Jesus because of who he is as a person. To say you know him and you love him. To hear the Lord call you not his user, but look toward you and call you “friend.”
The Real Jesus is someone you want to know. It’s vital to approach Jesus in this way, because it’s the only way of finding life in the Son of God. This Jesus isn’t just a Sock Puppet who gives you life by agreeing with everything you say. He isn’t a Teddy Bear who gives you life by surrounding you with fuzzy feelings. He isn’t a Delivery Boy who gives you life by filling you up with the things you want. This Jesus gives you life when you come to know him as he really is, as you put your trust in him, as you honour him as Lord. That’s how Jesus becomes the source of your life. You “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8).
Maturing toward sanity
After this many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him. So Jesus said to the twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
I grew up in a Christian home, became active in church ministry during my university years, worked at a church as an intern for four years (including three years of seminary). Was I a Christian all those years? Yes. Did I love Jesus all those years? Sort of. I confessed him as the Son of God. But functionally, I found him merely useful—the Jesus I preferred was Delivery Jesus. He was a nebulous wrapper for doctrines and arguments and apologetics, which was the stuff that I really loved. (I suppose you could say I was what Twitter people now call a “theobro.”) All that stuff, as good as it is, was useful to help me feel in command and in control. Life’s a lot simpler and safer when you have a ready answer and an argument for everything.
The Lord has been deeply patient with me, gradually showing me that I need the real Jesus—and I not only need him, but I love him. I have been “slow at heart” to learn these things.
The Lord helped me realize, first, that the real me needed to be honest with the real God. He began getting personal this way back in 2009 when I read Paul Miller’s book A Praying Life for the first time.
Through those same resources, and through the CCEF course Helping Relationships in 2019, the Lord began to reveal my own need for relational wisdom and dependence on the Spirit. This has further unfolded over the last few years, as it has become very clear to me how much of this wisdom and dependence I have lacked. I think of the people I have known over the years who were filled with the gracious love of Jesus Christ, a love that seems so rare and out of place. They are men and women from another world, just as he is (John 17:18).
I have a few clear convictions about Jesus Christ: He is fully God. He is fully man. He is baffling and brilliant and beautiful and impossible to invent. And he is the only sane human being who has ever lived. The rest of us are dulled, warped, and—to some degree or other—nuts. Jesus is not only fully human; he is humanity in its full flower, unsullied by sin, living dependent on the Father and the Spirit.
It is common in our culture for a person to say, “I want to be the best version of myself.” To reach my full potential. To achieve my ideal self. And Jesus might be useful for that goal. But he will never be that goal.
My one unwavering desire is to become as much like Jesus Christ as any human being can possibly be. To fix my eyes on him and to become what I behold (as the saying goes). If nothing else good in my life comes true, I will still be happy and blessed if I can be like him.
In the turbulent waters of our present age, the historical fact of his resurrection is my one sure anchor, and the beautiful character of his person is my one true North Star. As long as I hold to these things, I can hold to everything else that comes with them, and I will not wander off course.
But only if he holds onto me. Between the two of us, he’s the one who is faithful and true—and sane. Remember, I’m the one who’s nuts.
That’s the first book I remember reading from start to finish. I picked up on reading quickly, training myself on the backs of cereal boxes at age 4. But I remember feeling a deep sense of satisfaction about this book. For the first time, I could immerse myself in an entire story, by myself. (With assistance from Mom, Dad, and Arnold Lobel.) I read it out loud, of course—the only way a child knows. I remember reaching the final word of the book: together. I didn’t recognize the word, so I ended the book with my own triumphant pronunciation: “TOGG-e-ther!”
I never stopped loving books. As a child, I enjoyed learning and reading about all sorts of subjects: dinosaurs, space, the Titanic, the human body, how stuff worked. I spent hours staring at the pages and diagrams. And of course, stories. I graduated to novels such as The Chronicles of Narnia. Michael Crichton thrillers. And then, anything with a story: comic strips, video games, TV shows, movies.
It’s easy to disappear into a good story.
Several years ago, I was seated in the Phoenix airport, waiting for a flight to begin boarding. This airport is officially known as the “Phoenix Sky Harbor”—filling my head with absurd visions of a gleaming airborne structure drifting above the desert, to which are moored a dozen giant Zeppelins. The reality is mundane: it was a large but ordinary airport, and my departure gate was undergoing renovation. So I had to sit a couple gates farther down that day. I began reading a Stanislaw Lem book (good sci-fi!), and I was engrossed. I “woke up” from my intense focus and looked at my watch. I was bewildered to see that my departure time had come and gone. What! I hurried to the gate counter, where the unimpressed staff told me they had paged me on the P.A. system several times. Then they finally gave up and let the flight depart. In my defence, that P.A. system was blaring out so much incessant, irrelevant information that I had mentally tuned it out. But in so doing, I had tuned out my own name. I had withdrawn from our world of bland airports with their pretentious names and irritating P.A. systems, and into a realm of scientific and philosophical wonder.
I’m told I was often lost in a book as a child. I sometimes wonder whether this explains why I don’t have many clear, precise memories from my childhood. My mind devoted itself to other worlds revealed in books and stories. From the vantage point of an adult, I don’t know whether this was always a good thing. I think one reason I have withdrawn over the years has been to avoid difficult relationships and situations that I didn’t know how to handle. Put those difficult things in a room in your mind, close the door behind them, then withdraw into another room where a better story is being told. Sometimes I told my own stories: my brothers and I built a vast world of Lego sets, less interested in engineering new creations, and more interested in telling new stories. By the time we stopped buying Lego, we had nearly 200 mini-figures. They all had different names, personalities, backstories. All absurd and outlandish, of course. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I even wrote down a few stories about them.
Then there were the stories I heard again and again. I knew the stories of scripture—not only in Sunday School, but in family worship as Mom invited us to read them. In high school, I read the Bible all the way through for the first time. I’d like to say I understood it all—I certainly thought I did. I always loved the Bible, enough that I gave away my well-worn NIV as a gift once, because it was the most meaningful thing I owned.
The Bible has been different from any other story I’ve ever read. A truly engrossing story would pull me in for a while. I would binge on stories long before Netflix made it cool. Then the story would be over, and the time would come to leave the universe of the author (or auteur) and re-enter the real world. The real world—with its overbearing people, overwhelming situations, its confusion and complexities. The refuge of a good, simple story never lasted long. It couldn’t hold the real world at bay forever.
The Bible did something different. It led me back into the real world.
I didn’t recognize this as a child, because I didn’t understand the Bible well then. But in university, I started reading it and comprehending what I was reading. Through the help of faithful teachers, the Holy Spirit began putting the pieces together for me. I understood the gospel, the central message of the Christian faith. I began reading it with new eyes. And I found that the Bible didn’t speak of an imaginary religious world; it speaks of the real world I had been avoiding all those years. It speaks of people who were a lot like the people I knew—and a lot like me. It speaks of the problems of sin, shame, and suffering. It speaks of God and all he has done to create, redeem, and one day restore the real world. He is not a God of the illusory, but of the real. He is not the God of another world, but of our world. So the Bible has slowly led me back into the real world.
More than that, the Bible led me to Jesus Christ. I didn’t fully appreciate this when I was younger. I affirmed all the things Christians are supposed to believe about Jesus Christ, but I didn’t find myself enthralled by him as a person. That’s something that has changed. The older I get, and the more I know people, the more I marvel at the holy, wise, loving person of Jesus Christ. (More about that in a couple weeks.)
What’s obvious to me is that, during his earthly ministry, Jesus Christ treasured the Bible he had (the Old Testament) even more than I do. When you cut Jesus, he bled Bible. He would critique his enemies with challenges such as “have you never read…?” (Mark 2:25) or “you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God” (Mark 12:24). He was quoting it constantly, and not simply for instructional or polemical purposes, but as the Word of God, the words of his own life and faith. Jesus trusted the Bible, and he loved it. In fact, I have never encountered a person who loves the scriptures more than Jesus did.
If the Bible was an anchor for Jesus when everyone around him was falling away, why would I not want the same for myself? God’s Word is my anchor, too. Lies may have more power for a time than the truth, but this Story is truth that outlasts every lie. My faith, hope, and love are built on God’s promises, and I find them in the Bible.
Of all the stories I watched and read, of all the stories I told and wrote, this is the only one that has ever been True.
This God—his way is perfect; the word of the LORD proves true; he is a shield for all those who take refuge in him.
It doesn’t matter where you click, or how fast, or how many times. Things don’t happen the way they ought to.
Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.
Proverbs 22:6 (ESV)
The thing about Proverbs like this is…sometimes they don’t work. Typically, children inherit the looks and values and mannerisms of their parents. It happens often enough that it’s a pattern. But then sometimes, it doesn’t happen. I’ve seen photos of parents who are dark-skinned whose (biological) child is lily white. I know parents who are quiet and introverted, and all of their kids are boisterous and outgoing. I know parents who raised their kids to follow in their footsteps as good churchgoing Christians, and their kids walked away from the faith. Things don’t happen the way they ought to.
If wisdom is a formula, the formula is broken.
Wisdom: finding what is good in a confounding world
The wisdom literature of the Bible is not the only wisdom literature we’ve inherited from the Ancient Near East. We have fragments of ancient wisdom writings from Egypt and Babylon. The sages of those days were their version of our scholars, philosophers, researchers, and scientists. They didn’t employ the modern techniques or standards of our post-Enlightenment world. But they knew how to be students of the world around them, observing nature and human behaviour in order “to know and to search out and to seek wisdom and the scheme of things” (Ecclesiastes 7:25).
I searched with my heart…till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life.
All of their studies and research and pithy proverbs were intended to find the good life, the satisfying life. They wanted to know what a man was meant to do and how he was meant to do it. They believed that if only one could gain access to and align one’s life with “the scheme of things,” the hidden order that underlies the world, one would then become wise.
Wisdom in Scripture means choosing the best and noblest end at which to aim, along with the most appropriate and effective means to it.
Wisdom is what we’re all seeking deep down. We want to know “the best and noblest end at which to aim” our lives. We want to know “the most appropriate and effective means” to that end. So we look for the structure, the scheme or pattern, beneath it all.
Proverbs: the full flower of common grace
What we find in the book of Proverbs is a collection of poetry and proverbs designed to make a young man wise. Yet even those of us who are no longer young can benefit from it. The proverbs are not only carefully composed; they are arranged, woven together in such a way that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s no coincidence that these two proverbs were positioned adjacent to one another:
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes.
Here we gain not only a few tips on how to answer a fool. We learn that the collectors of these proverbs did not think of them as ironclad rules that held true in all situations. They thought of them as tools in a toolbox. If you want to remove a nail from a wall, you’ll need a hammer. But if it’s a screw, you’ll need a screwdriver. Sometimes you answer a fool according to his folly; sometimes you don’t. It depends on who the fool is, and who you are. Knowing when to employ which proverb is just as important as knowing the proverbs themselves, as we learn shortly afterward:
Like a lame man’s legs, which hang useless, is a proverb in the mouth of fools.
Collectively, these proverbs reveal to us the individual threads in a larger tapestry, in the orderly work of art made by God the Creator. This tapestry or “scheme of things” is presented to the young man who reads the book as a desirable woman, Lady Wisdom:
Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice?…
“The LORD possessed me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of old.… then I was beside him, like a master workman, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of man.…
“For whoever finds me finds life and obtains favor from the LORD.”
Because wisdom is personified as a Great Lady, so we are led to view ourselves as living in a deeply personal world, infused with personal agency. It is not the austere, impersonal world of Rationalism, governed by natural laws, absent any agency of a personal God. No, it is a world in which the Lord is personally involved. Wisdom is his hidden divine hand. So the one who finds wisdom “obtains favor from the LORD.”
Another word for “favour” is grace.
Wisdom works not because it allows you to hack into the impersonal law and order of the cosmos. Wisdom works because you gain access to the mind and ways of a personal God. Wisdom works only because God showers the world with his unmerited favour, his common grace.
Not sure what common grace is? Read this explanation first before continuing.
However, there is a flip side to this truth. God does not send rain evenly on the world; clouds pass over and vanish, seasons come and go, and years of drought fall even on fertile lands. So it is with the rest of the common grace God gives (Matthew 5:45; Acts 14:17). Sometimes, the order and ease of wisdom malfunctions. The formula is broken. The computer screen freezes up. Nothing works like it’s supposed to.
Job: the departure of common grace
Job is introduced to us as “one who feared God and turned away from evil” (Job 1:1). He himself repeats what we are told in the Proverbs, that this is the life of wisdom:
God understands the way to it, and he knows its place.… And he said to man, “Behold, the fear of the LORD, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.”
Job 28:23, 28
Yet Job finds himself, a wise man, suffering unimaginable pain. He has lost all his possessions, all his children, even his own health. He has seemed to have lost the good life that wisdom promised. Wisdom has broken down, so that Job grieves:
But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding?
Wisdom is hidden because the Lord has withdrawn his common grace from Job. The rainclouds of grace have passed over Job without a drop and left him exposed to scorching heat and drought.
Job grieves not only the loss of all the good in his life. He grieves because the world no longer makes sense. Wisdom has gone silent. Order has given way to chaos. His world has come apart. This honest sage cannot bear the words of his friends, “miserable comforters” (16:2) who falsely accuse him in order to reassure themselves, so they can cling to their delusions of an orderly cosmos.
Ecclesiastes: the disruption of common grace
The book of Ecclesiastes takes a step back from the personal story of Job, from one man suffering the deprivation of common grace. The Preacher or Speaker of Ecclesiastes is looking for the broad view of “all that is done under heaven…everything that is done under the sun” (1:13–14). He embraces every experience that he can, listens to stories from faraway lands, and seeks out the writings of wisdom, “weighing and studying and arranging many proverbs with great care” (12:9). As we learned earlier, he is “adding one thing to another to find the scheme of things—which my soul has sought repeatedly, but I have not found” (7:27–28).
There are almost no ironclad rules, or formulas, or perfect equations for life which will guarantee success, which will grant us what we are looking for.
In the morning sow your seed, and at evening withhold not your hand, for you do not know which will prosper, this or that, or whether both alike will be good.
Here where I live, where a mountain valley meets the sea, no one can forecast when and where the rain will fall. This is very inconvenient if I want to go for a trail run in the woods in another part of town. To my exasperation, the weather may be overcast but dry where I live, yet when I arrive where I want to run, I find a downpour there, only a couple kilometres from my home. It’s impossible to predict. There is no pattern to this hyperlocal rainfall, no obvious rhyme or reason. God gives common grace unevenly.
And so, because common grace is disrupted, because it is dispersed in an uneven way across the world God has made, wisdom doesn’t always work the way it ought to. It doesn’t produce the results it should.
I have seen all the activities that have been done under the heavens—and all of it evaporates; it is grasping for the wind!
Ecclesiastes 1:14 (my translation)
Job and Ecclesiastes present to us the confounding of wisdom, as common grace is disrupted and even departs. In what John Murray calls “an undeserving and sin-cursed world,” grace cannot be presumed upon, and wisdom cannot produce lasting gain.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.
To boast, to presume, to take it for granted that wisdom will produce the results we think—this is the height of arrogance.
No wisdom, no understanding, no counsel can avail against the LORD.
It only takes a pandemic to prove this point. All the wisdom of the worldwide economy breaks down. The WHO and CDC are confounded and easily corrupted, because even when we sequence the genome of the COVID-19 virus, we are baffled by the course of its disease, SARS-CoV-2.
We are hoping we can develop a vaccine, and produce it soon. The scientific might of mankind is now concentrated on this effort like no other task in history since Babel. But if we can manufacture such a vaccine, and if it is effective for a reasonable length of time, it will be the common grace of God that makes it all possible. And in the meantime, people are dying even in places where governments mandate lockdown measures, and economies are groaning even in places where the government has denied the danger. We do the best we can; we have no assurances. We do not know what tomorrow will bring.
Folly: the stubbornness of the legal spirit
The evangelical church in America has been trained up in the way of America, and it cannot bear to depart from it. We, too, share the can-do optimism in which we seek a “more perfect union,” progressing from one degree of glory to another. This progressive mythos seems to have a basis in reality, of course. We have moved beyond our unenlightened ancestors; the rights of minorities and women are now recognized. “Because it’s 2015,” declared Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to much fanfare—his words now obsolete. Protests over treatment of African Americans reveals a damned spot we just can’t scrub out, which has sometimes been called America’s original sin. Yet we cling to the myth of progress, egged on by the scientific revolution, the sexual revolution, and what Iain Provan calls “the modern economic miracle in the West.”
We understand better than any generation before us, we imagine, how to make the world work for us. We stand on the edge of yet a further revolution in genetics, which will give us substantial control, we believe, of human life itself. All this is the consequence of looking into the nature of things, and it has bred enormous self-confidence, culturally, in our ability to govern ourselves and in due course to usher in utopia.
This is just how the world works, we assure ourselves. And the evangelical church bought it hook, line, and sinker. It perfectly aligns with the effort-reward equation of the legal spirit, the belief that good things happen to good people, and bad things happen to bad people. We have a stubborn confidence in that equation, just like Job’s friends. We presume upon it.
We need look no further than what is commonly called “the prosperity gospel”—the belief that health, wealth, and prosperity are assured to everyone who believes that God will give it to them, according to a magical-mechanical formula. From the milquetoast Joel Osteen to the wild-eyed Benny Hinn, one of America’s chief exports to the developing world has been this filthy heresy. It is the legal spirit channelled into greedy gain. It is folly run amok.
Then, too, there are other false gospels of the American church. The “social gospel” reassures us that if we just educate enough people and structure our institutions just right, we will finally achieve that “more perfect union” and fulfill the long-deferred promise of “liberty and justice for all.” If we just do the right things, utopia is assured. It is a stubborn folly.
And then, too, the church has fallen for overconfident “wisdom” in the results of obedience to God, “imagining that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6:5). In the ’90s, “purity culture” was all the rage. The idea was that the key to a successful life was a successful marriage, and the key to a successful marriage was maintaining sexual purity before marriage. So the legal spirit hijacked the Christian sexual ethic to serve its own interests. Young women were promised that if you wore a purity ring and wore modest clothes and went to Bible study and church, Prince Charming would fall head over heels for you and give you the happy family you dreamed of. Young men were promised that if you stayed away from porn and refrained from sex and “courted” a girl rather than “dating” her, you would find a smoking hot wife who would give you a dynamite sex life. There was a give-to-get here, a transaction with God and man, the guaranteed formula that the legal spirit loves. The results have not often lived up to the hype. God did not agree to our bargain.
All of these follies are built on a kernel of wisdom. There is value in gaining wealth, in social action toward a just society, in sexual purity—according to biblical standards, not our own. But the stubborn fool within us, the legal spirit that denies common grace, hijacks these good things. It refuses to admit that common grace is disrupted, and many in our world are deprived of it.
In a fallen world, utterly dependent on the common grace of God, wisdom doesn’t always work. Even when a pandemic strikes, we refuse to admit that we live in such a confounding world.
Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to those with knowledge, but time and chance happen to them all.
The end of the matter: finding what is good in a confounding world
So where is the good news in all this?
The good news is this: you can find rest in a confounding world.
After reflecting on the changing seasons of life, the lovely moments that are meant to pass away, the Speaker tells us:
…[God] has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man.
God wants us to be happy. He wants us to find rest and contentment. He wants to free us from our relentless pursuit of wisdom and analysis and figuring out life. He wants to free us to enjoy his common grace.
Eat and drink. Take satisfaction in all your work. Gain wisdom, but recognize its limits. Hold your plans with an open hand. Love and cherish people, and do not cling to them as your security in a confounding world. Grieve and lament and know that in time you must let all these things go. There is only one Refuge, only one Rock that cannot be moved.
I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him.
In the final analysis, it will be God who weaves the threads of the tapestry together, who sets everything right in the end. He is the one who truly knows wisdom and gives wisdom, because he is the Giver of grace.
The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.
From the moment the serpent wormed his way into the garden of Eden, grace hasn’t felt like grace to us. The devil knew exactly how to get to us, exactly how to turn our eyes against our Creator and against our fellow human beings who are made in his image.
…He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”
And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ”
Genesis 3:1–3 (ESV)
His first words stir up ingratitude in her heart. God had actually said, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden” (2:16) and only forbidden one. The serpent rewrites the narrative; he emphasizes what was withheld, not what was given. The woman corrects him, but joins him in painting God in a severe light. “Neither shall you touch it”—a word God had never spoken.
The devil shrewdly draws her eyes away from common grace, and leads her first down the path of ingratitude.
Not sure what common grace is? Read this explanation first before continuing.
What at first was our anxiety and dread about the potential lethality of the virus (anxiety which is no less potent now) is gradually being surpassed by our irritability in response to the limitations placed on our physical activity. This irritability is not just a function of our worry about the future; it is also our very bodies letting us know that they are tired of doing what we are asking them to do.…Our bodies are prevented from engaging in the diverse environment they require in order to flourish.
The ability to breathe freely I take for granted, until I come down with a cold. The ability to walk freely I take for granted, until I injure a knee or toe. And our ability to function as human beings we take for granted until a pandemic ensures that we cannot easily gather together, cannot embrace one another, cannot even shake hands. These experiences of being physically present are deeply precious, but we never knew how good they were until they were taken away from us. God withdraws some of his common grace, and only then do we see the grace in it.
If the words of the serpent are any indication, this tendency to overlook grace—until it is withdrawn—is a subtle form of disdain for God our Creator. He looks at the world that he has made and sustains, and he sees that it is good. We look at the world he has made and sustains, and we stifle a yawn. There is something within us that wants common grace to feel normal, to feel default, to be the assumed background of our lives.
I live in Squamish, British Columbia. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth. The image above is a view I can see from my bedroom window. I live where the mountains, sea, and sky all intersect. All this glory, all this common grace, has become the background of my life, as I occupy my mind with plans and ventures. I become blind and deaf to goodness and grace. The greenery becomes the banal and generic. I no longer notice the flowers and grass and trees, red alders and balsam poplars bursting out of every square inch of ground across the street, each green shoot a work of art designed to reveal the glory of God.
If all of this is merely normal, then I don’t have to recognize that glory. I don’t have to see myself as an undeserving recipient of grace.
So I am deeply motivated to think of my own surroundings, my relationships, my experiences as normal. I am deeply motivated not to listen to anyone who would challenge my sense of what is normal.
If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.
We trust our own experiences, our own sense of what’s normal. We do not easily listen to others; we log on to Facebook and Twitter and give an answer before we hear. I’ve noticed this pattern on social media, as we endure the hard measures of pandemic response. The pandemic is distributed unevenly across the world, crippling one region, sparing another, often with little rhyme or reason to it. People living in cities where their friends and families are dying by the thousands are speaking up and warning others about what is coming. Health care workers in these places share their stories of exhaustion and failure, of deciding who is worth saving. Meanwhile, many people live in areas that are untouched by the disease. To them, they feel the social and economic hardship, but they have no first- or second-hand experience of Covid-19 itself. This freedom from illness, they believe, is normal. They trust their own experiences and dismiss the disease as media hype. What they are experiencing is a goodness—a common grace—that isn’t normal. There are others who have not received it.
On social media, it seems that most of us are responding in some way to the Black Lives Matter protests in response to the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. For many of us, seeing a nine-minute video of a black man suffocating under the knee of a police officer opened our eyes to injustice. We sensed that our own experience of common grace, of deferential treatment by officers of the law, is not the experience of every American. It is not normal for African Americans. But others of us have doubled down on our experiences, on our own perception of normal. We know the common grace of a just policing and a just court system; we have never felt this grace withdrawn. “All lives matter”—that is the rallying cry, because there is no need to focus on black lives. All lives are certainly treated with the same dignity that mine is! The goodness and grace of God in my life is normal!
This mindset wells up from a deeper, darker place than mere racism. We are speaking foolishly if we are labelling it racism and moving on. The sin runs deeper than that and is far more complex. Perhaps the taproot of modern “racism” is the fundamental ingratitude toward God, ingratitude from a light-skinned majority who have benefited from common grace. We are biased to think the goodness we see around us is normal, and to dismiss the stories of those who have not experienced the same goodness. We are determined not to see the goodness of God, or at least not to see it as grace.
Oh that you would keep silent, and it would be your wisdom! Hear now my argument and listen to the pleadings of my lips.
Not even Job’s friends would listen to his experience of affliction. They could not deny his suffering, but they could try to fit it into their stubborn sense of normal. Eliphaz tells him, “As I have seen, those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same” (Job 4:8). So in reference to the death of Job’s children, Bildad cruelly asserts, “If your children have sinned against him, he has delivered them into the hand of their transgression” (8:4). And then Zophar blames Job, “Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves” (11:6).
It is in their interest to see Job’s suffering as God’s punishment for his own sin. That fits their sense of normal life experience. To them, that’s how the world works. They refuse to believe Job’s protest that he has not earned the suffering he is receiving. They can’t bring themselves to believe that any goodness they have experienced is given freely, graciously from the hand of a good God. They want to think they have deserved it.
For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.
What is the outcome of ingratitude? The outcome is the disintegration of wisdom. Our minds become disordered, confused, incapable of understanding what is happening around us. We are convinced we are wise, even when we are fools.
This plague of ingratitude is present not only in a sinful, fallen world. It has corrupted the church as well. White evangelical Christians in America have experienced more common grace than almost any other people in history, and we are profoundly ungrateful for it. It is no wonder so many of us have grown so blind. When you no longer see grace, you no longer see anything at all.
But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die.”
The woman knows that God has told her husband, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:17). She repeats that warning, with less emphasis: “Lest you die” (3:3). But the serpent tells her that there ought to be no emphasis at all. He assures her that it’s an empty threat. God will not call her to account for her disobedience. He will not curse her with a swift and final death.
The serpent began by encouraging the woman to doubt the goodness of God. Now he doubles back, encouraging her to presume on the very goodness he has questioned. A God of love and grace would never punish; he would surely let her go for such an infraction!
Having followed the serpent into the sin of ingratitude, she now joins him in the sin of presumption.
Presumption: when common grace feels expected
Being black in America, I mean…you already born dead…
The serpent’s words were a half-truth. When their sin was uncovered, God did not immediately end the physical life of Adam and Eve. Their hearts continued to beat, their feet continued to walk, and their lungs filled with breath. But from this point forward, they became the walking dead. They persisted “in the likeness of God” (Genesis 5:1), but the image was defiled and corrupted. Their lives took on the shape of hell on earth. They were already born dead, cast out of the garden, driven from the presence of the living God.
Some people know this more than others. Some of us feel in our bones the absence of grace and hope, as we suffer pain or oppression. For example, those in America with dark or coloured skin don’t experience the same common grace that you do if you’re white. Those anthems celebrating the bounty of “America the Beautiful” leave you an outcast.
On the other hand, some of us have enjoyed the fruits of prosperity, a harvest a hundredfold what we have sown. We look at our possessions, our families, our careers, the stability of our communities, and we conclude that our prosperity is God being fair to us. There’s something about us, something about who we are and what we have done, that ensures this goodness.
I doubt we would say any of this aloud, but in our heart of hearts we believe it. There is something exceptional about the nation I’m a part of, or the way I was raised, or the skills and capabilities I offer, or the hard work I’ve done. Whatever prosperity I enjoy—it is God being fair to me.
We might call this sense of just dessert the legal spirit that is deeply rooted in the fallen nature of mankind. Common grace is misinterpreted; we think it’s an unspoken legal contract with God. This is not an American phenomenon but a human one. We keep falling back into the thinking that bad things happen to bad people, and good things happen to good people. We call this arrangement karma, or The Secret, or Your Best Life Now.
Jesus Christ loathed this mindset. When his disciples encountered a man born blind, they asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). They interpreted the man’s suffering as God’s punishment for a family sin; after all, bad things happen to bad people. Jesus, however, rejected their assessment. And when a crowd asked him about his fellow Galileans who had been slaughtered by their Roman oppressors, he replied, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:2–3).
Jesus hated the legal spirit that presumes on grace, that is convinced that not only have have we deserved the good we receive, but we can expect to continue receiving it as we have before. In his hatred, he aligns himself with the Old Testament scriptures which reveal the good and gracious character of God. He aligns himself against Job’s “friends” who are entrenched in the legal spirit. God chastises them, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:8). Job, at least, allowed his sense of normal to be shattered, and with them his presumption. Job no longer believed that God was operating with the same legal spirit that Job’s friends possessed.
We subconsciously lapse into this legal spirit, lapse into presumption, so that God has to warn us again and again in scripture, and shake us loose from our mental slavery.
It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but it is because the LORD loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the LORD has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
Why have we received common grace from God up till now? Why can we expect that he will be good to us in the future? Not because of anything in you and me. Not because of any of our “inalienable rights,” or merits, or status, or pedigree. “It is because the LORD loves you,” and because he keeps his promises. That is all. There is nothing he sees in us, nothing good or unique in us that he is responding to. Grace flows freely from his heart. He is not kind to us because we deserve it; he is kind simply because he is kind. We are immersed in common grace, unmerited favour that we have not deserved and cannot presume upon.
We just don’t get grace. We can’t comprehend it. I’ve witnessed people blame and accuse others for not showing them grace when they have sinned. And in my heart, I too have raged against others for failing to show me the grace I’ve demanded from them. How often do churches wrongly demand that victims of spiritual, physical, verbal, and sexual abuse start trusting their abusers again, so that these untrustworthy sinners can be restored to positions of authority and everything go on as it was? The whole point of grace is that it isn’t deserved and cannot be demanded. I can request grace from you, but the moment I begin to demand it, I show that I have no understanding of grace, that I am consumed with the legal spirit. I only know ingratitude and presumption.
Then, too, a spirit of unforgiveness reveals that we do not understand grace. That’s the point that Jesus makes in the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (Matthew 18:21–35). He is not speaking of restoring trust to an untrustworthy sinner, but of showing mercy and granting reconciliation to an unworthy sinner. When we are unwilling to grant grace, we reveal that we do not understand the grace we have received, for we too are consumed with the legal spirit. “Should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18:33).
Jesus concludes his parable with a threat of judgment from God. This, too, is a frightening implication of the grace we have received. As I write this, rehearsing the common grace I have been shown, grace beyond my ability to fathom, I am keenly aware of Jesus’ warning to me:
And that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will, will receive a severe beating.…Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.
Remember the proverb from the Spider-man comics and movies? “With great power comes great responsibility.” And the same is true with grace. “To whom much was given, of him much will be required.” Jesus said it first. When you and I stand before the judgment seat of God, those who have experienced common grace in abundance will face a deeper wrath.
…Do you presume on the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience, not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance? But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
These hard words from the apostle Paul are simply an expansion of the point that Jesus is making (see also Matthew 11:20–24). A vast wealth of kindness and forbearance and patience has been given to me, the common grace of a good God. I say this with fear, knowing that apart from Christ I have no answer and no excuse for my ingratitude and my presumption.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.…Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity.…God gave them up to dishonorable passions.…God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done.
A sense of God’s grace brings an end to all the self-righteousness which corrupts his church. Have I not also been unrighteous, suppressing the truth through my own ingratitude and presumption? Yes, I have also joined in Adam’s sin, the common sin of the human race. And Paul says that when God’s future wrath spills over into our present, it looks like this: God gives people up to become what they would be apart from his grace, to dehumanize themselves as they dehumanize one another.
The worst thing that God can do to me is to let me be myself, apart from his restraining grace. As C. S. Lewis observed, there are those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.” That ought to be me. So any righteousness in me is the grace of God. If I am good, it is because he is good. If I receive good, it is because he is good. There is no place for presumption. If I am spared disease, violence, and any measure of evil, I can only talk about the preposterous kindness of God for me.
For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.
With these words, the serpent levels his final critique against God. He has encouraged the woman toward ingratitude, and toward presumption. And now he levels against God the charge of inequity. He is assuring her, “God is being unfair to you. He wants to keep you down, to keep you from being like him, from knowing and discerning what is good and what is bad as he does.”
This accusation of inequity, and a feeling of unfairness, is one of the hardest things to understand about grace. To those who have received it, grace feels normal and expected. To those who haven’t received it, grace feels unfair.
Inequity: when common grace feels unfair
For the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard. After agreeing with the laborers for a denarius a day, he sent them into his vineyard. And going out about the third hour he saw others standing idle in the marketplace, and to them he said, “You go into the vineyard too, and whatever is right I will give you.” So they went. Going out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour, he did the same. And about the eleventh hour he went out and found others standing. And he said to them, “Why do you stand here idle all day?” They said to him, “Because no one has hired us.” He said to them, “You go into the vineyard too.”
And when evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the laborers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last, up to the first.” And when those hired about the eleventh hour came, each of them received a denarius. Now when those hired first came, they thought they would receive more, but each of them also received a denarius.
And on receiving it they grumbled at the master of the house, saying, “These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.”
But he replied to one of them, “Friend, I am doing you no wrong. Did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you and go. I choose to give to this last worker as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?”
So the last will be first, and the first last.
I think it’s important to print this parable in full, to feel the weight of these words from Jesus Christ. Does the conclusion of this parable bother you? Does the master seem unfair? Would you call him generous—or unjust?
Grace continues to rub us the wrong way. It feels like injustice for God to grant one person common grace that he does not grant to another. The unevenness of grace troubles us. We’ve succumbed to the legal spirit and forgotten the truth that Jesus is telling us. Any common grace we receive from God is given from his generous heart. It is not the fulfillment of an unspoken contract. We cannot demand what we are not owed.
The fact that this inequity feels wrong shows that our instincts are leading us astray. To us, it seems wrong—but not to Jesus. He knows how to receive goodness, how to relate to a gracious God. We do not. The fault is not in God, but in ourselves.
The great evil of American slavery wasn’t the involuntary servitude; it was the fiction that black people aren’t as good as white people, and aren’t the equals of white people, and are less evolved, less human, less capable, less worthy, less deserving than white people.
There is a deep error in our thinking. We don’t understand the distinction between inequity and inequality. That second word, inequality, is a buzzword, poorly defined and sometimes misleading. But it does capture something that Stevenson describes in the quote above: as individuals and as a society, we function as though some people “aren’t the equals” of other people. They are “less evolved, less human, less capable, less worthy, less deserving.” Conservatives recognize that the unborn are treated as less human than the rest of us. Progressives recognize that women and minority groups are treated as less human. To treat another as “less human” is at the heart of injustice. This is captured by the word inequality.
When God gives grace to some and not to others, he is not guilty of inequality. He is not treating some as “less human” than others. The whole point of grace is that it is unmerited, unearned, undeserved. Grace is not given to the more-human. Neither is it given to the more capable, the more worthy, the more deserving. It is given instead to the incapable, the unworthy, the undeserving.
Grace is not a form of inequality. It is a form of inequity. It is the goodness of God distributed unevenly, given to some in different measures from others. It is not wrong for God to do this. If we declare him in the wrong, we are reducing him to our level, as though he were merely a man like us, subject to our own unspoken social contracts.
…I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name “The LORD.” And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.
God is free to distribute goodness, to show favour, to grant common grace to whomever he sees fit. He is not constrained; he is not our subject. He is our Sovereign; he is free.
This counterintuitive sense of God’s prerogative is so difficult for a fallen humanity to grasp. Over the centuries, Protestant Christians grappled with God’s freedom to give saving grace. Arminian theology was developed to re-establish some sense of equity in God’s grace. Concepts such as “prevenient grace” were invented out of whole cloth to explain how God can be equitable yet not everyone be saved from their sin.
Yet, in the realm of common grace, a realm which we can far more easily observe, there is no way to pretend, no way to assert the equity of God. Those who do so are quickly exposed as heartless, legalistic, and cruel. We are forbidden by the bad example of Job’s friends, who insisted that God must be treating Job equitably. We are forbidden by the Psalms, which give a voice of lament to those suffering without apparent cause, and a voice of thanksgiving to those who experience a goodness they did nothing to earn.
And we are shown by the Parable of the Prodigal Son how this inequity is a beautiful thing (Luke 15:11–32). The older brother rails against his father for the inequity he has shown, lavishing grace on the undeserving younger brother. But Jesus tells us that even when the younger brother “was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him” (15:20). The father is not interested in equitable treatment. He is not interested in being fair. He is deeply, personally affected by his son. The world is overflowing in grace because it is a world filled and enriched with the personal agency of a personal God.
I remember once, when I was a boy, getting upset at my mom because she let my younger brother get away with something that I would have been disciplined for. Mom took me aside and reminded me that my brother’s personality was different than my own. She was treating us inequitably because she knew what was best for each of us. I wasn’t convinced at the time that her unfairness was good, but I am now. Real relationship is characterized by personal knowing, by grace, and not necessarily by fairness.
Why is it that God praises Job when he tells Eliphaz, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (Job 42:8)? Didn’t Job go too far in accusing God of injustice toward him? Yes, he did. But Job did, at least, recognize something that his friends refused to see. He recognized that God was inequitable. And admitting God’s inequity is the first step toward understanding and receiving his grace.
You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.
There is an extraordinary irony to all this: Embracing God’s gracious inequity is necessary if we are to pursue a just equality with one another.
Five times in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses tells the people of Israel, “You shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt” (5:15; 15:15; 16:12; 24:18, 22; see also 10:19). Each and every time, it is given as a rationale for justice and concern for the vulnerable and oppressed among them: widows and the fatherless, servants and slaves, resident aliens, even domesticated animals. The point is clear: God freely, graciously showed you favour. Go and do likewise. Be a channel of God’s common grace to others, because you have received saving grace and common grace from God. Know God rightly, and you will care rightly for others.
But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.
So what evil is God exposing in the white evangelical church in America? The same thing that is wrong with America. The same thing that is wrong with the whole human race. Grace doesn’t feel like grace. And in particular, common grace doesn’t feel like grace. We have responded with ingratitude, thinking his goodness is normal. We have responded with presumption, expecting goodness that we are not owed. We have disavowed or grumbled against his inequity, thinking that God ought to treat us fairly.
This is the heart of what it means to be a sinner. This is what we need to confess to God and to one another. We need to repent and be forgiven.
What I’ve written, I’ve written with a heavy heart, knowing that I am guilty of the same things. At the same time, God is opening my eyes to see goodness and beauty all around me, grace that I never noticed before.
In the weeks to come, I’ll have further reflections on the subject of common grace: how the church in America fails to understand it, how we can grow in our recognition and appreciation of it. I won’t write at such great length, though. If you’ve read to the end, I’m grateful for your time and attention, and I’m praying that God will use this to open your eyes to his grace.