A certain young musician was gifted and enthusiastic. He came under the tutelage of a teacher who had a reputation as being very effective in guiding young musicians to great skill. The student practiced diligently week after week, and at each lesson the teacher pointed out many flaws in the student’s playing. Month after month, he sought to perfect his playing according to the teacher’s guidance. Always, the teacher was able to point out something else the student was doing wrong. Finally, after several years of this, the joy had left him, and the young musician exploded at the teacher in the middle of a lesson. “I can NEVER do right by you, you only and ever see what I am doing wrong! I can never win, never succeed with you! When will I ever do well in your eyes?” The teacher smiled serenely and replied, “Showing you what you are doing wrong is my job.”
Everyone is starving to be recognized for their success, to be applauded for their efforts. I remember an incredibly powerful art installation in a coffee shop with the words “Let the Boy Win” written in large letters over and over hundreds of times on the whole side wall of the place. Between fathers, teachers, bosses, girls, sports, peers, virtually every relationship that is possible, it is incredibly rare that boys experience a win. Their lives are often so fragile and tenuous, their efforts at pleasing all these disapproving groups of people are so rarely successful! Young men in particular can get so beaten down in every relationship. Girls have their own sets of impossibly difficult judgements at every turn.
There is a certain way of looking at grace that would rob us of the possibility of winning. We might imagine that grace is all about our acceptance despite our failure. It sees our failure over and over and over. In this mindset, God is ever the merciful, the piano teacher in the sky who only constantly wants to correct our technique, but never lets us win. It is the father who always sadly shakes his head but would never dream of disowning the damn kid. Under this rubric, God loves us such that He is only and ever tolerating and correcting us. This is such a flawed and limited view of the nature of grace. In fact, it is the nature of law, not grace, to point out our flaws, to keep moving the finish line.
It gets much deeper than this. If it is by grace and not by works, then there comes the expectation that we must joyfully do stuff, and expect no reward at all, because rewards are based on rules and earning favor by effort. Grace, in a strange way, becomes a law that asks us to work happily without reward, which I think is one of the things that legalists rebel against in their hearts. If we get every blessing regardless, and there is no reward for our efforts, why do anything at all? The dynamic is similar to this little story Jesus told:
“”But which of you, having a slave plowing or tending sheep, will say to him when he has come in from the field, “Come immediately and sit down to eat’? “But will he not say to him, “Prepare something for me to eat, and properly clothe yourself and serve me until I have eaten and drunk; and afterward you will eat and drink’? “He does not thank the slave because he did the things which were commanded, does he? “So you too, when you do all the things which are commanded you, say, “We are unworthy slaves; we have done only that which we ought to have done.'”” Luke 17:7-10, NASB.
In context I think it is worth noting that He is explaining to the disciples how it is possible that they should forgive seven times per day! He says it requires faith like a mustard seed, and such forgiveness is like magically uprooting a tree and casting it into the sea. He says, once you have achieved this monumental forgiveness, don’t seek thanks!
On the other hand, we are in various places exhorted to expect reward:
“”Blessed are you when men cast insults at you, and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, on account of Me. “Rejoice, and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” Matthew 5:11, 12, NASB.
“But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter; and his praise is not from men, but from God.” Romans 2:29, NASB.
“For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds upon the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire.” 1 Corinthians 3:11-15, NASB.
In a way, we seem to be constructed such that we want to excel at things and be applauded for it. I believe that part of our identity that comes from being made in the image of God is the desire to be excellent and to be praised for it. However, It is height of folly to think that we should only do things for reward; it is like the 3 year old who says, “I will only love you Mommy if you give me another cookie!” We do what is right, like persistent forgiveness, because the right thing is inherently beautiful in and of itself. On the other hand, we are mindful that the Father is pleased with our efforts and sacrifices and work. He does not withhold praise and reward, but He seeks for us to act in love and mercy simply because it is best.
Ironically, the grace which comes through the justice which is satisfied by Jesus’ blood, is a door to the the recognition of the reality of our own virtue. Whereas those under law want to say that we can perform righteousness, in fact the law can only continue to point out more wrong. It is a hungry monster whose appetite can never be satisfied. Righteousness under this dynamic becomes just like the parable of the locked door- a repeated and futile attempt to open a door to a party which will just not ever open. Grace allows the freedom to screw up, to know you are forgiven, to stand up again, and to recognize legitimately that maybe your fall this time was a better failure than the last time. It gives you the power to extract the precious from the worthless as concerns yourself, without being insane. Under grace, you acknowledge your failure freely, you recognize that justice is only satisfied by His sacrifice. However, under grace you are also able recognize your success, you can see the precious there. You can say, yes, my righteousness may be as filthy rags, but it is indeed true righteousness! The constant flow of the accusing invective of the law crashes on the rocks of grace, and we emerge as righteous, the precious that is there in us can be seen as real.
Jesus views us as the precious pearl, worth selling all to obtain. Who are we to say He is wrong? He is not wrong, He is right, and the sooner we start to believe that, the sooner we start to live under that rubric, the sooner we start to allow this dynamic of the Kingdom of God to manifest in our lives, the sooner we can put away our sullen failure and live with joy as the greatly desired bride that we truly are.