If there’s one thing I really don’t want, it’s grace.
Grace is unmerited favor. But if you don’t mind, I would really rather merit it. I want dignity that I have earned. And I don’t want forgiveness either, my friends. I would rather be a perfect friend that you never have to forgive. I like to receive presents, but I want to give one back to you that is at least as valuable as the one you gave me. And I don’t want to be provided for. I would like to earn my keep, thank you.
And because of these feelings, 2020 has been a challenge in ways I wouldn’t have predicted. It has also taught me a lesson that I am desperately grateful for – not that I’ve fully learned it.
After over a decade of being a stay-at-home mom and devoted church volunteer, I sold my first book. It was such a joy to earn money again, and it seemed like a lot of money when I got the offer. For about 13 minutes. Then I realized that I would have to publish another book within two years to earn what I felt would actually be anything close to “a living.” Truly. In less than half an hour, the windfall and dream come true was already not enough to give me self-worth. Still, as a published author and a speaker beginning to get more “gigs” I began to feel like a full-fledged adult with dignity. Flash forward to nine-months post publication: enter the pandemic, which meant less sales, almost no gatherings at which to speak, and no second book – yet.
This year I have had to surrender in a world totally out of control – like all of us. And I’ve had to face up to a painful truth about myself: That I believe in the world’s definition of success more that Jesus’s. Despite the fact that I’m a fortunate woman -- with my own home, two healthy children, and a husband that earns enough to support us, I struggle to receive this care and provision. I want to be equal in my household. In my mind, equal means financially equal. None of this is coming from my husband, who treats the contents of our joint bank account as completely ours, not his, values my contribution to our family team, and supports me in ministry. Nor is it coming from my working mom friends, whom I feel embarrassed around sometimes. It’s not even really about money.
Rather, it’s part of something much bigger. A core belief system? A fear? That I must earn love and position in order to be worthy. That I must defend my corner and be enough on my own. If I don’t, what will happen? What am I afraid of? I don’t even know. Contemplating it gives me a feeling that is a noxious cocktail of guilt, shame and helplessness. Help me, Jesus!
And then he does. I’ve been studying Jesus’ sermon on the mount in Matthew since Thanksgiving, and this week I’ve been thinking about one of the hardest things Jesus said: Blessed are the meek. Regent University defines meek this way: A spiritually meek person is not self-willed - not continually concerned with his own ways, ideas and wishes. They are willing to put themselves in second place and submit themselves to achieve what is good for others. Meekness is therefore the antithesis of self-will, self-interest, and self-assertiveness.
How utterly terrifying, to intentionally lay down self-interest and self-centeredness. This is essentially what I did when I quit my job at the age of 28 to stay home and raise my children (which is not a dig on those of you who are working moms. Honestly, I would be if I could have been. God called me out of it and to this day I don’t have a firm answer of why). And easy for God to say, He who is all-powerful, to tell humans who feel so vulnerable already to stand down. He was never abused, over-looked, poor, facing scarcity, or dehumanized.
Oh, but wait. There is Jesus. And this thought stops me in my tracks. Jesus is the speaker here: an exile, a poor man, without a home, and finally killed unjustly by those he came to love. Jesus is speaking: he who also laid down his rights as God and spent his days with outcasts, who washed the feet of those who owed him everything. This is Jesus, who was meek and mild until someone tried to stone a woman, or keep the children from being blessed, or oppress his people with legalism, or cheat the faithful worshipers, and then he was a warrior. This is also the Jesus who was humble and gentle, and yet also modeled needful rather than needless suffering, who walked away from those who ignored him – or worse, tried to kill him -- until his suffering would bring about the salvation of the world.
Though Jesus taught the crowds to be meek and lay down their rights, when he interacted with individuals, he treated them with enormous care and dignity. This is an incredible paradox about Jesus and it’s no wonder we’re so confused about how to follow him. Because the world says, “Stand up for your rights because you deserve to.” And Jesus says, “Lay down your rights, and yet it is my will that you should inherit the whole earth.”
The true message of the Beatitudes is that you are utterly and ultimately safe in the hands of a gracious God. Blessed are you, when you are poor in spirit, aware of your sin and helplessness, because you will not be left writhing like a vile worm; you’ll be given the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when you mourn losses and the state of the world – rather than raging – because you will be comforted. Blessed are you when you choose meekness, because you will inherit something infinitely more precious than what you could have grabbed and grasped for yourself.
I had a long talk today with a dear, dear friend, and she shared a lesson she learned this Sunday: that a mature Christian doesn’t grow up and become independent, like a child does from his human parents. No, as we grow older and more mature in Christ, we become more and more dependent on him. God knows we’d rather earn our blessings, but he knows how poor those blessings would be compared to what he wants to give us.
This Christmas, I’m asking God for something big. I want him to make me more comfortable with grace. I want to be less preoccupied with earning, and instead accept what he is giving. I want to lay down pride and receive comfort; to let go of striving for accomplishments, and accept the worthiness that is mine through Christ. I want to better practice the act of confession so that I might know the riches of forgiveness that are available to me. I want to know, deep down, that when I choose humility, God never points a finger. He offers me his hand.