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Remember the Candlesticks

Misconception: Grace Is a Get Out of Jail Free Card

*What you are about to read is Chapter 3 from my book, Grace Is A Dirty Word. I put this together as an ebook about 3 years ago. It was the first free download I ever offered on my blog. Recently I updated it and am making it available for free when you subscribe to my blog. This is the last week you can get it for free. After this, you can get it amazon in paperback or kindle.

Going to Prison

I don’t have much experience with being arrested or going to prison. At least not that I would like to share at this time. I am just kidding. I’ve never been put in cuffs or had to ride in the back of a paddy wagon. I have unfortunately been pulled over for speeding.

Seeing the blue lights in your rearview mirror is one of the worst feelings ever. When this happens, you can try to argue, but you know you are guilty and without an excuse. Most likely, you will get fined with a ticket. On top of that, your insurance will go up because you are now a certified menace to society.

Every now and then, you get #blessed, and the officer lets you go with a warning. Although you broke the law, you’re let off the hook. That’s not only a good feeling but usually makes for a great story as well. It’s not possible to escape getting a ticket and not tell someone in the same way it is impossible to vacation at the beach without posting in on Instagram. There are certain laws to the universe that keep things together, and these are two of them.

My absolute favorite example of being caught red-handed and still being allowed to go free is from Les Misérables.

A Criminal and a Priest

 Jean Valjean was a homeless criminal when he shows up at Bishop Myriel’s door. Consistent with his nickname, Monseigneur Bienvenu (which means welcome in French) accepted Valjean, feeds him, and gives him a bed for the night. This behavior towards an outcast sounds like grace to me.

How does Jean Valjean repay the good Bishop after receiving this undeserved favor? He steals most of his silver and vanishes into the night.

When no one else would take him in, the Bishop did, and Valjean returns the favor by taking his most valuable earthly possessions. Man, that’s cold enough to make even Elsa shutter.

Later, as he is trying to leave town, the police discover the silver in Jean Valjean’s bag. He claims they were given to him by the Bishop, but the police know better. He is then captured and returned to the church for the truth to be discovered. At this moment, we see how far grace will go to love the unlovable.

An Act of Grace

When the police tell the Bishop that they found his silver in Jean Valjean’s possession, they were probably expecting him to thank them. That is not what happened. Instead, the Bishop tells the police he gave the silver to Jean Valjean. He even goes so far as to chastise Valjean for not taking the silver candlesticks, the most expensive of all the silver, as well. The unexpected beauty of this scene is overwhelming.

The Les Miserable musical quotes the Bishop this way,

“But my friend you left so early, Surely something slipped your mind, You forgot I gave these also; Would you leave the best behind?”

Monseigneur Bienvenu, Les Miserables

With the police now gone, and Jean Valjean given yet another chance at freedom, Monseigneur Bienvenu leaves him with these words,

“Forget not, never forget that you have promised me to use this silver to become an honest man…. Jean Valjean, my brother: you belong no longer to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you. I withdraw it from dark thoughts and from the spirit of perdition, and I give it to God!”

Monseigneur Bienvenu, Les Miserables

Jean Valjean was not given a mere chance to escape. He was granted an opportunity to become a new man. The real gift of grace is not that it gets us out of jail for free, but gets us out of our old identity for free – when we least deserve it.

This act of grace from the Bishop transformed Jean Valjean from a slave of sin into a slave of righteousness. The darkness in him was transformed into a light for others by the goodness of the priest.

This is what should happen when we accept the price Jesus paid for us on the cross.

Grace is Not a Free Pass

Jean Valjean might have received the silver for free, but it cost Bishop Myriel significantly. You see, grace is not a free pass. It’s much more than that. The beauty of grace is that it exchanges the priceless for the worthless so that which was once without value can become priceless itself. 

Jean Valjean had received grace when he was given a place to stay when no one else would accept him. That alone would be a great picture of how God welcomes us when we are unacceptable. But how do you explain the Bishop forgiving the theft after such a tremendous betrayal? And then giving him even more silver – his best pieces?

The Motive of Grace

The gift of the candlesticks shows us the motive of grace. God does not want us just to go free; He wants us to be free to be who He created us to be. Grace doesn’t stop giving until it brings out the giver in us. It is a light that pierces the darkness in us until we begin to shine as well.

The goal of grace isn’t to help you escape condemnation, but rather to transform you into a person that no longer desires the things that will lead to condemnation. Grace does not just set you free; it makes you new.

By every observation, Jean Valjean had earned his punishment. And while I’d like to see myself in the priest, I’m afraid it’s Valjean I identify with most. His number as a prisoner in the story is 24601. I think about that number often as a reminder of the fate that awaited me without grace. I was 24601, but now I am a son.

Like Valjean, we have all sinned, and therefore earned the wages of our evil deeds.

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

-Romans 6:23

When we sin, we earn death. It is like going to work and getting a paycheck. The only difference is this is not a paycheck you want to cash. Death is the “reward” for our efforts of sin.

Grace is different.

The difference between grace and guilt is that one is earned and the other is a gift.

A Scandalous Exchange

No matter how hard we work, we will never be able to earn grace. Like the Bishop in Les Misérables, God gives it to us freely. That doesn’t mean that it didn’t cost him something. In fact, providing us with grace cost God everything.

When God sent Jesus to die in our place, he bankrupt heaven to pay our fine. He didn’t just give precious silver to redeem our souls. He gave His only Son. If Jesus was just a good man or a wise teacher, this would have been a tragedy, but He was much more than that. He was perfect in every way. Every intention, motive, thought, attitude, and action on his part was pure, yet in response, we gave him the most horrific death that humans have ever conceived.

God came to give us life, but we gave him death. Jesus healed the hurting, gave hope to those in despair, fed the hungry, and accepted the rejected. Our response was much like Jean Valjean’s. We, in turn for his acts of kindness, betrayed him with the cross. 

God left the beauty of heaven to make a way for us to join him there, and we respond by giving His Son the cruelest death imaginable. This may have always been God’s plan of redemption, but what does that say about us? More importantly, what does it say about Him that He loves us anyway?

I think it means He gives us grace, not as a get out of jail free card, but as an exchange. He wants to take slaves of wickedness and turn them into sons and daughters of righteousness.

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You Can Never Have Too Much Ice Cream

Misconception: Grace Is All We Need

*What you are about to read is Chapter 2 from my book, Grace Is A Dirty Word. I put this together as an ebook about 3 years ago. It was the first free download I ever offered on my blog. Recently I updated it and am making it available for free just a couple more weeks when you subscribe to my blog. After that, you can get it amazon after that in paperback or kindle.

Running to Extremes

Too much of a good thing is a bad thing. It’s true with queso and ice cream, as well as religion and grace.

When you have experienced too much of one thing, the temptation is to swing to the other extreme. Balance is the more appropriate response.

This pendulum swing is especially a problem for me because I am a man of extremes. For me, balance is going in every direction at full-speed at the same time.

Too Much Ice Cream

Have you ever noticed it becomes more socially acceptable to eat giant portions of ice cream at an ice cream parlor compared to someone’s home? They can scoop a whole pint onto your cone after you wait in line for it and no one bats an eye. Ask for more than one scoop after dinner only if you want people to be known as someone with no self-control.

On one of my first trips with ARC, there was a Ben-n-Jerry’s Ice Cream shop across from the hotel where we were staying. I did not know such a place of wonder existed. I thought Ben-n-Jerry’s decadent treats were only available in tiny proportions from the grocery store freezer section. 

This was different. Mere footsteps away from my room was all the ice cream I could ever hope for. The unending possibilities enamored me. I wasn’t on a work trip. I was living in a fantasy world.  The magnetic pull on my heart, mind, and soul – the very essence of my humanity, was undeniable.

There was some talk of going there after dinner, but I could not wait until then. What if by some travesty the group changed their mind and decided to go somewhere absolutely horrible, like a fat-free yogurt shop, instead? I was not willing to roll the dice and take such an unwarranted risk. So, I quickly unpacked, and then walked across the street to indulge in cold, creamy goodness before our meeting.

Now I could have gotten one scoop, but that would almost be an insult to Mr. Ben and the great gentleman that is known as Jerry. So, I got two scoops. One was a marvelous mound of peanut butter cup and the other a refreshing ball of mint chocolate chip. I couldn’t allow these spectacular creations to go unnoticed in a small paper cup either. They needed to be exalted on a pedestal of waffle dipped in chocolate and covered in sprinkles.

There couldn’t have been anyone happier in a 100-mile radius. I walked down the sidewalk, licking and holding up my hand-scooped gluttony in the air for all to see.

I had gone overboard for sure, but I wasn’t finished yet.

The group did decide to go to Ben-n-Jerry’s after our meeting, and I again got yet another scoop of ice cream.

The guilt was too much for me, and so I confessed my sugary sins to one of my co-workers. After telling him of my previous trip to the ice cream shop, he said, “Sounds like you have a problem with balance.”

Finding Balance

You see, dedicating myself to eating broccoli for the rest of my life would not have solved my problem, because eating ice cream was not the issue. The real problem was that I was not able to enjoy ice cream in balance.

If you have come out of a controlling home or rigorous religious environment, then you may think that rules, religion, and commitment are the problem. Maybe you think grace is all you need.

If this is the case, then adding grace will not cure your sickness. You will just take grace to the extreme you once took your religion, rules, and commitments.

This was a temptation for me once I realized I had become out of balance with my religious commitments. Was grace all I needed?

Grace and Truth

The answer to that is as simple as looking at Jesus.

The Gospel of John has an excellent description of the Son of God:

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” 

John 1:14

The only thing we really need is Jesus. He came in grace and truth. This is important because, in a day and age in the church when people are pitting grace and truth against each other, we need to understand that God put them together in His Son.

Grace and truth work together, not against each other. A lack of either would be the equivalent of a bird with only one wing. No matter how much you focus on making that one wing stronger, without the other, you are just going to crash and burn.

We can’t sit on the beach and eat ice cream all day, or we will grow overweight and unhealthy. We need moments of refreshing but should also remember our mission. God wants us to enjoy life, but life should never become about ourselves.

We need grace, and we also need truth. We need refreshing and also refocusing. The key is to find balance. Going to any extreme is simply unhealthy. 

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When Grace Is a Dirty Word

Misconception: Truth is all we need

*What you are about to read is Chapter 1 from my book, Grace Is A Dirty Word. I put this together as an ebook about 3 years ago. It was the first free download I ever offered on my blog. Recently I updated it and am making it available for free for the next few weeks when you subscribe to my blog. You can get it amazon after that in paperback or kindle. You can read the introduction in last week’s post.

A Five-Letter Word

Grace is not a four-letter word. In fact, it is a five-letter word. What does the number five mean in the Bible? You may be surprised to know it is symbolic for grace.

When God used David to do the impossible and slay Goliath, it was with five stones in his pocket. This great victory was given, not because of David’s effort (this would have been impossible), but as a gift from God. With grace, we can do things in God’s strength we could never have accomplished with our own ability.

One of the simplest ways to define grace is the gift of God’s favor. So, if grace is such a wonderful gift, then why is it sometimes treated as a dirty word?

Explaining Grace

What I mean is, why do we sometimes feel like we have to quantify grace, measuring it out in small amounts before giving it away, so people don’t run away with it? One way we do this in conversation is by using the word grace and then explaining everything we don’t mean. Have you ever had a conversation like that? For a long time, I couldn’t talk about grace without assuming the person I was talking to could be thinking I was talking about “greasy grace.”

Another example of this is when we use the word grace when teaching and then add a “but” to turn the focus back to our works. For example, “God freely gives us grace, but we need to commit, meet the standard, live up to expectations, etc.” When we do this, we treat grace like a dirty word we have to clean up to make sure it doesn’t create a mess when we give it to others. 

Do we do this because others have “abused grace,” or are we abusing it by not giving it away freely? When we do not freely give God’s grace away, we abuse it just as much those who use grace as a license to sin. No matter how good the intentions might be, it starts people off on the wrong foot. I am convinced this makes our message man-centered instead of God-focused. 

Getting Puffed Up

I didn’t always believe this. I had to go through a transformation that was sparked by a lack of grace. I remember one time saying, “I would rather aim to be too holy and be wrong, instead of too grace-filled and be wrong. At least when I get to heaven, God won’t say, ‘Josh, you were too holy down there! You shouldn’t have worked so hard to please me!’”

Man, how wrong was I! What I thought was something God would never say is exactly what He already said in His word:

“Be not overly righteous, and do not make yourself too wise. Why should you destroy yourself?”

Ecclesiastes 7:16

Well, there it is! I had destroyed my life by pursuing truth to an extreme while undervaluing my need for grace in the process. Without grace, you can be out of balance and become puffed up. This cycle leads to becoming critical, competitive, and eventually too discouraged to keep going.

Here is a New Testament example of the same principle:

“…We know that ‘all of us possess knowledge.’ This ‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up.”

1 Corinthians 8:1

Seeking only knowledge puffs up, but embracing God’s love, builds up. I want to build up my faith; not puff it up.

Again, it is not the pursuit of truth or knowledge that is wrong (or puffs up). We get in trouble when we forsake our first love and believe grace is only intended to start our race and not carry us to the finish line. Ultimately, getting out of balance with grace will lead tp depending on our effort instead of God’s finished work.

Nothing separates us from God like pride, and that is why we need to rely on His grace continually.

God’s Gift

Maybe the idea that grace is a dirty word is a foreign concept to you. This is probably true if you are from a spiritual background where grace is something that is celebrated. But even if that is the case, it could be possible you are not taking advantage of all God’s grace (the gift of His favor) has to offer in your life. In that case, grace has become a dirty word, and you aren’t even aware of it.

We need to fully unwrap this wonderful gift God has given us to cause or lives to shine the brightest for Him.

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Greasy Grace and Sloppy Agape

Grace Is A Dirty Word Part 1

*What you are about to read is the introduction to my book, Grace Is A Dirty Word. I put this together as an ebook about 3 years ago. It was the first free download I ever offered on my blog. Recently I updated it and am making it available for free for the next few weeks when you subscribe to my blog. You can get it on amazon after that in paperback or on Kindle.

Avoiding Grace

I used to think grace was a dirty word. It was something that needed to be explained if you were going to talk about it. Sometimes it was avoided altogether when sharing from the stage, so no one got the wrong idea about the kind of Christian I was.

Have you ever felt something similar about grace? Maybe your church culture focused on holiness, standards, and truth to such an extreme that it made talking about grace a little uncomfortable. For many, this is a foreign concept. But those stuck in a performance-oriented faith will know what I mean.

If your first assumption when you hear someone talk about grace is they are making an excuse for compromise, or if you don’t know what to do with the idea of grace after salvation, then I encourage you to continue reading.

Greasy Grace

One of the reasons I considered grace a dirty word, is because I thought people who celebrated grace were out of balance. It seemed they only used the word to justify a life of sin. If you didn’t love holiness as much as I did, then you probably practiced “greasy grace.”

Where did the phrase “greasy grace” come from? I don’t know, but it sounds like something that leads to all kinds of slimy wickedness and makes the devil grin.

Don’t get me wrong. I liked grace. I just didn’t know what to do with it. I thought too much of it was unhealthy. I guess it was like spiritual ice cream. It tastes good, but too much will give your soul a bellyache. I celebrated God’s grace at the moment of salvation, but things got confusing after that.

I didn’t want to be guilty of taking advantage of grace in the same way an older kid may con a younger one into trading a valuable baseball card for a handful of throw-a-ways. It was almost like I was approaching grace in a guarded way as not to accidentally take more than I deserved. The assumption here is that at some point, I could earn what I had.

There was no “Sloppy Agape” for me at the theological dinner table. I’ll just have a little grace by myself after dinner when no one else is around. Because let’s face it, whether we want to admit it or not, we all continuously need the grace of God. We may not want to give it out and may even publicly warn against getting carried away with, but we’re all counting on it being there when we need it ourselves.

Abusing Grace

The lack of the grace of God in my life caused me to live exhausted and hurting. I was also a drag on others. The impossible standard I was trying to maintain meant I was not good enough for myself, and neither was anyone else. I felt it was my duty to keep everyone accountable and to maintain an external religious rigor that was tearing me up inside. I was God’s hall monitor of truth. That guy may feel like he has more power than anyone else but usually sits alone at the launch table. #persecution

In reality, I was abusing grace by not taking advantage of it, which is something that probably did make the devil grin.

Grace became this dirty word that made me feel like I was not grateful to God. I felt like I was disrespecting God every time I needed forgiveness. Something God had given me for my benefit became something wrong to use.

Fuel for Our Faith

Eventually, I was honest with myself and admitted avoiding grace wasn’t working for me. I wondered, “Why don’t I pursue it a little bit and see what happens?”

Taking this first step was when the magic started, and it is why I wrote this book.

Many of us begin with grace but leave it at the start of our race. As a result, we become discouraged before the finish line. We can’t make it through this marathon of faith if we think grace is a dirty word.

In this book, I share eight common misconceptions about grace. Most of these come from my own struggle to embrace grace along with a few other observations I have made along the way. I hope they all help you run your race well.

You can subscribe here to receive a free copy of Grace Is A Dirty Word..