Growing up, I never really rebelled against my parents. In college, I stayed away from the wrong crowds and prided myself on academic achievement. After college, I spent two years on the mission field. I knew how to say and do the right things…but I didn’t really understand grace.
Then, a few years ago, I was dating a great guy–the man who is now my husband. As we got to know each other, some painful problems emerged that we had to work through. We sought counsel from those older and wiser than us, and our hearts were humbled. I’m still unable to grasp what God did for us. But I know this: His grace healed what was wrong in our relationship. We were broken, and He mended us.
For someone like me, a “good girl” who always sought the approval of others and usually received it, the experience was strange. Often, people came to me for help–and now, here I was, begging them to tell me what to do. I was at a loss. And I wanted to wallow in the injustice of my pain–but God wanted me to let it go.
I knew about grace. I’d talked about it for years, claiming opposition to legalism and a love for Christ’s unmerited favor. I knew about it, but I underestimated it. I wanted to enjoy the idea of grace–and add my own accomplishments and good deeds to it, like whipped cream on a cherry pie.
When circumstances humbled me–when I realized that none of my carefulness, good choices, and formulaic approach to relationships had saved me from suffering–God opened my eyes. I knew that if grace was real, I couldn’t add anything to it.
Coming face-to-face with my helplessness scared me. I couldn’t do anything to fix these problems. I could try, or I could choose to stand back and let God do what He wanted to do–whatever that was.
My hands slowly released their grasp on the situation. Once I relaxed into trust, I realized I’d been blocking God’s grace from many areas of my life. As I looked deep into my heart, I saw pride. It lurked in every dusty corner, ready to tell me its lies:
“You’re such a good person. You deserve the best. You’ve never made any big mistakes.”
Suddenly, I realized who I was: the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son. When his father chooses to celebrate the return of his younger, rebellious brother, the older son says to his dad, “Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends” (Luke 15:29).
The father answers him, “My son…you are always with me, and everything I have is yours” (v. 31).
Like the older son in the parable, I’d put a limit on God’s grace and provision for me because I was still trying to do part of the job myself. Keeping track of my performance meant focusing on myself, rather than on the Lord. In theory, I knew I didn’t deserve His favor and love–but I thought I could maintain good standing with Him by doing what was right. Paul addresses a similar attitude in Galatians 3:3-5: “Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? Have you experienced so much in vain–if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you His spirit and work miracles among you by works of the law, or by your believing what you have heard?”
It took a situation where I felt desperate, where I realized my helplessness, to learn that I can add nothing to God’s work. He did work a miracle in our relationship, and it wasn’t because of what we did–it was because we were willing to be humble, and to cooperate with what God wanted to do. And we chose to believe that He could do it.
I still struggle with pride, but now I see it more clearly. Pride in my own goodness is not a “lesser sin” than adultery, homosexuality, murder, or any of the others that seem more shocking. At its core, sin is separation from God–and there’s something about pride that hardens our hearts even more than some of the other sins, making it harder to reach out to Christ and His Body for help. That’s why in the Gospels, the Pharisees are the ones who are hard-hearted toward Jesus, while the adulterers and down-and-out folks are often ready to listen to Him.
My prayer is that God will make His grace real to you–so you can experience all the freedom and joy that comes with it.
About the letter writer...
Jessica Brown married the love of her life on June 15, 2013 and now lives with him in a cute 1930s-era house in Clinton, Tennessee. She writes for the Knoxville News Sentinel, teaches middle and high school English classes, and spends the rest of her time freelance writing, cooking, baking, swimming, and reading.