The Obstruction of Grace
If God is who we say he is, then real sin is also met with real forgiveness!
The Obstruction of Grace Is likened in many ways to the obstruction of justice. In both cases, sin corrupts things. It breaks things. It separates things. It toxifies things. It twists things out of shape and unravels the fabric of our lives and the lives of others. In this sense, every individual act of sin has communal repercussions. This is why when one person sins, every person suffers—including the one that sinned. Of course, everyone experiences a different dimension of suffering. The ones sinned against experience the suffering of betrayal and injustice, hurt and confusion—just to name a few. The one who sinned experiences the suffering of guilt and shame and regret and, oftentimes, ostracization which means blackballing or to separate from. Both experience loss at various levels. In many cases, there is one who committed sin and one who was the victim of that sin. The sinner gets all the blame and the victim gets all of the attention as if there was no sin on their part. In every case according to scripture… “All have sinned” and both parties need justice and grace.
Now, here is the uncomfortable kicker: the Gospel really is for both parties. The good news of God’s unconditional love and outrageous mercy has always and forever been for sufferers, regardless of whether the suffering is self-induced or caused by someone else. If the good news of God’s forgiving and restorative grace isn’t for everyone, then it isn’t for anyone. In fact, it bears noting that the scandal of Christianity is not that its adherents sometimes commit atrocious acts, but that the founder of Christianity willingly died for them. Yes, Christ’s forgiveness includes the worst offenders you can think of. And, consequently, so should ours.
Despite the fact that we are told “everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19), when a Christian takes a dive wether a pastor, leader, or congregant, people comment, people speculate, people report, people talk, people tweet, people blog. We wash our hands of anything messy, keep the walls in the sanctuary clean, kick people down field, an even excommunicate our piers. But people also watch. How will a group of forgiven sinners handle a fellow sinner who needs forgiveness? Is the Christian community a safe or scary place to bottom out?
We we obstruct or will we restore in love?
We can assume that in every case where someone has sinned, bottomed out, or failed, that something was amiss personally and privately long before everything blew up publicly (as was my case) and that takes an extended period of time to be explored, discovered, and thoroughly dealt with. That is all a given!
What I am talking about is how a community that is built on the reality of grace and forgiveness can be a place of grace and forgiveness for even the most disgraced Christian. Because if there's no mercy afforded to leaders and the congregants, the offenders, and offended alike, by their fellow sinners whom ever they are and whatever their role or position is, then there won't be any for you either—at least not here and now.
And by mercy and grace and forgiveness, I’m not talking about being soft on sin, sweeping bad behavior under the rug, or minimizing the consequences. Sin is not theoretical. It happens in real time with real people and real consequences that must be really dealt with. No vertical condemnation (Romans 8:1) does not mean no horizontal consequences. But, and this is even more important, the inescapable reality of horizontal consequences does not mean the presence of vertical condemnation.
If God is who we say he is, then real sin is also met with real forgiveness. In fact, if what we know about the Gospel has any bearing on actual life, then redemption—not retribution—ought to be our deepest longing. It is the only thing that has a shot of making any difference, or bringing about genuine healing for everybody. The cross of Jesus shows us that God is serious about sin and we should therefore take sin seriously. But (and this is the part that often seems missing when scandal in church whether leadership or congregants happens) the cross also shows us that God is serious about redemption, restoration, and forgiving sins and we should take that seriously too.
He loved me while I was a sinner!
The grace of God is not reserved for the “well-behaved.” Yet that is the message we send every time the word “fall" is used in reference to someone who is by nature already fallen. These people are sinners, just like everybody they ever led. That doesn't justify destructive behavior, diminish the sting of consequences, or minimize the harming effects of destructive choices. But if we're only okay with preaching grace in theory, but not when someone—even an esteemed leader—is actually in need of it, then perhaps we should all take a sabbatical. As someone once said, “People love it when preachers say they are broken just like the rest of us, until that preacher does something that the rest of us broken people do.”
Sadness, grief, and prayer are understandable responses to a scandal in everyone who falls and even more so in the pastorate, but surprise or shock is another matter. Shock reveals the fact that somewhere along the way we’ve come to believe that there is a fundamental difference between church leaders and church goers—that somehow leaders are less sinful. But, while there is a functional difference between church leaders and church goers, there is not a fundamental one. The idea that congregants and clergy don’t struggle with the same things is a misconception. Pastors are human beings with all of the same flaws, fears, and sinful tendencies that the rest of humanity has. They don’t live outside the bounds of reality or human nature and by nature of their position will be held on a higher level of accountability and I’m good with that. But in reality all of us are three bad days away from becoming exposed by our hidden sins, and most of us are already on day two. All have fallen short, even our pastors and clergy. That goes for every denomination and theological persuasion under the sun.
It is anti-Christian to remember people primarily by the scandalous things they've done. We love to whittle an entire life-story down to a single season. Then, with the authority invested in us by the state of self-righteousness, we proclaim, “This, and nothing else, is who you are.” But the truth is, all of us (including disgraced Christian leaders) are more complicated than the singular narrative by which most people identity us. We have done very bad things, very good things, and plenty of cocktails of them both. Sadly, most people remember only the bad. Thankfully, we have a God who remembers only the good. And the only good he remembers is the good that Christ has done for us, in us, and through us. So, if we want to reduce our life story down to one adjective, if we want to whittle our biography down to a single phrase, then let it be this: He loved me while I was yet a sinner.
How can the church make it clear to anyone, trapped inside the shame-filled prison of their sins, that they too are loved by Christ who gave himself for them?
It is one thing pretend love and forgiveness, it’s quite another to actually forgive!
I’ve been in circumstances where thankfully my piers were able to call me out for my sin even when I wasn’t ready to fully grasp it. Grace and mercy, reconciliation and restoration were absent in their Gospel however and the Lord replaced them with people who realized that unconditional love doesn't wait for the correct response; it produces it.”
This unconditional love is purposefully blind. It’s blind to whether its recipient stood in the pulpit or sat in the pew. It’s blind to whether the sin hurt many or only a few. It’s blind to the fake hierarchy of big sins and little sins that is the working assumption in many religious circles. Unconditional love is blind to everything but the ones who stand there—or lie there—broken, shamed, guilty, and dying to hear even a single voice that says, “I love you. I forgive you. I see you as one for whom Christ died.”
That love is like the voice of God at the beginning of Genesis: it creates. For the ones who reside in the darkness of guilt, it says, “Let there be the light of hope for them.” For those who are dying to taste even a drop of mercy, it says, “Let the waters of absolution flow into that parched heart.” Unconditional love comes to that person whose life has been uncreated, and speaks creative words of life once more. And God sees that it is good. He sees that it is very good.
Fellowship with the “Unclean”
The greatest gift the church can give to former ministers and anyone who has fallen for that matter is to treat them, not as those who once preached in front of a congregation, but as those who stand with them now at the foot of the cross. The preachers become those preached to—by the very ones to whom they ministered. Sheep become shepherds to the former shepherd. This is admittedly a challenge, but a challenge that rests at the heart of the Gospel itself. For the Gospel knows no gradations of sin, no categories of clergy and lay, no scales of fat and skinny wrongs. All the Gospel knows is Jesus crucified and risen for everyone. As in the parable that Jesus told, everyone gets paid the same, whether they worked in the vineyard all day long or only an hour, whether they harvested two grapes or two thousand, whether they led a work crew or took a smoke break every half hour. The owner of the vineyard, out of his mercy, writes everyone the same paycheck, signed with the blood of Jesus. It’s the paycheck of unearned, undeserved love for all in the vineyard, no matter who they are or what they’ve done. In that way, grace is karma’s worst nightmare: we get the very opposite of what we deserve.
If the church truly wants to stand apart from the world, it will stand alongside those who have been disgraced. It will risk being falsely attacked as “soft on sin” because it knows how hard life is when guilt and shame are one’s only companions. Rather than shooting its wounded, it will pick them up and carry them to safety, to rehab, to repentance, to whatever it takes to make them whole again without punting them down field or excommunicating them. While the world drinks itself drunk on outrage of every kind, the church will exercise outrageous grace and scandalous mercy that doggedly refuses to give up on those ensnared by evil. In other words, the church will be exactly the kind of church Jesus established. Not a gym for spiritual muscle flexing but a triage for the wounded, where moral insurance isn’t checked at the door, but all are welcome and treated, no matter who they are or what they’ve done.
When a leper approached Jesus to ask for healing, our Lord did an astonishing thing: before he spoke, before he healed, before anything else, “he stretched out his hand and touched him” (Matthew 8:3). He touched the untouchable. Sweet fellowship with the unclean preceded anything else. That’s the church’s calling. Before we preach, before we teach, before we do anything else, we stretch out our hands and touch the sinner. Embrace the outcast. Put skin in the game of mercy. By doing that, we open up incredible opportunities for healing. Healing not only for the one wounded, but also for the community as a whole. A church that is built on the reality of grace and forgiveness for everyone (even the most disgraced Christian), is also a community that experiences its own healing when it embraces rather than ostracizing the fallen. The medicine of mercy works both ways, for the giver and the receiver. It heals individuals and community. The church, in forgiving others, experiences the power of that forgiveness in its own life. It sees in the face of the one who is disgraced the image of itself. A fellow member of the same body of Christ who is gasping for the rare mercy of unconditional love. And when that love is expressed, rather than leaving the community with less grace, it fills the church with more.
The Rare Mercy of Unconditional Love
If the angels of God rejoice over one sinner who repents, then the church of God joins the angelic chorus when it throws a party over the restoration of one of its own. It’s right on the Father’s heels as he runs out to welcome the prodigal son. It too weeps tears of joy on his shoulder. And in the grace-filled, joyous embrace, there is healing for all. There is a feast for all. For he who was dead is alive again. He who was lost is found. Let the world shake its head and walk away in disgust, but let the community of God gather round the disgraced and become friends of that sinner. And in so doing, bear witness that Jesus established a church big enough and gracious enough for all.
And, who knows, by doing so, the church might also come to realize that the one who is touched, who is welcomed, who is healed, bears the exact same image as ourselves. We and they, along with every single person in this wrecked and fallen world, are the same: we’re all gasping for that rare mercy of unconditional love, where there is no obstruction of grace.