Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Benefits of Baggage

Growing up, my only experience with baggage was when I packed for summer camp. I sympathized with those who carried heavy loads but I also thought: “Life is so complicated for them.” I even said to myself: “Marrying someone with that much baggage would be difficult."
But at the age of almost-thirty I now own my own suitcase of suffering. I carry it awkwardly because it’s new. I'm just beginning to understand the complicated nature of this weight. The pressure it puts on those closest to me. The way I must now learn to navigate the strange ebb and flow of grief. But though baggage is hard to view in a positive light God has graciously shown me some of its benefits.
The Bible makes more sense
In college, one of my wing-mates told me that she knew Biblically she was a sinner but couldn’t think of any sins she’d committed. She drew a blank when she would try to repent. I couldn't relate. Every verse about forgiveness was a gift to my guilty soul. I felt connected to just about every sinful character in the Bible. As a result, God’s Word was full of conviction and comfort for me.
But it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve come to an intimate understanding of David’s cries for help in the Psalms. His isolation. His fear. His desperation. It wasn’t until I was in the fetal position on the bathroom floor of my apartment, crying out to God to save my husband and my marriage, that I read the Psalms with complete understanding:
“I am feeble and crushed;
I groan because of the tumult of my heart.
O Lord, all my longing is before you;
my sighing is not hidden from you.” (Psalm 38:8-9)
Since my divorce, groaning and sighing have become a regular part of my prayer life and passages like Matthew 11:28-30 have become a treasure:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Mathew 11:28-29)
“Cast your burden on the Lord, and he will sustain you.” (Psalm 55:22)
Jesus makes more sense too. His constant sorrow on earth resonates in a way it didn’t before. My awe over how He left heaven to save us and satisfy God’s wrath has increased. It’s as though His sufferings are now printed in bold in my Bible. The more baggage I carry, the more I need Him. The more time I get to spend unburdening at His feet. These are painful but precious times with my Savior.  
Bonding over baggage
Jerry Sittser lost his daughter, wife, and mother all at once in a car wreck in 1991. In his book, A Grace Disguised, he said: “Sorrow took up permanent residence in my soul and enlarged it.”
Baggage can weigh us down so that we fail to see others and Christ clearly. But it can also provide us with an opportunity to practice and receive compassion. When you start walking around with baggage, you suddenly become aware of those travelling beside you. Their loads become visible. Though some choose isolation and self-centeredness, our burdens can lead us into the most blessed community – the community of sufferers.
The people I found easy to categorize as “a mess” or “too complicated” before are now the ones helping me make it through the day. They pick up my bags and carry them for a while. I help them unpack theirs and we travel together. For “two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9)
I have seen the beauty of the Body of Christ more this past year during my greatest grief than in all my previous years as a Christian. The Sunday after my husband told me he was going to file for divorce, I sat in an empty row at church. The assistant pastor saw me and, knowing what had happened, stepped out of his row where he had been worshiping with his family and walked down the aisle to where I stood. He put his arm around me, said “I am so sorry,” and let me cry. Instead of returning to his row, he stood next to me for a few songs so that I didn’t have to worship alone. I can’t tell this story, type it, or even think about it without tearing up. My baggage does not scare away my brothers and sisters in Christ. It gives them a chance to demonstrate His love. And I get to receive it. “For the body does not consist of one member but of many...If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.” (1 Corinthians 12:14, 26)
Homesick for Heaven
I asked one of my closest friends her thoughts about this idea of “baggage,” knowing how greatly she and her husband have suffered this year. She said: “This challenge has given us eternal perspective. Life is not about how big our house is or how much we made last year. It forces us to think about what really matters. Jesus and souls.”
I love this perspective. Baggage forces us into a cage where we must wrestle with God’s goodness, His grace and His plans for us. As we wrestle with heavy things what is flimsy and fleeting matters less.
A close friend of mine walked alongside me for years until his sister died. That day, he refused to carry the weight of his pain to the cross. Instead, he picked it up and walked in the opposite direction. Baggage, whether handed to us by an abuser, given to us at birth, or taken up after a consequence-filled mistake, is never light. But for those who are in Christ it is temporary. It is a heaviness we will not carry into eternity. This truth only increases my longing for His kingdom (Mat. 6:33).
The blessed nature of humiliation
I am humiliated to admit how many times I prayed this year: “God, just take me home.” It’s a prayer I pray when the emotional intensity of this loss seems unbearable. I know it’s selfish. I must repent when my strongest desire is not God’s glory but to see an end to my pain. In a recent sermon my pastor spoke about Elijah praying a similar prayer in 1 Kings 19:4: “It is enough now, O Lord, take away my life.” He pointed out the faithlessness of this plea in light of all God had shown Elijah. We lose heart so quickly. But God was merciful to Elijah. And He has been merciful to me.
Regardless of what brings you low, humiliation is an equalizer. Job bowed down in humiliation when God appeared before him. He no longer felt the need to argue his case but instead put his hand over his mouth. I have been weighed down so that I can sympathize with my fellow travelers. So that I will cling to His Word. I have been brought low to understand better how my Savior was brought lower. It has been tempting to use this baggage as an excuse to sin – to indulge in self-pity or build mini-idols. But I see the wisdom in that Puritan prayer, that it is from the valley that we are truly able to see Him in the heights.
The humiliation of baggage pushes us to see our weakness and His strength: Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10) We may never get to a place where our suitcase of suffering is empty. But if we allow it to, our baggage will ground us in humility, push us toward the Body and lift our eyes to the Mighty Fortress that is God.
Written by Rachel Watson

Article also published on The Gospel Coalition.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Take Your Tears to Church

If you’ve experienced grief you know it can be deceiving. You may have months of such severe heart-pain you are convinced it will last forever. Then, one day, you realize you aren’t in that place anymore. Your limbs don’t feel weighted with sand. You laugh more easily. You think, maybe this is finally over. Maybe you’ve finally healed. Without warning, the heaviness returns. You notice that you are stuck just behind the finish line, like landing on the Molasses Swamp square in Candyland.

That was me last night. Pushed back a few spaces. Stuck in grief. New hurts emerged that I thought I’d wept my way past. Hot tears. The last thing I wanted to do was set my alarm clock for church.

I read Psalm 56. When I got to verse 5, which asks: What can flesh do to me? I couldn’t help but respond: a lot. Flesh humiliates. It speaks the right lie at the right time. It leaves children orphans. It beheads Christians. It defiles what was pure. Flesh makes promises then breaks them. Falsely accuses. Slanders. Gets cancer. I am so sick of this flesh.

And yet these are the times I need to ask the Psalmist’s question: What kind of power does flesh really have in comparison to God’s? The answer is of course: very little. Very little in light of eternity. Flesh can sting, disappoint, even murder, but it can’t take away the future hope I have in Christ. That promise remains untouchable.

But what about all the pain this side of heaven?

God acknowledges it. He captures every private tear (Ps. 56:8). He does not downplay its presence in our lives, but instead tells us that those who sow in tears shall reap with shouts of joy (Psalm 126:5). About this verse, John Piper writes:

Be realistic. Say to your tears: ‘Tears, I feel you. You make me want to quit life. But there is a field to be sown (dishes to be washed, car to be fixed, sermon to be written). I know you will wet my face several times today, but I have work to do and you will just have to go with me.

This morning, despite heavy limbs and heart, I took Piper’s advice. I told my sorrow: You’ll have to come along, because I’m going to church. When I picked up my friend Jennifer on the way, I admitted to her that I was distracted. As a fellow griever, she understood. We arrived and I got to sing hymns alongside my family, the congregation. I was reminded during the sermon that glory is a promise; that trials are too. The pastor pointed out that the order in Scripture for Jesus and His followers is always:

suffering --> death --> glory

Accepting this did not take away my pain, but it validated it. There will be times when I sow in tears, when I must take my pain to church, to Walmart, the DMV, or coffee with a friend. But these tears are not forever and death is not the conclusion:

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,  and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Heb. 2:14, 15)

Eternal joy is a promise worth dwelling on, especially during periods of earthly sadness. Read these promises to yourselves. Write them on your wrist, your friend’s Facebook wall, or your most oft-used bookmark. You’re going to need them:

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Rev. 21:4)

And the ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isa. 51:11)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Five Articles for the Sexually Frustrated Christian

For so many, sex seems like the missing puzzle piece. Christians are not any more immune to this thinking than unbelievers. It’s a challenge to respect God’s design for sex without idolizing or demonizing it. And we are easily caught up in “if only” thinking. If only...we could experience it more often, differently, with someone else, or at all, then we would finally be complete. Whole. Satisfied. Some of us have even been told that sex is the only way to truly understand intimacy with Christ, making marriage an awfully attractive goal.

The following articles will challenge and encourage you whether you are single, divorced, widowed, married, same-sex attracted, or just plain lonely. I don’t endorse every idea in these pieces, but I do believe each one is worth the read.

To a society that says, “Sex is nothing,” we say, “It’s much more serious than you think.” But our society also says “Sex is everything. This is where I get my identity, my fulfillment, my life.” To this, we say, “Sex is less serious than you think. You are pinning too many hopes on sex.”

Many people today believe that the purpose of human life and the measure of human flourishing is in the freedom to express oneself, to deliver one’s unique inner essence to the world by “being true to yourself.” Apply this expressivist philosophy to sexuality, and you wind up with a society in which sexual self-expression becomes vital for happiness. To question the validity of someone’s sexual attractions or practices is to call into question their personhood, to do damage to their identity, to radically dehumanize them by submitting their desires to scrutiny.

In response to this idea, the Church must say, “Human dignity means you are not defined by your sexual attraction.” Staking your identity in sexuality or pinning your hopes for happiness on sex is too low of a goal for a human being made in God’s image.

In this case, we put sex in its place — not by saying “sex is no big deal” but by telling people, “you are so much more than your sexuality.” We will not reduce our human self-understanding and self-expression to sexual urges. It’s not that we diminish sex, but that we elevate human dignity.

From My Gay Roommate by Eric Teetsel

Tim vacillated between acceptance of his sexual inclinations and the greater calling of his faith for years before finally finding rest in the decision to let Jesus be enough. That arduous journey was made much, much more difficult by voices from within the Church encouraging him to embrace his inclination to homosexuality.

Wesley Hill says: 
I don’t want to say that friendship is a substitute for erotic love. They’re definitely different things. In the historic Christian understanding, erotic love is about one spouse complementing the other spouse who is sexually “other.” When the two partners come together, their love opens them to new life—to the “one flesh” of a child. Friendship isn’t like that. Friendship is about two people coming together not for romance or procreation but for companionship, for mutual encouragement, and for serving the wider community. So a celibate person does give up one form of intimacy. But that doesn’t mean he or she gives up intimacy altogether.

From An Open Conversation on Mixed Orientation by Preston Sprinkle (interviewing Brian and Monica Gee):

Monica Gee says:
During that time, we realized that in our marriage, we were both being called to live with form of suffering if our relationship was to continue. I say ‘called’ because it certainly wasn’t our choice, and yet it was exactly where God had directed our lives. In remaining faithful, Brian suffered by not experiencing the fulfillment of many of his physical and emotional needs. And by remaining in our marriage, I suffered by having my deepest fears realized and feeling a deeply painful form of rejection. We both realized that this suffering wasn’t going to be temporary and would probably never find resolution in our lifetime. And yet, this common suffering that we experienced united us to Christ’s suffering and to each other in an inexplicable way. We began to take solace in this unity, a unity that would become a keystone for our life and work together in the years that have followed.

Brian Gee says:
But what is at the foundation of a Christian marriage except the charge for both spouses to continually serve and sacrifice for one another as Jesus both served and submitted to the Father, even in the face of certain failure, pain, weakness, or suffering. We know that as humans we do fail, we will be hypocrites, and we will cause those we love pain. Like anyone, I’m not exempt from that, and no amount of self-protection will change that reality. So when real sexual hurts and unspeakable relational betrayals go unforgiven or even unaddressed, it’s not the initial incompatibility that makes the relationship insolvent; it’s the progressive lack of willingness of one or both spouses to lay down his or her own desires for the sake of the other, especially in the face of certain future pain.

It might be that the pain of a life without physical intimacy was part of what equipped Paul to proclaim through the Spirit that to die is gain. To die is to gain a glorified body that feels and experiences the truth that all our needs are met in Jesus. To die is to gain the heavenly reality that earthly intimacy can only reflect in shadows. To die is to gain full oneness with God, fullness of joy, and pleasures forevermore.  

This pain has blessed me by forcing me to be all in with God: banking on him for my joy. Our God is a God of pleasure. He is not calling us to hunger because he wants us to be miserable. He is calling us to hunger because he wants us to experience the greatest pleasure available to man: himself.

Nothing sounds as foolish to the world as a person who would pursue purity, not out of some sense of religious obligation, but out of a faith that there is a greater pleasure in store for those who would trust in the Creator. Nothing makes God look as beautiful as when we, who have tasted his goodness, would use our lives to testify that we will forego any momentary joy in order to taste more of him.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Utter Dark Sayings to Your Children

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching;
    incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
 I will open my mouth in a parable;
    I will utter dark sayings from of old,
 things that we have heard and known,
    that our fathers have told us (Psalm 78:1-3).

There is a story we should be telling. It’s about a people who forget an unforgettable God. This forgetfulness encourages them to ignore His patience and provision. It enables them to dismiss His miracles. This story is a captivating one because of God’s power, but it’s dreadful because of man’s sin.

I picture a Sunday school class full of kids sitting crisscross-applesauce, leaning forward, eye-brows arched. The flannel graph has been abandoned and it’s just a teacher telling her students something true.

The Psalmist tells us that he will utter dark sayings from of old. He will not hide these stories from children, because God did not (v. 5-8). The story turns out to be a familiar one and the purpose is clear: we share it so that our children will not forget the works of God (v. 7). By watching Israel in some of her grittiest moments of unfaithfulness we gain insight into our own complicated relationship with sin.

This is where the flannel graph can make a comeback as long as you are quick at changing out scenes and characters. The Psalmist mentions some of the most famous stories in Israel’s history like the ten plagues, (v. 12), God parting the Red Sea (v. 13) and providing water from rocks in the desert (v. 15, 16). Somehow, incredibly, these are the very miracles God’s people forget (v. 9-11).

And this should register shock, not just in kids, but in each of us. How could anyone forget the fearsome power behind the plagues? The awe of that parted sea? It’s impossible.  But what we can do is live as though those miracles aren’t enough, which is exactly what Ephraim did.

We test God when our desire to satisfy our cravings is greater than our desire to honor Him. After God’s repeated deliverance, Israel tested God in their heart by demanding the food they craved. So God gave it to them. They wanted meat, so he rained meat on them like dust (28). Have you ever had a child ask you for more food while they are still chewing? And do you ever demand more from God before appreciating what He has given you—before thanking Him for the food already in your mouth? Israel, instead of accepting God’s good gifts, questioned His ability to provide. They found His mercy in the past insufficient for the present.

It reminds me of that scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory where Violet demands a piece of Wonka’s new, experimental chewing gum. Despite being surrounded by edible plants and wallpaper, she wants the gum. Wonka warns her not to eat it, but she grabs it anyway and pops it into her mouth. He watches her, shaking his head. When she turns into a blueberry, he isn’t surprised.

After God punished Israel’s selfish cravings (30, 31), a positive arch should have developed. They should have learned their lesson, repented, and moved forward in faith. This was a time to sit down around the desert camp-fire and share stories about God’s faithfulness. Time to tell little Benjie just how red the Nile looked that day. How breathlessly eager they felt, escaping from Egypt during the first Passover. It was time for them to recall the way God guided his people out of slavery like sheep and guided them in the wilderness like a flock. (v. 52) How He acted as a Father to them; faithful and strong.

But they didn’t.

When God punished them after yet another rebellion, they seemed repentant for a while. They paid Him some temporary lip service. But in their hearts, they did not submit to Him (v. 34-37). Can we relate to this at all? Do our children ever say sorry because they want to get off time-out? Do we ever mumble a prayer of repentance before communion, knowing full well that sin still has a hiding place in our heart? It’s absolutely incredible the way God responds to Israel, and to us, when we are insincere:

Yet he, being compassionate,
    atoned for their iniquity
    and did not destroy them;
he restrained his anger often
    and did not stir up all his wrath.
 He remembered that they were but flesh (v. 38, 39).

I wish I could say that this incredible compassion was received by humble hearts. But, like we so often do, Israel abused grace by letting sin abound (Rom. 6:1). They mocked God’s patience (v. 58, 59) and found idols they liked better. It is a dark, dark day when God the Shepherd is asked to remove his staff of protection from the fold. This is what Asaph recounts in the second half of the Palm. As with the meat, God gives them what they crave. He removes His presence and lets their idols protect them.

But God’s punishment, though fearsome, isn’t the darkest part of this story. Man’s sin is. It is the reason God’s judgement must exist. Sinning is the most outrageous response to a faithful and patient God (Deut. 7:9, 2 Thes. 3:3, Heb. 10:23, 2 Tim., 2:13).

In spite of all this, they still sinned;
Despite his wonders, they did not believe (v. 32).

Do our children grasp the depth of His wonders? If we don’t, they won’t.

We need to talk about what God has done in our lives, in the lives of our friends, in church history, and in the Word. Stories of His faithfulness should flood our living rooms and be stacked high on each night table. Stories of His creation, His hard-to-fathom knowledge, and His extravagant love in Christ should be on our lips so often that the idea of forgetting God causes us to gasp.

Tell your children this story until they gasp, not when God must punish Israel, but each time Israel rejects God.

What is the scariest story you can think of? The darkest one God can think of is when His own people, whom He purchased and guided to safety, forget Him, complain about His perfect provision, and leave Him for other gods.

If this is not the darkest story you can think of, you’re not telling it right.

…that the next generation might know them,
    the children yet unborn,
and arise and tell them to their children,
    so that they should set their hope in God
and not forget the works of God,
    but keep his commandments (Psalm 78:6,7).

Article also published on The Gospel Coalition

Friday, April 24, 2015

Apologetics Don’t Save

I recently read female apologist Nancy Pearcey’s testimony in Christianity Today. It spoke to my barefooted, California-raised soul. After a crisis of faith that led her to walk away from Christianity, Pearcey ended up in L’Abri, Switzerland. There she found:

….an enclave of culturally savvy Christian hippies who understood the questions she was asking and were doing the hard work of finding answers. They identified her worldview as relativism, pointed out its logical flaws, and discussed Jackson Pollock paintings and epistemology over candlelit dinners. In the shadow of the Swiss Alps, Pearcey became open again to the intellectual tenability of faith. Within two years, she had given her life to Christ.

I love those Christians. They took time to tackle Pearcey’s doubts. But it wasn’t the worldview discussions or Pollock paintings that saved her. I imagine she would agree with Tim Keller that this form of apologetics cleared a path to the gospel. The believers she met helped sweep away the clutter so that she could see the cross.

Pearcey’s story reminds me of the importance of Christian apologetics. My time in the Gospels reminds me that apologetics has its limits:

“But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”

If I take some time to look over all the things Peter witnessed in flesh and blood, Jesus’ statement seems incredible:
Peter was called personally by Jesus (4:18-20). He saw him teach, heal, and grow in fame (4:23-25). He had a front row seat during the Sermon on the Mount (5:1-7:27) He saw Jesus cleanse a leper (8:1-4), commend the centurion’s faith (8:1-13), and heal his own mother-in-law (8:14-17). Peter witnessed Jesus fulfilling prophecy from Isaiah (8:17), calming a storm (8:23-27), casting out a legion of demons (8:28-34), and healing a paralytic man of his infirmity and sins. He saw crowds of people come to faith (9:1-8). He watched Jesus show love to tax collectors (9:9-13) and he heard the parables straight from his mouth. He was even given power to cast out demons and heal the sick (10:1-9). If anyone could credit his salvation to experience and proof, it was Peter.
But Jesus says that it wasn’t what Peter witnessed or experienced that saved him. It was God. There were others who saw the same things yet remained in disbelief (Jn. 12:37). Consider the Pharisees. In John 8, they accuse Jesus of illogic and demand more proof: You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true (v. 13). Instead of listing his miracles or bringing up John the Baptist, Jesus says: Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You judge according to the flesh… (v. 14, 15).

Jesus does not satisfy them with the answers they want: My judgment is true for it is not I alone who judge but I and the Father (v. 15, 16). When we examine the skeptic’s questions, historical research, and scientific data, we must remember that, according to Jesus, the way to determine truth is to listen to God: If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth (v. 31, 32).
Apologists love to bring up the Bereans. And rightly so! They with great eagerness examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true (Acts 17:11). But where did they of such noble character go to find truth? Did they double-check Paul’s message with the sages or logisticians of the day? No. They poured over Scripture.

I’ve fought against believing that I have faith because God gave it to me. It seems circular. Why do you believe in God? Because of God. True salvation must be more complex than that. Shouldn’t I get some of my toughest questions answered first? Maybe once I can name five supports for the resurrection, I can commit to faith. But, no. That is not my testimony. When I explain my salvation, I have to steal John Piper’s description: The Bible tells me what happened to me, not my memory and not my experience. What happened to me is, I was raised from the dead.

This is where it began. With new life. Life that only God could breathe into me (Eph. 2:1-10, Col. 2:13). In that moment I was given the Holy Spirit who now daily breathes life into the Word so that I see God’s character, evidence of Christ’s deity, proof of my fallen nature, and future hope. My dad reminds his congregation: Where unbelief is the problem, and faith is the solution, where does faith come from? Not from doing apologetics research. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom. 10:17).

Though at times I envy all that Peter witnessed, I must recognize that Peter’s experiences are mine through the Word. His eye-witness accounts, along with the rest of Scripture, is the broom that clears away my doubts and leads me to the cross. This is the broom I must share with the lost.

“Apologetics is driven by love,” says Pearcey. “You have to love people enough to listen to their questions and do the hard work of finding answers for them.”

What a humble and, quite frankly, beautiful attitude. I want to have coffee with Pearcey and introduce her to all my unbelieving friends. With her, I want to help clear away excuses, listen to the hard questions, and love those who are drenched in doubt. But I must remember this: apologetics don’t save anyone. God saves. Again, I reference wisdom from my dad: You simply cannot suspend faith in order to find the truth. To do so is sin. And though truth can be analyzed, discussed, and debated, Jesus consistently points us to God. And God points us to His Word. So that’s where I’ll be, though Pharisees jeer and doubters mock. It will offend the stubborn heart, but to those who believe, it will be the scent of new life (2 Cor. 2:15, 16).
Lord, I am not trying to make my way to Your height,
for my understanding is in no way equal to that,
but I do desire to understand a little of Your truth
which my heart already believes and loves.
I do not seek to understand so that I can believe,
but I believe so that I may understand;
and what is more,
I believe that unless I do believe,
I shall not understand.

--Anselm of Canterbury

Written by Rachel Watson

Article also published on The Aquila Report

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Flannery O'Connor and Violent Grace

To Flannery O’Connor, grace was a violent thing. Not a solemn walk down a church aisle or a hushed prayer, but a bullet. A bull’s horn. A suicide.

You won’t find her in Christian book stores, though you may have read one of her stories in college. Her goal in writing fiction was clear:

My audience is the people who think God is dead. To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.

Her characters are grotesque. Her religious voice is unconventional. 

She’s kind of my hero.

Grace is shocking

When I first hand my students an O’Connor story, their typical response is to cringe or ask incredulously: What did I just read?

I understand this reaction. It’s what good ‘ole Flannery would have wanted. Shock. But she wanted that shock to lead to understanding. So before helping my students unpack the story, I ask them a question:

What must come before grace?

I ask because the answer is what every Flannery O’Connor story is about: the moment when a character realizes they need grace.  

In A Good Man is Hard to Find that moment arrives when a notorious convict points his gun at a grandma. Though she’s spent the majority of the story picking at others while basking in her own goodness, she has a moment of clarity. She looks at the criminal and is reminded of her own son. She realizes that the two men aren’t so different. She stops talking. Her fancy hat falls to the ground. And she sees that she isn’t so different from the murderer, either. Her epiphany ends abruptly, with three bullets to the chest:

“She would have been a good woman,” the Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

With this morbid line, O’Connor reminds her audience that grace is a wake-up call. It carries a dramatic message: You are not ok. You never will be. You need something outside of yourself.

Grace is for the guilty

When I think about the grandmother’s epiphany, I think about a song by indie artist, Sufjan Stevens. It’s about John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer known for dressing up as a clown and murdering over thirty teenage boys in the 1970s. The last lines of the song are striking:

And in my best behavior/I am really just like him.

This is the realization we must come to. Before we can accept grace, we must admit that we are filthy, rotten sinners who need grace. It’s what the Pharisees of Jesus’ day couldn’t understand. In Luke 18, Jesus tells a parable aimed directly at their stubborn hearts: He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous (v. 9).

You know the story. Two men enter a temple to worship. The Pharisee stands tall and proud saying: God, I thank you that I am not like other men while the other man can hardly lift his face (v. 11). Instead, he stays low to the ground and cries out: God, be merciful to me, a sinner! (v. 13)

Until we see ourselves as sinners, we won’t recognize Christ as Savior (Luke 5:31). I remember interviewing a prostitute in Los Angeles years ago. She said that one night she saw a man murdered. Somebody threw him out a window. Everyone knew who did it, but no one told. I asked her why not and she said that the murdered man had molested a child. Anyone who would do something like that deserves to die, she said.

She’s right. Anyone who would do that deserves to die. But it’s more than that. Anyone who sins against God in any way deserves death. James 2:10 puts me in the same camp as pedophiles and serial killers: For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.

I have failed. I’m accountable for all of it. I need grace.

Grace is offensive

In another O’Connor story, The Lame Shall Enter First, a confident atheist, Shepherd, realizes that his good deeds have missed the mark.  After the loss of his wife, he reaches out to a bitter, delinquent, teenage boy with a clubfoot. Rufus wants nothing to do with him, but Shepherd insists. He takes him into his home, buys him a new boot, and tells him how much potential he has. He spends all his time playing savior to someone who doesn’t want his help. All the while, his son grieves alone. By the time Shepherd realizes his mistake, it’s too late. His son is gone.  

Throughout this story, grace continually offends. It offends Shepherd’s pride and superior intellect. That book is something for you to hide behind, he says when he sees Rufus reading the Bible. It’s for cowards, people who are afraid to stand on their own feet and figure things out for themselves.

He assures Rufus: You don’t believe it. You’re too intelligent. But Rufus angrily replies: You don’t know nothing about me. Even if I didn’t believe it, it would still be true. Grace is what we need, whether we accept it or not. And though Shepherd dismisses the gospel at every turn, he is given insight into the depths of his own failure. He failed to save Rufus. He failed his own son. He is the one in need of a shepherd.

Grace is offensive because it points to the deficiency in each of us.

Grace is costly

Even more offensive than our need for grace is how much it costs.

Too often I forget that because God is just, my sins couldn’t just disappear. They had to be punished. And Jesus walked toward that punishment. He walked toward the hill where pain was a promise.

His death wasn’t merely symbolic. When we read about the countless slaughtered animals in the Old Testament, we must make the connection: Jesus’ body was the ultimate bloody sacrifice. It was real nails ripping through skin and muscle. His emotional agony was so intense that, before his death, he asked God if there was any other way (Mat. 26:39).

None of us could die as Jesus died. Sinless. The perfect substitute. His death was gory because that is what our sins deserve.

Grace is God’s desire

The Pharisees wanted to know why Jesus spent so much time with unworthy people.

Jesus told them. It was because they were sick and needed a doctor. He saw the Pharisees’ disease as well. He knew that it ran deep but that they were unwilling to cry out for help. Witnessing people reject the medicine of grace grieved Jesus:

"Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing
(Luke 13:34).

And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it (Luke 19:41).

Grace is costly. It is necessary. And God desires that we admit our problem and embrace His solution.

Flannery O’Connor may have written violent stories about strange characters from the South, but she understood grace. She knew that no man is righteous until he is clothed in Christ. This requires that we see our nakedness and recognize our need. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.
--John Newton

As for me, I am poor and needy,
    but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
    do not delay, O my God!
Psalm 40:17

Written by Rachel Watson (This article also appeared on The Gospel Coalition)