I was re-reading one of my favorite books, Blue Like Jazz, when the following excerpt hit me hard. At the end, there is a stunning quote worth meditating on.
For a very long time, I could not understand why some people have no trouble accepting the grace of God while others experience immense difficulty. I counted myself as one of the ones who had trouble. I would hear about grace, read about grace, and even sing about grace, but accepting grace is an action I could not understand. It seemed wrong to me not to have to pay for my sin, not to feel guilty about it or kick myself around. More than that, grace did not seem like the thing I was looking for. It was too easy. I wanted to feel as though I earned my forgiveness, as though God and I were buddies doing favors for each other.
Enlightenment came in an unexpected place: a grocery store. I was on my way over Mount Hood to spend some time in the high desert with a few friends. I was driving alone and decided to stop in at Safeway to pick up some provisions for the weekend. While standing in line at the checkout counter, the lady in front of me pulled out food stamps to pay for her groceries. I had never seen food stamps before. They were more colorful than I imagined and looked more like money than stamps. It was obvious as she unfolded the currency that she, I, and the checkout girl were quite uncomfortable with the interaction. I wished tehre was something I could do. I wished I could pay for her groceries myself, but to do so would have been to cause a greater scene. The checkout girl quickly performed her job, signing and verifying a few documents, then filed the lady through the line. The woman never lifted her head as she organized her bags of groceries and set them into her cart. She walked away from the checkout stand in the sort of stiff movements a person uses when they know they are being watched.
On the drive over the mountain that afternoon, I realized that it was not the woman who should be pitied, it was me. Somehow I had come to believe that because a person is in need, they are candidates for sympathy, not just charity. It was not that I wanted to buy her groceries, the government was already doing that. I wanted to buy her dignity. And yet, bu judging her, I was the one taking her dignity away.
I wonder what it would feel like to use food stamps for a month. I wonder how that would feel, standing in line at the grocery store, pulling from my wallet the bright currency of poverty, feeling the probing eyes of the customers as they studied my clothes and the items in my cart: frozen pizza, name-brand milk, coffee. I would want to explain to them that I have a good job and make good money.
I love to give charity, but I don’t want to be charity. This is why I have so much trouble with grace.
A few years ago I was listing prayer requests to a friend. As I listed my requests, I mentioned many of my friends and family but never spoke about my personal problems. My friend candidly asked me to reveal my own struggles, but I told him no, that my problems weren’t that bad. My friend answered quickly, in the voice of a confident teacher, “Don, you are not above the charity of God.” In that instant he revealed my motives were not noble, they were prideful. It wasn’t that I cared about my friends more than myself, it was that I believed I was above the grace of God… I am too prideful to accept the grace of God. It isn’t that I want to earn my own way to give something to God, it’s that I want to earn my own way so I won’t be charity.
As I drove over the mountain that afternoon, realizing I was too proud to receive God’s grace, I was humbled. Who am I to think myself above God’s charity? And why would I forsake the riches of God’s righteousness for the dung of my own ego?
Sometimes I wish I could stand outside myself and just watch, just witness the machinations of a child struggling to make it on his own, a child desperately flipping between moments of arrogant self-determination and frightened helplessness. I want to run to him, grab him by the shoulders and lift him swinging into the arms of a God who reassures, who subdues his fears, who swats away the lies and insecurities and calls him by new names, names like Blessed and Forgiven and Child and Beloved. I want to watch him lay his head down to rest, sleeping peacefully knowing that everything is going to be okay, that he will always and forever retain the affection of God.