Oh, to Grace How Great a Debtor

Disclaimer/reminder/hello-I’m-insecure: My blog is meant to show purpose in process – that there is purpose in the seemingly eternal uncomfortable middle part of life journeys in which you and I often find ourselves. Though this post may seem to end very definitively, this is very much a “process” post. I have held a shallow concept of grace for the majority of my life, and I’m just now peeling back more layers of what grace is and what that means for me. I’m struggling with grace. I’m perplexed by it. Even angry with it. I’m not even sure what I wrote in this post is true. But there’s purpose here. There’s purpose in the process. “Process” is God’s favorite way to work.

I confess, I’ve always been a bit mystified by a line in one of the Church’s most popular and beloved hymns, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” I’m not referring to “here I raise my Ebenezer,” which by default is reminiscent of a certain “humbug-ish” character. No, it is perhaps a line less questioned and more readily accepted:

Oh, to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be

Immediately, questions come to my mind. Doesn’t the very concept of living by grace through faith in Jesus indicate that there is no longer any debt to be paid? How can one be indebted to grace, which by nature is freely given? Is this phrase not enslaving us to the moralistic Christianity I so hate yet I’ve bought into time and time again? Why such strong language? “Debtor” and “constrained” do not conjure up images of grace as the glorious freedom I’ve thought it should be. Would it not be more theologically accurate to sing, “oh, to grace how great a beneficiary daily I’m privileged to be”?

And yet . . . perhaps the old song is right, after all (bah, humbug).

If nothing else, the past year and a half of emotional turmoil has given me, perhaps for the first time, a personal experience of the grace of God. Grace has moved me to tears and has caused me to look in awe at the God who chooses to save and love me at my worst. The ever-present barrier from head to heart knowledge has been transcended more times over the past 500 days than the combined 8,000-something previous.

In his book The Prodigal God, Tim Keller delves into the topic with sheer accuracy. To the truth that God accepts us by grace through Jesus’ work regardless of our own actions, a member of Keller’s congregation replies in a way with which I deeply resonate:

      She said, “That is a scary idea! Oh, it’s good scary, but still scary.”

I was intrigued. I asked her what was so scary about unmerited free grace? She replied something like this: “If I was saved by my good works- then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through. I would be like a taxpayer with rights. I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life. But if it is really true that I am a sinner saved by sheer grace — at God’s infinite cost –then there’s nothing he cannot ask of me.” She could see immediately that the wonderful-beyond-belief teaching of salvation by sheer grace had two edges to it. On the one hand it cut away slavish fear. God loves us freely, despite our flaws and failures. Yet she also knew that if Jesus really had done this for her — she was not her own. She was bought with a price.

As someone who has (or rather, chooses anew every day to varying degrees of success) to sacrifice the pursuit of something I most want, I have noticed a certain spirit of entitlement encroaching on my every thought and action. “I’ve given you this, God . . . so give me a reasonable, satisfactory substitute in this particular way – now – or else!” Though I haven’t actually said these words to God, my attitude has essentially been communicating to the Creator of the universe that I deserve something more than what He is currently giving me.

This is not living in grace.

At my counseling appointment a couple days ago after talking about this very issue, I was tasked to define what it is like to live in relationship with God with an attitude of entitlement vs. what it is like to live in relationship with God based on grace.

This is what I came up with . . .

Entitlement = I sacrificed, You owe me
Grace = You sacrificed, ________________

Pathetic, right? Born and raised in the church, and I couldn’t even come up with a definition of grace, the bedrock of my salvation.

I stammered through some half-answers —

“Uhhh – You sacrificed, I owe nothing . . . no, no,no. You sacrificed, no one owes anything anymore . . . wait that’s not right . . . dang it . . . ummm,”

So our work in therapy became an assignment. Frustrated at my theological ineptitude, I started to stress. What did this mean? Was I even a Christian if I didn’t know what grace was? On the way back to work, I thought of two snatches of hymn lyrics: “Jesus paid it all, all to Him I owe” and “oh to grace how great a debtor, daily I’m constrained to be.”

I don’t find this to be a coincidence. The Holy Spirit was and is ever attune with my present need. Historically, He has stirred my conscience towards songs and stories and His Word to remind me of truth. Faithfully, He did so again.

Grace = You sacrificed, I owe You

What? How can this be? This goes against everything I thought I knew about grace. I thought grace meant “it is finished.” How could there be anything to owe a paid debt?

But grace calls for an active response, not a passive one. Grace is realizing the freedom Christ bought for us includes the ability to sacrifice whatever is necessary to our Good Father, trusting He knows what is best for us and will make all things new in the mystery of His will. As one friend put it, here is our one chance to freely choose to bow before our Savior, before “every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Grace gives us the opportunity to choose to love God because He loved us first.

The sacrifice of God was necessary and it was brutal and it was costly. He paid a heavy price so that I could eternally rest in His love. I owe Jesus my life. Somehow the gravity of the situation has not fully hit me.

Western culture is no help. Entitlement is the legacy of the United States of America: “I deserve the American Dream, I deserve the new i-Phone, I deserve to have a choice between crunchy and smooth peanut butter, I deserve marriage, I deserve a job, I deserve a good life.”

How do I, how do we, move from a spirit of entitlement to one of grace?

I can think of only one thing : to have a staring contest with Jesus – to dare to not drop my gaze from His untamable, unshakeable love. For if I’m honest with myself, I am not afraid that my affections towards fighting for what I want will not change.

I am afraid that they will change.

Because when that happens, I will no longer have anything with which to bargain with God to try to get what I want. I will have no more illusion of control.

Like the old hymn affirms, I will truly be constrained by grace.

The Immensely Frustrating Step-by-Step Guide to Filling the Holes in Your Heart

A stunningly wise twenty-year-old friend (living proof of 1 Timothy 4:12) told me recently that in order for God to fill the hole in my heart, I’ve got to stop trying to fill it myself. In all my newly acquired knowledge and vast longings, I am asked to feel the immense gaping hole and allow it to remain unfilled.

The funny thing is, all this time I thought that was exactly what I was doing.  But acknowledging longings and being kind to them is not enough.

If we don’t invite Jesus to fill our holes in His way and His time, we will never see the great and mysterious goodness of Himself and the plans He has for us with which He wants to fill them.

In that vein of thought, I’ve written a guide for myself and my fellow travelers on how to fill the holes in their hearts. It is a fallible, incomplete guide, and often one must go through the steps out-of-order. Sometimes one must be participating in all of the steps at the same time. It is also highly likely that the individual will return to any and all of these steps for each of the holes in his/her heart . . . multiple times.

Overwhelmed yet? Keep reading.


The Immensely Frustrating Step-by-Step Guide to Filling the Holes in Your Heart

Step One: Acknowledge the Hole
Peer down into the terrifying depths of dark vacuity and shudder. If you don’t know the hole is there or if you choose to ignore it, you are living half-alive.

Step Two: Climb Down the Hole
Build a ladder, tie a rope around a tree and rappel down it, or stumble down the perilous footholds as best you can. You don’t know what you’ll find. It could be much deeper than you initially thought. The further you go, the more alone and terrified you might feel. But somewhere within you is a light, however faint, that keeps you from being consumed by the darkness and that illuminates just enough to keep you going.

Step Three: Observe Your Surroundings
As you make your way down this seemingly bottomless pit in your heart, you stop along the way to observe your surroundings. The light within you sometimes illuminates a whole section of the cavernous hole. And here you must live and learn to look with compassion on what you have neglected.

Step Four: Meet with Jesus
When you finally reach the bottom (or what you think is the bottom because let’s be real, the hole is probably always deeper than you realize), you are exhausted. You crane your head back and look up to see how far you’ve gone. How are you going to get back up there? If climbing down was this difficult, how agonizing is it going to be to go back up? Is it even possible?

Its here where you see Jesus most clearly.

Here is John 1:5 incarnate:

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Step Five: Return to Top with Jesus
The climb up with Jesus is both draining and invigorating. Sometimes you want Him to carry you the rest of the way. Sometimes you want to push him off and muscle your way back to the top in your own way.

Step Six: Panic
When you finally take that first step out of the hole, you realize you’ve changed. You may be back where you started in a physical sense, but you will never, ever be the same.

Panic sets in. Now that you know so much, you want to know less. At the same time, you want to know so much more. You do what you don’t want to do and don’t do what you want to do and really all you want is to feel ok again. You regret going down the massive hole in the first place. So you attempt to fill the hole on your own.

Again and again and amen.

Jesus stands off to the side. You’ve kind of forgotten about Him. Or you think He’s kinda passive and doesn’t really care about filling your hole except with spiritual crap so you acknowledge Him politely and say, “You can stay here, but I’ve got this, ok?”

Jesus is always happy to stay.

Step Seven: Cue Despair . . . and Jesus
At some point in your desperate efforts, you realize that nothing will ever fill the hole.

Nothing.

Cue despair.

That also happens to be Jesus’ cue.

At this point you are muddied and bruised and battered and probably look half-dead. You’re sitting at the edge of the hole in numb resignation to your fate of unmet longings.

Step Eight: Allow Jesus to Fill the Hole
“Are you finished?” asks Jesus gently. He sits next to you and places a holy hand on your dirty shoulder. You feel the warmth of undying affection and lean into His chest and weep. “Good,” He whispers, kissing the top of your head tenderly. “Now watch what I will do.”


Heavenly Father,
help us to live
with the massive holes
in our hearts
that You may fill them
in the way
and time
that You see fit. 

The Puzzling Pursuit of Perseverance

2Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
James 1:2-4

I was boiling with anger. I felt paralyzed, helpless against the ever-changing tide of circumstance and self. I tried to keep my body language open. The usual practice of hugging my arms tightly around the blessed pillow (which doubles as a barricade for my heart) too often suppressed the unruly tornado swirling inside me.

“Ok, I can’t believe I’m asking this, but . . . how do I lose my conscience?” I asked awkwardly. I laughed, and my therapist chuckled. “I know that’s terrible . . . I mean, who asks their counselor that?” I added, my tone shifting quickly into incredulous despair.

“No . . . no, its not terrible at all. It just shows me how much you’re in pain. I can hear it,” she responded gently.

Apparently God has graced me with a remarkably strong conscience and a resolve to pursue truth no matter what it costs me.

I get angry about that a lot.

I observe the cultural stream of self-actualization and self-fulfillment with wonder and longing. I see the happiness of my friends who give more authority to the phrase be yourself than I am comfortable giving. In contrast, I step into self-sacrifice over and over again, to be met with disappointment (let me be clear – I do “go my own way” a lot, but there’s a boundary that I just can’t seem to cross that some people seem to be able to do a little easier).

What’s the point? To hell with suffering for Christ… I want to live!

In my darkest moments, that is my anthem.

Still, I’m grateful for the Holy Spirit’s unrelenting pursuit of my heart. Somehow, deep down I know that perseverance in pursuing what I know to be ultimately good and true is nurturing a maturity in me that will far supersede the temporary happiness of going through life the way I feel will make me happy. I have even been able to experience glimpses of this truth in my life now.

If it was just about maturity and growing into Christlikeness, I don’t think I would be able to resist rebelling. But its not just that. Through my suffering and my shaky trust in God’s goodness, I am being made complete.

Complete.

What a gloriously attractive word! If I were to marry a word, “complete” would be the one for me.

There is so much that is incomplete in this world. Whatever perspective you look from, the 107 billion¹ puzzle pieces (and counting²) of humanity scatter the earth in chaos. God the great puzzler sees everything that has been, is now, will be, and could have been. Keeping all this in mind, He is in process of shaping each of us to contribute to the whole picture in the most beautiful way we can. Some of us are side pieces, bordering the edges of this fraying world. Others burst in with color and focus in the center.

Each one He has made and chosen are essential.

Imagine for a moment scrolling through Amazon and seeing an advertisement.

700-billion-piece puzzle (2)

Intrigued, you click the ad, but all it reveals is a short description:

Box not included.

Such is the way of humanity.

We buy the puzzle and try to create meaning of a 107 billion piece puzzle with no box.

Only God has the picture on the box, but in His great mercy He allows us the freedom to choose… will we try to fit ourselves in our own way into a massive puzzle which we can only begin to imagine…or will we trust that the God who made us also created the box we came in and will fit us in such a way that we will be rendered eternally complete?

Perseverance must finish its work.

And what is that work?

It is the work of allowing God in His sovereignty to shape us into the puzzle pieces that will reveal us as the glorious, complex, integrated, communal, creative, complete human beings that we are.

It is the work of realizing that in the waiting for Him to finish the puzzle, God knows how we best fit better than we do.

And when that last piece is lovingly placed, we will experience that wondrous eternity where we will truly “lack no good thing.”

But for now, by the grace of a suffering Savior, I’ll try to continue on in the puzzling pursuit of perseverance.

¹the estimated number of people who have ever lived

²remember that show 19 (20? 21?) Kids and Counting? If you thought that was a nightmare, imagine having 107 billion kids! Its all about perspective, right?