Everyone knows the saying "your greatest strength can be your greatest weakness." Anecdotally I find this to be very true. I think you can also change the phrase to say "your greatest blessing can be your greatest curse." Most of us can hop right to the examples of lottery winners, rags to riches sports stars, and the like who have all received an immense blessing only to have their heaping helping rain down destruction upon them. But as I have been reflecting, I think I have had too much of an extremist attitude when thinking about such things. I don't think it's merely the extremely blessed who need to worry about their blessings bringing destruction, it's those of us who are blessed at all.
As I look back on my blessed life, my blessings sometimes strike me with as much sadness as they do joy. As I have come to understand the gospel more and more, I have begun to see how my blessed life has been a curse to my understanding of the gospel. Inklings of this revelation began about five years ago, as I started serving on our diaconate and working with individuals who came into the church for assistance. It was the first time in my life that I was consistently faced with the choice to dole out true mercy and grace. I worked with people who were trying to take advantage of me, lying to me, people steeped in selfishness and all sorts of continued dysfunction and sin. These were people in great need - a need often brought about at least in part by their own hand, and often passed down to them through generational dysfunction. It was a very trying time in my life because it was the first time I had to figure out how to love those who were unlovely, and how to love those who often mistreated me. I felt like two people - a person who wanted justice and wanted to fight for my dignity, but also a Christ-follower who wanted to lay down his life for those in need. You can read about my experiences in my "Perspectives" series here to better understand what I'm talking about.
Soon after beginning my struggle with distributing grace and mercy, I began requiring grace and mercy myself. As Catalina and I began moving towards our call to Romania, we became ever more reliant on the grace and mercy of others. We had to begin asking others to support us financially. We asked friends and church members to babysit our kids. We asked our parents to babysit A LOT, and asked them for countless favors. We put our full faith in God to remove economic hurdles that would prevent us from reaching Romania. We asked for forgiveness as our hectic pace meant that we sometimes forgot appointments or lacked the energy to do everything we needed to do. During this time God began to teach me, REALLY teach me, what it meant to need grace. I have always intellectually assented to my need for God's mercy and grace, but the mind's assent is quite different from the heart's assent.
As I look at the gospel today, I understand how the blessings of my early life cursed my view of the gospel. The gospel is the Kingdom of God. That Kingdom is composed of right relationships and the upholding of God and the dignity of those created in his image. This gospel is only good news to those who desire to live in such a Kingdom and recognize how their presence in this Kingdom would ruin everything - but by the grace and mercy of God. God's grace and mercy to me were not booster shots that enabled me to go it on my own. Rather, the mercy and grace of God had to be my daily portions, the bread and water of life.
At the same time, the gospel of the Kingdom of God is only good news to those who recognize the need others have for mercy and grace, and those who extend such things. The gospel of the Kingdom of God is not merely the mind's assent to the truth of one's need, it is also the heart's assent to such a need. And when the heart assents to one's own need for the gospel, as James says, actions will follow. Most of the gospel of the Kingdom of God is often obscured in the Western world as the religious community only requires that the mind assent to one's need for grace. We proclaim the grace that comes only by faith as stated in Ephesians 2:8-9, yet conveniently avoid demanding that one whose mind assents to the grace in these two verses must also have his heart assent unto good works, as Ephesians 2:10 demands. For most of our Christian ancestors, a true faith could not be held apart from the church. While we associate this with indulgences and other sorts of nefarious events or works based righteousness, our forbears often held this view for good reason. If one truly has a faith unto action and community, how could one be a true Christian apart from accountability and action in the church community? This isn't elevating the church as a human institution, but rather recognizing the body of Christ as a beautiful and necessary thing for spiritual life. It is a recognition of God's design for his new creations. How can Christ be our living head if we are not a part of his body?
The Bible is replete with what the Kingdom of God looks like, and it looks like mercy and grace. Actually loving the prostitute, the refugee, and the outcast with your heart, not merely assenting to it in theory with one's mind. It looks like actually forgiving another as Christ forgave us. It looks like actually not taking our brothers and sisters to court. It looks like actually turning the other cheek when we are wronged. It looks like going to church with those who are different than us. Certainly I will not be perfect in all of this, but to think that I won't see fruit in my life is to deny the work of the Holy Spirit and his power to work in even the greatest of sinners, myself. The gospel of the Kingdom of God is truly needing grace and mercy and truly extending those things to others. The Kingdom is not come without both of these aspects.
Within our first few months here in Romania God has hit me again with these two truths. We have already received so much grace from the Romanians around us, and it is quite honestly hard to accept. "I'm so sorry I don't speak more English," many Romanians say, as I am here in their country not speaking their language very well. "Oua pentru copiii?" (eggs for the kids), as an old Romanian lady gives us some of her food so our children can be healthy. We have received so much grace in our first few weeks here in Romania. It would have been much harder for me to accept it five years ago. While I still have to swallow my pride, I now also see the receiving of grace as a very beautiful thing. Whether those who grace me know God or not, the extending of grace is a universal gift God has given to all humanity that brings the giver joy and paints a small but beautiful picture of the Kingdom. It may very well be that the accepting of another's grace is also a work God is using to prepare their hearts to receive his grace.
Within the first two weeks in Romania we have also had the opportunity to grace others. We have talked with many Romanians. The older Romanians seem particularly pleased that we would converse with them because we are young, yet make time for them, and we are Americans. "Why would anyone want to move to Romania" is a question we've been asked more than once. As many in the younger generation seem to be moving towards materialism and the worship of youth (similar to the U.S.), seeing us value their dignity and their culture means so much to the older Romanians We've also encountered a number of Roma who have asked us for money and food. One woman in particular has approached us several times. The first time was only a few days into our stay here, and we broke down and took her into a grocery store to get her some food. I'm sure that is not what we'd be advised to do, but I don't necessarily regret it. We were able to grace her, and her first experience with us was one of generosity. Nevertheless, we recognize that handouts and learned dependence are actually problems that need to be addressed, and truly gracing this woman looks like plugging her into a community that can support her financially if that is ever a true need, but more importantly a community that will love her and train her to become a productive member of the Kingdom as she begins to support herself and give grace. But we must also make sure that we teach her that she should never stop being a willing recipient of grace. While dependence can be a bad thing, a lack of dependence can be just as terrible.
I think many who grew up blessed as I did likely struggle with the same curse. We are grace averse. We believe that the grace God has given us is really on loan, and that we are to work hard to never need grace again. We refuse to acknowledge our continued need for grace. At the same time, our generosity often becomes faceless because we haven't met anyone or built relationships with anyone who truly needs grace, or our relationships haven't gone deep enough with our friends and neighbors to expose the need for grace that everyone has. We are good at hiding our need for grace, even to ourselves. Our friends and neighbors are just as good at hiding it. The suppression of one's need for grace becomes so great that we eventually blind ourselves to our need, and then cannot comprehend how anyone could need grace. When we eventually do seek to grace others, we look for those who are worthy. We find the islanders devastated by a tsunami. We send off gifts to kids in an orphanage located in a developing country. We do wonderful things for those who have been placed in terrible circumstances and "deserve" grace. We don't do the same for our neighbor who left his wife and kids, the local drug addicts, the homeless guy by the entrance ramp to the highway, or our enemies. We just don't know how to give true grace - a loving gift not as a result of any merit - because we don't really understand our own need for it.
The question then becomes, if I don't recognize my need for grace and if I don't truly grace others, what does that say about my view of the Kingdom of God? Is the Kingdom made up of others like me who don't need grace and who don't give it? Or is it, as God said, made up of the least of us, the unlovely and the sinners who are truly transformed by grace to give grace in the same manner? I find that I am fighting for a kingdom every day. Many days it's for my kingdom. Please pray that God would show me mercy and grace for my ignorance and sin, and that he would help me to receive grace freely so that I can give it freely. I pray the same for the hearts of the Romanians around me as well as those back in Georgia, the United States, and the rest of the world.