Giving Grace Away
Hero or thief, I need the power of confession
As a kid, I dreamed that people could be divided into two teams: heroes and thieves; beggars and heirs. At night, beneath a ceiling of glow-in-the-dark stars, I fully expected to be a heroine. (Everyone intends to be superman—not the victim who needs saving.) Now I know better. “Not washed and beautiful, in control of a shining world where everything fits,” I am what Annie Dillard called a “frayed and nibbled survivor in a fallen world.”
It sounds as if I have some dramatic story to tell. That’s not true—my life story is no more or less dramatic than your average person. Sin ravages us all, though in different ways. It took some years before I realized I am no heroine. I am unable to fix or save anyone. And yet I am called (as every believer is) to have a ministry of reconciliation to the world. Not washed and beautiful—but commissioned to represent Christ.
How does someone like me carry that out? How do I serve? More than in books or articles, composed of paper and ink, but in my mood-swinging, fallible existence how do I contribute to the Christian community? What ought to be the anthem of the heroes, who find themselves truly thieves?
Originally, I intended this article to be three tidy points, each reflective of my perfect, sanitary life. The original idea quickly found its home in the trash. All I have to share is the depths of God’s grace where I have come to wade, and how he can overcome any of our frailties to show his strength.
In his essay “Damage,” Wendell Berry wrote, “To lose the scar of knowledge is to renew the wound. An art that heals and protects its subject is a geography of scars.” To ignore sin and frailty is to subject ourselves again to its power. To dress our lives like the airbrushed cover of a Christian fiction novel when we actually resemble the disjointed lines of an unfinished Picasso, is to be dishonest about our own strength.
But authenticity—or the term I prefer, “biblical realism”—is really tough to maintain. Heck, I’ve found it’s impossible to stay honest with myself about myself for too long. That’s why an out-of-the-way phrase in the book of James commands us to do the unthinkable: “Confess your sins to each other” (James 5:16).
I don’t know why public confession is so powerful. All I know is that speaking aloud makes our repentance solid. Humbling becomes real when we tell the embarrassing truth.
Three weeks ago in chapel, seated next to some friends I barely knew, I felt an urge to obey this verse. The days previous had been spent petting and feeding a growing bitterness against God’s sovereignty. This bitterness had grown out of humiliating events—and really, an embarrassing amount of pride. But I confessed to my friends the doubts wrestling in my heart, even as I feared what could happen at the revelation of Hannah’s Stupid Mistakes.
The truth was told. Confession grabbed my eyelids and peeled them back, forcing me to face my world, cracked. It stung. Breaking is the most disguised form of grace.
This is not to say that confession is a one-time thing. Although that confession snowballed into a deeper friendship with those young women, this is not to say I have found refuge in “Weakness Fests,” wallowing in how horrible I am. But confessing on a regular basis brings us again to the gospel. And the gospel declares over our lives, over and over, that the past is prologue; that we have been set free for freedom (Galatians 5:1).
That, ultimately, is the only position from which we can launch into ministry. The gospel, our only hope. Since I know I cannot fix myself, I know I have no power to fix others. All I have is Christ in me. He is my hope of glory.
We drink wine and bread to commemorate a death. The old me died with Christ. This life is new, a gift, resurrected by him. He is the hero. Every ministry to others must be the act of tugging each other back to seeing afresh the identity of Christ. We can only point to him as our rest, his cross as our justification, and his love as the antidote.
He loves us. He sees our weaknesses and declares us free from them. He sees us in the purity he purchased by his blood.
I think of the thief on the cross. With no time to clean himself up, his forgiveness was granted seconds away from the Kingdom. Perhaps God prefers the people who know how much they need him so his kindness can be shown in its full extravagance. Only when we admit we are beggars, can we become heaven’s heirs, splashing in fountains of grace. And heaven’s heirs, we now are.
Across the dinner table the other night, a classmate looked me in the eye and said, “You’re different than you were before. You seem more calm inside yourself.” It’s true. Back in the day, I tried using ministry as makeup to hide my sins. But my own ability to minister to others—that is no longer my anthem. We thieves—we know ourselves; the only thing that remains in us is what is real: an ongoing story of divine love, chasing us down. We are no longer broken, but humbled—healed by grace. Thieves on crosses, by the grace of God, we are given a hero’s welcome.