When Grace Wore a Badge
I am sure that this is not true of you, but at times I make mistakes. Now, this was true long before I could ADMIT it, but it is true nonetheless. I have found in recent years that I am a conversational Baryshnikov when it comes to avoiding being wrong. If I lay down a barrage of words and logic, I figure that surely somewhere in the muddle of my mental assault there will be a nugget of doubt that I can hide under. You can imagine how fun it has been to be married to me. I am extremely thankful that God has not left me there in my narcissistic cocoon of fanciful perfection. The metamorphosis has been somewhat painful and to a great extent, I'm still flailing – trying to slip my self-centered sarcophagus and emerge as an ill-clad butterfly that can appreciate a moth – but the struggle is better than being dead and being the only one who doesn't know it.
However, there are misdeeds in my life that no amount of auditory origami can make into a swan. Many of these interactions are of the “did you think the speed limit sign was a minimum?” variety. Now, a sober assessment of ourselves should tell us that, as an officer strides to our window, we are dead to rights. We are guilty. Their speed gun isn't malfunctioning, the speed limit WAS posted and over-sized tires can't be blamed for going 27 miles over the speed limit. But that isn't always the case, is it? Somewhere in the back of our minds, our ego flips through its recent rolodex of mental images to the guy who sped past us 5 miles back. Why didn't they stop HIM? My subconscious pulls up the water cooler tale from yesterday in which one of my co-workers made it to work in 17.3 seconds from 50 miles away (or something like that – things tend to get exaggerated when I'm trying to defend myself against over-whelming evidence). Why does HE get away with it and I don't?! Lost in all of the pre-sentence posturing is one fact – I'M GUILTY.
As I have (hopefully) matured in my practice of confession, I believe my approach to even these situations has changed. On a recent trip back from the in-laws in Texas, my family and I were just north of their lovely south central Texas home when the familiar hues of blue and red blazed in my rearview mirror. The rapid deceleration and the chatter from the roadside rattle strip alerted my familial cargo that all was not well in Denmark. I think my kids giggled. I'm pretty sure my wife did not. As a rugged Texas Patrolman ambled vanside, I humbly reached across to the glove box for my insurance and into my wallet for ID. I had acquiesced to the fact that I was indeed speeding... technically. But then, as if to press the issue farther, God had this little gem for me from the mouth of my badge-toting brethren: “Is there an emergency?”
My response went something like this in my mind:
“EMERGENCY?! Dude, I was going 5 miles over the limit! Legend has it that you don't even COUNT that! No, there's no emergency. It's just called 'flow of traffic'... I'm driving a minivan for crying out loud.”
My actual response was:
“No sir. Just headed home.”
Try as I might to rationalize or minimize my behavior, one blaring truth remained – I was busted. The speed limit was 65. I was going 70. It might not have been “much”, but it didn't have to be. There is a law and I broke it. He was merely an enforcer of a law of which I was not ignorant. It was not his fault, it was mine. In the time between his first trip to my window and his second, that truth crystalized and subdued my excuses. In the short span of time during which I can only guess that my friend the policeman was calling my mother and my first grade teacher for character references, I even had a spiritual moment. My stance towards the speed limit looks an awful lot like my stance towards God's law at times. I can treat God's laws in degrees and come to the conclusion that I am not really breaking them – or at least not as much as other people. If I am ignorant, I can lapse into thinking of sin as I often do speeding; it's only wrong if you get caught. Oh, that I might see sin for what it is! And may I know my dead-to-rights guilt. Not for the sake of feeling bad but for the sake of understanding that I stand convicted. The cold testimony of a black and white road sign stood as my accuser. Without its testimony I might try to wriggle free of my sentence. BUT, without its testimony, I would also be ignorant of the beauty of what happened next.
When the officer returned to my window we had a pleasant conversation. Where were we headed, where had we been, …what did I do for a living... I must admit that in a split second about 20 other occupations flashed through my mind. But, when you're already busted for speeding by the world's authorities, why add lying to the list before the heavenly One? So, I tell him I pastor a church. He got a kick out of that. (And mentioned something about the people he pulls over the most are pastors and pilots...) He is apparently a deacon at his church in Texas. Lovely. Our interchange did not change his mind. He had already made his decision regarding my punishment... He would be issuing me a warning with the caveat of “take your time.” He had displayed a micro-vision of a mega-grace. I had no alibi. I was exposed and at his mercy. And he extended grace. That assessment may seem a bit grandiose for a traffic stop, but do you know what affect it had on my driving? In response to the mercy I had received, I was the picture of a law-abiding driver for the rest of my trip and beyond.
If that is my response to not having to pay hundreds of dollars in fines, what OUGHT to be my response to having an innocent substitute stand in for my execution!? In Christ, God has exponentially dwarfed the grace of my peace officer! So, when I see that my life is plagued with idolatrous neglect of pleasing Him, what is missing? Often, what is missing is my understanding of my guilt. Like a flow-of-traffic disciple, I tend to look around at the other offenders and not the offended and think that maybe I'm not really guilty – or at least not AS guilty. Maybe I expect that God allows us to go “five over” in regards to his commands. When I minimize my guilt, I minimize His grace. His grace changes everything. Knowing my guilt and his grace frees me to obey Him – not to stay out of trouble, but because he has forgiven my great trouble. Like the speed limit that day in Texas, the law is no longer a burden because it is no longer a restraint on my will but an avenue through which I can express my great gratitude.
I believe that is what Christ is getting at when he tells some religious leaders that “...her (the woman who wept and anointed Jesus' feet with oil at the Pharisee's house) sins, which are many, are forgiven – for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” (Luke 7:47) In truth, the Pharisee loved little not because he had little guilt, but because he THOUGHT he had little guilt. The issue at hand in that situation is much like the issue at hand in my situation: I love little because I am ignorant of how very much I have been forgiven. Let us not be afraid to confess our guilt – that we might fully see the vastness of his grace. His grace changes everything.