When I was 16, my parents kicked me out of the house. They had tried everything. Nothing worked. And it got to the point where my lifestyle had become so disruptive to the rest of the household, that they were left with no choice but to painfully say, “We love you but you can’t continue to live this way and live under our roof.”
A couple years after they kicked me out I was living in an apartment with a couple friends and I called my dad (after losing yet another of my many dead-end jobs–I only called him when I needed something) and said, “Rent’s due and I don’t have any money.” My dad asked, “Well, what happened to your job?” I made up some lie about cutbacks or something. He said, “Meet me at Denny’s in an hour.” I said okay. After we sat down, he signed a blank check and handed it to me, and said, “Take whatever you need. This should hold you over until you can find another job.” He didn’t probe into why I lost my job, or yell at me for doing so. He didn’t give a limit (here’s a $1000). And I absolutely took advantage! I not only remember taking that check and writing it out for much more than I needed, I remember sneaking into my mom and dad’s house on numerous occasions and stealing checks from out of his checkbook. I had mastered forging his signature. I went six months at one point without a job because I didn’t need one! Any time I needed money I would go steal another check and forge his signature –$500, $300, $700. I completely took advantage of his kindness—and he knew it!
Years later he told me that he saw all those checks being cashed, but he decided not to say anything about it at the time. It didn’t happen immediately (the fruits of grace are always in the future), but that demonstration of unconditional grace was the beginning of God doing a miraculous work in my heart and life. My dad’s literal “turning of the other cheek” gave me a picture of God’s unconditional love that I couldn’t shake.
My father died in 2010, twenty-one years after he sent his disrespectful, ungrateful son on his way. And it was his unconditional, reckless, one-way love for me at my most arrogant and worst that God used to eventually bring me back. Until the day he died, my father was my biggest cheerleader and my best friend. I miss him every day.
Steve Brown once said, “Children will run from law and they’ll run from grace. The ones who run from law rarely come back. But the ones who run from grace always come back. Grace draws its own back home.” I ran from grace. It drew me home.
For many Americans of a certain age, the college admissions process is an oppressive and extraordinarily stressful area of life. It is performancism writ very, very large. One’s entire worth and value as a person is boiled down to a short transcript and application, which is then judged according to a stringent and ever-escalating set of standards. High-school seniors are called upon to justify themselves according to their achievements and interests, and as the top schools have gotten more and more competitive, so has the pressure under which our top students place themselves. Watching the students at our church go through it, not to mention my own kids, it’s hard not to sympathize. They feel that their entire lives are hanging in the balance, that where they go to school will dictate their happiness for years to come. It isn’t, of course, but that’s usually beside the point.
A number of years ago, I watched as two best friends, Wayne and Dave, applied for early admission at the same college. That December, Wayne was accepted and Dave was deferred. The next four months, during which Dave waited for the final ruling, looked very different—and very similar—for each of them. They both took basically the same classes and had the same homework load. They spent time with many of the same people socially. But there were also a couple of key differences. No longer under the watchful eye of the all-important transcript, Wayne decided to branch out in his extracurricular activities. He started a band and got into rock-climbing. He even pioneered a program teaching underprivileged kids in the community how to climb. The program still exists, more than ten years later. Meanwhile, Dave got involved in a bunch of extracurriculars that he had never been involved with before, stuff that he thought might boost his chances at getting into his dream college.
By the end of the semester, Dave was exhausted, and Wayne was full of energy. Although Dave did well and kept up his GPA, Wayne got the best grades of his high school career! Freed from having to play it safe, he wrote his papers about topics he was genuinely interested in, rather than the ones he thought the teacher would appreciate, and it showed on the page. Their paths may not have looked very different to the outside eye, but one of these guys was carrying a burden of expectation and one wasn’t. No wonder it felt like such a slog.
The fruit of assurance in Wayne’s life was not laziness but creativity, charity and fun. Set free from the imperative to perform, his performance shot off the charts. Set free from having to earn his future, he enjoyed his present. Set free from the burden of self-focus, he was inspired to serve others—and without being told he needed to do so! This is very similar to the dynamic we see with many of those that Jesus heals.
The message of God’s one-way love for sinners naturally meets resistance from law-locked hearts. It produces objections in those who are wired for earning and deserving, which is all of us. Sometimes these objections are rationalized forms of the emotional offense taken by creatures addicted to their own sense of control. When our sense of pride is attacked, it defends. Sometimes these objections are projections of fear about what “might” happen if people actually believed the message. Sometimes the objections to grace are simply honest rejoinders to a word that can be very hard to swallow. Two of the most frequent objections I encounter—and I encounter them a lot—are that grace makes people lazy, and grace gives people license to indulge their self-absorption, rather than serve their neighbor.
If it is true that Jesus paid it all, that “it is finished”, that my value, worth, security, freedom, justification, and so on is forever fixed, then why do anything? Doesn’t grace undercut ambition? Doesn’t the gospel weaken effort? If we are truly let off the hook, what is to stop us from ending up like George Costanza in the “Summer of George” episode of the sitcom Seinfeld, who receives an unexpected severance package and vows to take full advantage of his freedom only to sit around in sweatpants, watching TV, reading comic books, and eating “a big hunk of cheese like it’s an apple”? Or, as Billy Corgan (lead singer of Smashing Pumpkins) once said, “If practice makes perfect and no one’s perfect, then why practice?” Understandable question.
To be perfectly honest, in the short term, this message often does inspire the kind of sighs of relief and extended breathers that look a whole lot like doing nothing. But if a person can be given the space to bask in the good news for a while (without being hammered with fresh injunctions), we just as often find that the gospel of grace, in the long run, actually empowers risk-taking effort and neighbor-embracing love. It doesn’t have to, of course, which is precisely why it often does. Think about it: what prevents us from taking great risks most of the time is the fear that if we don’t succeed, we will lose out on something we need in order to be happy. And so we live life playing our cards close to the chest…relationally, vocationally, spiritually. We measure our investments carefully because we need a return—we are afraid to give because it might not work out and we need it to work out.
The refrain that applies here is the same one that always applies: everything we need, we already possess in Christ. This means that the “what if” has been taken out of the equation. We can take absurd risks, push harder, go farther, and leave it all on the field without fear—and have fun doing so. We can give with reckless abandon because we no longer need to ensure a return of success, love, meaning, validation, and approval. We can invest freely and forcefully because we’ve been freely and forcefully invested in. Perhaps this is part of why rates of charitable giving are so much higher in places where people go to church. Perhaps not.
The Gospel breaks the chains of reciprocity and the circular exchange. Since there nothing we ultimately need from one another, we are free to do everything for one another. Spend our lives giving instead of taking, going to the back instead of getting to the front, sacrificing ourselves for others instead of sacrificing others for ourselves. The gospel alone liberates us to live a life of scandalous generosity, unrestrained sacrifice, uncommon valor, and unbounded courage.
This is the difference between approaching all of life from salvation and approaching all of life for salvation; it’s the difference between approaching life from our acceptance, and not for our acceptance; from love not for love. The acceptance letter has arrived and it cannot be rescinded, thank God.
I remember reading an article about Netflix a few years ago, the wildly successful video rental and streaming company, that points to what we are talking about here. Netflix, it turns out, has no official vacation policy. They let their employees take as much time off as they want, whenever they want, as long as the job is getting done. The article quoted Netflix’s vice president for corporate communication, Steve Swasey, as saying, “Ever more companies are realizing that autonomy isn’t the opposite of accountability – it’s the pathway to it. Rules and policies and regulations and stipulations are innovation killers. People do their best work when they’re unencumbered. If you’re spending a lot of time accounting for the time you’re spending, that’s time you’re not innovating.’” Their policy, or lack thereof, has not resulted in the company going out of business, which many of us, if we were stockholders, would fear it would. In fact, just the opposite. Freed from micro-managing bosses, their employees work even harder. Obviously this is not the same thing as the assurance we have in Christ, but perhaps it is not so different either.
*Excerpted from the forthcoming book One-Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World (October 2013).
William Graham Tullian Tchividjian (pronounced cha-vi-jin) is the Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. A Florida native, Tullian is also the grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham, a visiting professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, and has authored a number of books including Jesus + Nothing = Everything (Crossway), and Glorious Ruin (David C. Cook).
Brennan Manning died Friday night.
Long before the recent resurgence of interest in “gospel-centrality”, Brennan was a voice calling out in the wilderness – a voice reminding us that we are great sinners but God is a greater Savior. Theologically quirky and personally idiosyncratic, he was nevertheless a broken man on a passionate mission to remind Christians of the truth that while our sin reaches far, God’s grace reaches farther. He desperately wanted bedraggled, beat-up, and burned-out Christians (like himself) to recover a sense of God’s “furious love” for them.
A lifelong alcoholic who spent his entire life ferociously battling the demon of addiction, he was uncomfortably transparent about his weaknesses and failures which made him a prime candidate to teach us something of God’s scandalous grace (2 Corinthians 12:9). Every addict I’ve ever known–every person who has crashed and burned and, as a result, come to terms with their own powerlessness–has taught me something about God’s grace that I would’ve never known otherwise.
Brennan’s life (tragic and sad as it was, according to him) was a living testimony that horizontal consequences for sin (they led to untold miseries in Brennan’s life) cannot forfeit the “no condemnation” that is ours in Christ Jesus. This was his hope. His lifeline. Unable to bank anything on himself, he banked everything on Jesus. In this sense, his well-documented weaknesses were a gift to him. And to us.
I never had the chance to meet Brennan, but I know many who knew him well … and their lives were never the same. He knew Jesus, loved Jesus, and is now with Jesus … finally enjoying the full measure of the freedom he longed to experience.
The night after he died, I sat in bed and read (once again) these amazing words from his bestselling book The Ragamuffin Gospel – a man after my own heart:
Put bluntly, the American church today accepts grace in theory but denies it in practice. We say we believe that the fundamental structure of reality is grace, not works – but our lives refute our faith. By and large, the gospel of grace is neither proclaimed, understood, nor lived. Too many Christians are living in a house of fear and not in the house of love.
Our culture has made the word grace impossible to understand. We resonate with slogans such as:
“There’s no free lunch.”
“You get what you deserve.”
“You want love? Earn it.”
“You want mercy? Show that you deserve it.
“Do unto others before they do unto you.”
“By all means, give others what they deserve but not one penny more.”
A friend told me she overheard a pastor say to a child, “God loves good little boys.” As I listen to sermons with their pointed emphasis on personal effort – no pain, no gain – I get the impression that a do-it-yourself spirituality is the American fashion.
Though the Scriptures insist on God’s initiative in the work of salvation – that by grace we are saved, that the Tremendous Lover has taken to the chase – our spirituality often starts with self, not God. … We sweat through various spiritual exercises as if they were designed to produce a Christian Charles Atlas. Though lip service is paid to the gospel of grace, many Christians live as if only personal discipline and self-denial will mold the perfect me. The emphasis is on what I do rather than on what God is doing. In this curious process God is a benign old spectator in the bleachers who cheers when I show up for morning quiet time. Our eyes are not on God. At heart we are practicing Pelagians. We believe that we can pull ourselves up by our bootstraps – indeed, we can do it ourselves.
Sooner or later we are confronted with the painful truth of our inadequacy and insufficiency. Our security is shattered and our bootstraps are cut. Once the fervor has passed, weakness and infidelity appear. We discover our inability to add even a single inch to our spiritual stature. Life takes on a joyless, empty quality. We begin to resemble the leading character in Eugene O’Neill’s play The Great God Brown: “Why am I afraid to dance, I who love music and rhythm and grace and song and laughter? Why am I afraid to live, I who love life and the beauty of flesh and the living colors of the earth and sky and sea? Why am I afraid to love, I who love love?”
Something is radically wrong.
Our huffing and puffing to impress God, our scrambling for brownie points, our thrashing about trying to fix ourselves while hiding our pettiness and wallowing in guilt are nauseating to God and are a flat out denial of the gospel of grace.
With Brennan, I concur that it is high time for the church to honor its Founder by embracing sola gratia anew, to reignite the beacon of hope for the hopeless and point all of us bedraggled performancists back to the freedom and rest of the Cross. To leave our “ifs” “ands” or “buts” behind and get back to proclaiming the only message that matters — and the only message we have — the Word about God’s one-way love for sinners. It is time for us to abandon once and for all our play-it-safe religion, and, as Robert Farrar Capon so memorably put it, to get drunk on grace. Two hundred-proof, unflinching grace. That’s the kind of drunkenness Brennan would endorse – especially from where he is now. The radicality of grace is shocking and scary, unnatural and undomesticated … but it is also the only thing that can set us free and light the church, and the world, on fire.
Brennan “got” that. He “gets it” even better now.
See you on the other side, brother!
William Graham Tullian Tchividjian (pronounced cha-vi-jin) is the Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. A Florida native, Tullian is also the grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham, a visiting professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, and has authored a number of books, including Jesus + Nothing = Everything (Crossway) and Glorious Ruin (David C. Cook).
Legendary college football coach Urban Meyer tells a remarkable story about his father. During his senior year of high school Urban was drafted by the Atlanta Braves to play major league baseball. Soon after arriving in the minor leagues, however, he realized he didn’t have the necessary talent and called his father to tell him he was quitting. His father informed Urban that if he quit, he would no longer be welcome in their home. “Just call your mom on Christmas,” he said. Needless to say, Urban finished out the season and ended up embracing the incredibly conditional world of his father, a world in which failure was simply not an option, and reflection another word for “weakness wrapped in nostalgia.”
Urban went on to win back-to-back national championships as the coach for the Florida Gators, and some would chalk his success up to his uncompromising attitude and work ethic. It certainly helped. But it turns out that these victories were short-lived, at least as far as Urban was concerned. The screws only got tighter; once he had won those titles, anything but perfection would be viewed as failure. After the 2007 season, Urban apparently confessed to a friend that anxiety was taking over his life and he wanted to walk away. He was quoted in 2011 as saying, “building takes passion and energy. Maintenance is awful. It’s nothing but fatigue. Once you reach the top, maintaining that beast is awful.” One commentator described him as “a man running for a finish line that doesn’t exist.” Soon the chest pains started, and then they started getting worse. A few hours after the Gators winning streak finally came to an end in 2009, Urban was found on the floor of his house, unable to move or speak. He had come to a breaking point. Soon he would resign, come back and resign again.
Urban Meyer’s story may be a bit extreme, but perhaps you can relate. Perhaps you had a demanding father or mother, for whom nothing was ever good enough. Perhaps they are long gone but you still hear their voice in your head. Perhaps you have a spouse that never seems to let up with the demand, for whom successes are not really successes; they’re simply non-failures. You see, as gifted and driven as Urban Meyer was and is, no one can live under the burden of perfection forever. It may work for a while, but sooner or later, we hit the wall. Even when Urban was fulfilling all righteousness, record-wise, he wasn’t doing it out of love of the game or the joy of shepherding young men, but out of fear of weakness and fear of what it would mean if he lost. If righteousness is a matter of motivation as well as action, then even when he was meeting the standards of performance set by his father, he wasn’t really meeting them.
Urban had fallen victim to a vicious form of performancism. He had become a slave to his record, where the points scored on the field were more than just a proud part of his team’s tally but a measure of his personal worth and identity.
I got my first tennis racket on my seventh birthday. And because we had a tennis court in our backyard, I played every day. By ten I was playing competitively. Everyone around me marveled at my natural ability. I would constantly hear how great I was for being so young, how much potential I had to “really go somewhere.” All of this made me feel important. It made me feel like I mattered. Without realizing it I began to anchor my sense of worth and value in being a great tennis player.
I had a problem, though. Whenever I would hit a bad shot or lose a point, I would throw a John McEnroe-like temper tantrum. I would yell, curse, break my racket, etc. Numerous times my parents and coaches would counsel me, telling me I had to get myself under control. But I couldn’t. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t. I didn’t know why back then but I do now. Every lost point, game, set, and match threatened my identity. I unconsciously concluded that if I didn’t become the best, I’d be a nobody; If I didn’t win, I didn’t count. If I wasn’t successful, I would be worthless.
I was experiencing what Paul Zahl calls, “the law of capability”—the law that judges us wanting if we’re not capable, if we can’t handle it all, if we don’t meet the expectations that we put on ourselves or that others put on us. Zahl describes it this way:
If I can do enough of the right things, I will have established my value. Identity is the sum of my achievements. Hence, if I can satisfy the boss, meet the needs of my spouse and children, and still pursue my dreams, then I will be somebody. In Christian theology, such a position is called justification by works. It assumes that my worth is measured by my performance. Conversely, it conceals a dark and ghastly fear: If I do not perform, I will be judged unworthy. To myself I will cease to exist.
After Urban Meyer’s very public collapse, he took some time off. He went on a road trip with his son. He attended his daughter’s volleyball games. He made peace with his father. He even rediscovered the reason he got into football in the first place: love of the game. Eventually he took a new position as coach for Ohio State, and above his new desk he hung his contract—not the contract he signed with the university, but the one he signed with his wife and children, the one which prioritized his family and his health. An expression of love rather than judgment. It’s a beautiful story, and it’s not over.
An article about Urban during his transition mentions a book that he used to live by, written for business executives, called Change or Die. He has talked about the book in speeches, given away countless copies, invited the author to meet with his teams, but never did he realize the book described him, down to a tee. The article recounts an episode that occurs in the car on the way to Cleveland, in which someone reads Urban a passage from the book:
“Why do people persist in their self-destructive behavior, ignoring the blatant fact that what they’ve been doing for many years hasn’t solved their problems? They think that they need to do it even more fervently or frequently, as if they were doing the right thing but simply had to try even harder.”
Meyer’s voice changes, grows firmer, louder. “Blatant fact,” he says. He pauses. A fragmented idea orders itself in his mind. “Wow,” he says. He asks to hear it again. “Blatant fact,” he says. “It should have my picture. I need to read that to my wife. I’m gonna reread that now. Self-destructive behavior?”
This is a man who was addicted to the law, so much so that it destroyed him. Yet his defeat turned out not to be the end he feared it would be, but the beginning of something new, the advent of a man finally free enough from the stranglehold of narcissistic performancism that he could not only laugh at himself but begin to love those around him. Self-destruction was not the end of his story, neither is the Law the end of ours.
The law is God’s first word, but thank God it’s not the last. The last word is the one that comes straight from the mouth of Jesus himself, when he says, “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”
If you’re a Christian, here’s the good news: Who you really are has nothing to do with you—how much you can accomplish, who you can become, your behavior (good or bad), your strengths, your weaknesses, your sordid past, your family background, your education, your looks, and so on. Your identity is firmly anchored in Christ’s accomplishment, not yours; his strength, not yours; his performance, not yours; his victory, not yours.
About Tullian Tchividjian
William Graham Tullian Tchividjian (pronounced cha-vi-jin) is the Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. A Florida native, Tullian is also the grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham, a visiting professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary, and a contributing editor to Leadership Journal. A graduate of Columbia International University (philosophy) and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando (M.Div.), Tullian has authored a number of books including Jesus + Nothing = Everything (Crossway). He travels extensively, speaking at conferences throughout the U.S., and his sermons are broadcast daily on the radio program LIBERATE. As a respected pastor, author, and speaker, Tullian is singularly and passionately devoted to seeing people set free by the radical, amazing power of God's grace. When he is not reading, studying, preaching, or writing, Tullian enjoys being with people and relaxing with his wife, Kim, and their three children—Gabe, Nate, and Genna. He loves the beach, loves to exercise, and when he has time, he loves to surf.
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