I recently had a conversation with a woman — we’ll call her Myrna — who thinks of her life mostly in terms of failure and disappointment. She believes in God, has heard the gospel, and has been involved in the life of more than one congregation. And years ago, when a minister visited her home, Myrna prayed to receive Jesus as her Savior.
Yet despite all this, I’m pretty sure that she’s never grasped the meaning of God’s grace, never taken hold of that truth for herself.
And I’m very sure that she’s not the only one.
It’s been said that even people with Jesus in their hearts still have Grandpa in their bones. Praying a Jesus prayer doesn’t simply erase what we’ve learned from growing up in our families. Myrna has struggled all her life with the poor self-image that resulted from her mother’s physical and verbal abuse. Her mom, a supposedly Bible-believing and God-fearing woman, terrorized Myrna with vivid images of damnation and apocalypse, and demeaned her with predictions that Myrna would never amount to anything. This, in turn, was the expression of the only “gospel” Myrna’s mom knew: Be good, or be damned.
Myrna wants to believe that she’s good, or at least, good enough. She often compares herself to others, thinking, Well, I can’t be all that bad, can I?
But then she remembers her sins — not just violations of God’s moral law but her mother’s — and doesn’t believe that she can ever be good enough. If someone asks her a prying question that she doesn’t want to answer, she’ll give a half-truth in response; but in doing so, she fears that she is a liar worthy of hell. She’s willing to pray for others, but can’t pray for herself, because that feels too selfish. Who am I, she wonders, to think that God would pay any attention to me?
And, not surprisingly, she is afraid to die. She’s stoic about it, but the anxiety lingers, particularly when she’s alone with nothing to do but think. In part, she’s terrified by the mythic images of hell her mother painted for her as a child. But I suspect that she also fears damnation because she doesn’t want her dear departed mother to have the last word: See? I told you so.
Grace? What’s that? A God who could look at her and see the beauty and perfection and righteousness of his very own Son? Impossible. Unattainable. That’s all very well for someone else, perhaps. But not for me. It can’t be true for me.
Is it true for you?
Funny thing about human beings: we don’t just want lives that are happy and pleasant (though we might take that if it were offered); we want lives that are intelligible. Bad things happen, and that’s okay, as long as they happen for a reason, or at least don’t do too much to upset the way we’ve come to make sense of life, the universe, and everything (yes, I’ve read Douglas Adams).
That simple fact helps explain, in part, why some people have such a hard time accepting the very idea of grace: they can understand it intellectually, but it doesn’t fit the way they’ve been trained to think of themselves, the way they’ve made sense of their lives.
Salvation is a free gift! we tell them. Isn’t that good news?
Well, sort of. But shy of a direct intervention of the Holy Spirit, it’s not so easy to toss aside years of training that says, I have to be good to be loved. I’ll probably never be quite good enough. But I have to keep trying.
Anything else sounds like a trick.
I’ll keep talking to Myrna. As I do, I have to be sure not to send signals that say, The gospel is all so simple; why aren’t you getting this? What’s wrong with you? That will simply play right into that same old game: I know. I don’t know why you’re wasting your time. If I were a better person, I’d get it.
What she needs to see in me is something of the love that her heavenly Father has for her. So pray for me. Pray for Myrna. Pray for the Holy Spirit to loosen the stranglehold of the past.
And pray for all the Myrnas you have in your own life.
Including yourself, if her story is also yours.