I don’t deserve this

Sinners saved by grace. As much as we say we believe that this is the truth of who we are in Christ, we often don’t think and act like it. We may receive the gospel message gratefully, like drawing the Get Out of Jail Free card in the classic version of Monopoly. But it’s not always clear that we ever really understood what it means to be sinners. I mean, nobody’s perfect, right? And surely I’m as good a person as anyone else. Maybe I don’t deserve heaven more than the next guy. But don’t I deserve hell less?

Moreover, we may create communities that one moment are singing of the free gift of grace, and the next moment are sorting ourselves into groups and hierarchies based on merit. Who gave more? Who volunteers more? Who offends our sensibilities? Who seems like they don’t belong?

No, I’m not saying that behavior doesn’t matter. Paul makes that quite clear: grace doesn’t mean that you can do whatever the heck you want and God has to forgive it. But I am saying that we tend to fall all too easily into stereotypes and prejudices that have no place in a community of saved sinners. If we stopped to think about it, we might realize the ways we use sanctified language to show that we’re better or more spiritual than someone else, not because we love holiness, but because we want to be on top.

. . .

Against the common but mistaken assumption that the Old Testament is all about law rather than grace, I’ve suggested that the Psalms amply portray the grace, mercy, and lovingkindness of God. This can be seen clearly, for example, in Psalm 107.

In the previous post, I showed how the psalm contains four separate but highly similar stories of redemption, stories told to encourage worshipers to give hearty thanks for the steadfast love of God. Two of those stories in particular, told back to back, tell tales of pure grace:

Some of the redeemed had been sitting in darkness and deep gloom;
    they were prisoners suffering in chains
    because they had disobeyed God’s instructions
    and rejected the Most High’s plans.
So God humbled them with hard work.
    They stumbled, and there was no one to help them.
So they cried out to the LORD in their distress,
    and God saved them from their desperate circumstances.
God brought them out from the darkness and deep gloom;
    he shattered their chains.
Let them thank the LORD for his faithful love
    and his wondrous works for all people,
    because God has shattered bronze doors
    and split iron bars in two!

Some of the redeemed were fools because of their sinful ways.
    They suffered because of their wickedness.
They had absolutely no appetite for food;
    they had arrived at death’s gates.
So they cried out to the LORD in their distress,
    and God saved them from their desperate circumstances.
God gave the order and healed them;
    he rescued them from their pit.
Let them thank the LORD for his faithful love
    and his wondrous works for all people.
Let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices
    and declare what God has done in songs of joy!
(Ps 107:10-22, CEB)

These people suffered prison chains and severe illness because, the psalmist suggests, they deserved it: they were disobedient, sinful, and wicked. “So they cried out to the LORD in their distress.” The psalmist says nothing of repentance, only desperation — though perhaps the fact that they would seek help from the God they had spurned is a form of repentance in itself. There is no vow of “I promise to be good if you just get me out of this mess.” All the psalmist says is that these people cried out to God.

And how does God respond? Not, “Why should I help you, of all people?” Instead, the psalmist piles on the verbs describing God’s mercy: God saves, brings them out of darkness, shatters their chains and prison doors; God heals and rescues.

You’d hope that these folks would be so astounded to be rescued by God that they wouldn’t have to be told by the psalmist to say thank you. But if we’ve paid attention to the gospels, we know better. Some are grateful indeed, but others are not. Of ten lepers Jesus cleansed, only one returns to give thanks — and a Samaritan at that (Luke 17:11-19). Jesus heals a man from a thirty-eight year long paralysis, and the man rats him out to Jewish leaders (John 5:1-15).

And to teach Peter a lesson about grace, he tells him the story of a servant who lost a gazillion dollars of the king’s money. There was no way to pay it back. The king had him dead to rights, but forgave the entire debt — wiped it off the books — simply because the man begged him for mercy. You’d think the servant would dance with joy and spread the love as soon as he left the king’s presence. But no: he went out and demonstrated his complete cluelessness about the grace he had been given by forcing others to pay back money they owed him (Matt 18:21-35).

Do these people deserve to be healed, to be forgiven of their debts? No. And neither do the people described in Psalm 107. They’ve brought their suffering on themselves by their rebellion toward God.

And yet: God delivers them, simply because they cried out.

We don’t deserve mercy anymore than they did. But such is the character of God. And the proper response to such grace and mercy is first deep gratitude, and then mercy toward others.

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