There’s a story my parents used to tell about me as a child. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I remember where we lived at the time so I had to have been between 7 and 9. The story goes like this – one day, out of the blue, I came to my mom and told her I thought I needed a spanking. She asked why I thought that. Had I done something wrong? (She didn’t know of anything I’d done).
I told her I kept “thinking bad thoughts” and that I thought if I had a spanking they would go away. She was (understandably) a little baffled. But in our family, we were spanked for disobedience or bad attitudes. If I felt something was wrong in my heart, maybe a spanking would help me correct it. She’d never had something like this happen before and, not knowing what else to do, she reluctantly gave me a little spanking. After a few halfhearted licks with the paddle, she asked, “Do you feel better now?” And I told her, “I think I need a few more.”
My parents used to share this story (with my permission) in the Growing Kids God’s Way classes they taught at our church and school when I was in jr. high and high school. I didn’t attend the classes so I’m not sure what the context was for sharing it, but I can safely bet it was part of some discussion on spanking and discipline. At the time we all thought it was a kind of funny story that illustrated how kids know when they are out of control and how they crave discipline to help them gain control again. Also, I sort of liked this story because it made me feel like the best kid ever. What kid asks to be punished for something nobody knows they did? A perfect kid, that’s who! (That’s what I like to believe anyway).
As an adult I have a very different reaction to this story. As a child, I certainly didn’t understand everything I was feeling or what my motivations were. And even as a teenager, I was either not mature enough, or not distanced enough from that event to recognize those feelings. But now, when I remember that story, I cringe. Because I don’t just remember the story or what happened. I remember what it felt like. Now I understand that this was an early manifestation of something I’ve struggled with all of my life – the inability to accept grace without suffering or punishment.
I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but this is what was happening in my mind and heart that day. For some reason, curse words had starting popping into my head. I was a child, so they weren’t really connected to particular situations – I wasn’t thinking them in moments of frustration or anger. I was simply thinking them. A stream of curse words running through my head while I was playing. I knew this was wrong and I felt guilty, but I couldn’t figure out how to make it stop. I apologized to God over and over, but I couldn’t seem to stop doing it.
I didn’t get spanked often growing up. Apart from one year when I was 4 and decided to be a holy terror, I got spanked a few times a year on average. It was the standard discipline in our home for anything that fell under the category of rebellion and I have 3 siblings, so it wasn’t unusual for someone to get spanked, but I was pretty well behaved after that one bad year and didn’t act out very often. I didn’t know whether it was because the result was restored relationship with my parents or because it represented repentance in my heart or simply because of the catharsis of a good cry, but I knew that I felt better after a spanking.
So at this point, I was feeling horrible guilt and shame about all of these curse words in my head. I knew I was doing something wrong. And the only thing I could think of that might make me feel better was a spanking. See, I strongly correlated forgiveness with punishment. In my mind, forgiveness wasn’t just the thing that followed punishment. It was actually produced by punishment. In other words, I did not believe that I could have forgiveness or experience grace unless I had experienced punishment.
Punishment and consequences aren’t the same thing. Consequences are the natural and unchangeable result of a certain actions. Punishment is “suffering, pain, or loss that serves as retribution.” Grace doesn’t remove consequences. It removes guilt and shame. It removes the need for punishment or penance.
What I was doing was trying to use punishment to remove guilt. This is dangerous thinking. This is the child’s version of the “mortification of the flesh” that has led some to self-flagellation. This is believing we have to earn love and forgiveness—either through good actions or through suffering. And that isn’t the story of Christianity.
I want to take a moment to say that I do not blame my parents for this in any way. I firmly believe that if they had understood what was going on inside of me they wouldn’t have spanked me – and they certainly wouldn’t have told the story later. But they were still new in their faith and learning to be parents and certainly there was no textbook answer to this situation. This post isn’t about spanking. I’m not here to debate whether parents should spank their children or not, so please don’t get side-tracked by the details. This is about grace and about my inability to accept it.
The feeling I had that day has come up many times since. I was 17 when I got my driver’s license. I was a nervous driver – always afraid of making a mistake – afraid to be in control of something as powerful as that engine wrapped in steel and glass. I didn’t trust myself with it. Ironically, I got into an accident that totaled my mom’s car the very first day I drove it by myself.
The thing that stood out most to me that day and in the weeks that followed was how NOT angry my parents were. I wanted them to yell at me, to tell me they were disappointed, to punish me in some way. Instead they were just happy that I was OK. They knew I wasn’t being careless, I was just inexperienced and I had an accident. I didn’t need correction or discipline. I needed more confidence.
But I was plagued with guilt – the kind of guilt that makes you feel sick in the pit of your stomach. No one was making me feel bad or holding it over my head, but I was filled with an overwhelming sense of shame. I had screwed up and I had a hard accepting that I was completely forgiven and unconditionally loved.
Why is it so hard to accept grace? And why is it so much easier to extend grace to others than to ourselves?
Now that I’m an adult, I understand this part of myself. I see it in my marriage. When I really mess up, my husband forgives me and moves on like it never happened. And I catch myself thinking “I’ll make his favorite dinner and do all the chores this weekend and I won’t ask him to help with anything, and I’ll iron those shirts I keep forgetting about, and I’ll wear the sexy undies even though they are really uncomfortable, and I’ll give him a lot of compliments.” Of course, these can be great ways to show love to my husband. But not when I’m doing them as self-inflicted penance.
I can’t seem to wrap my mind around a grace that is unearned or forgiveness that comes punishment-free. Believe me, I’ve spent a lot of time trying. But I had a moment of epiphany recently. Maybe I can’t wrap my mind around it because I’m not supposed to.
Maybe I am not supposed to understand unearned grace because grace didn’t come free. Grace came at the price of Love’s only son, stretched out on a tree. Maybe I’m not supposed to embrace a forgiveness that comes without suffering because Love did suffer.
Maybe my problem isn’t that I think grace and forgiveness cost something. Maybe my problem is accepting who it cost. Maybe my problem is that I can’t wrap my mind around, “It is finished.”
“Because the sinless savior died
My sinful soul was counted free
For God the just was satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.”
My sister sang this song at our wedding. I wish I had a recording of her singing it to share, but I really like this arrangement too.