God’s grace

Earned Grace – or That Time I Asked My Mom for a Spanking

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.

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My Resolutionless New Year

For as long as I can remember I have been that nerd kid who absolutely loved getting new school supplies. I would burst with excitement over the sharp wood-scent of new pencils and the crisp bindings on composition notebooks (and later in college, slender, trendy moleskins) with all of their empty pages which seemed to me to hold whole worlds of possibility. I have always been a lover of the written word and even though most of my notebooks would soon be filled with notes on lectures and computations and random doodles in the corners when I got bored, each blank book seemed to me to hold secrets that I had the power to unlock by simply setting my pen to the paper. The beginning of a new school year was full of opportunity.

Cool thrift-store notebooks

 Even in college, I loved the first day of classes when we’d get our syllabi and I would carefully copy due dates and assignments into my planner as though they were treasures just waiting for the right moment to be revealed. I loved the first lecture where I would use a new pen and have dramatic internal struggles about what the first worthy thoughts were to put on the page. (I was always a little anxious about marring the page with something silly or insignificant.) The first day or even first week of lectures would be preserved in careful notes written in my most precise handwriting and a mistake was like a horrible blemish on that perfect clean slate. I’ve even been known to tear a page out completely and recopy the whole thing rather than leave the ugly stitches of a crossed-out word on one of those first sacred pages. Of course after a couple of weeks my handwriting grew sloppier, my carefully printed words slipping into a crazy mixture of print and cursive, my full sentence outlines turning into bits of words and phrases scattered haphazardly across the page, my syllabus a portent of doom rather than the exciting excursion into knowledge it had once seemed.

My romanticized view of school supplies

 In many ways, I have a habit of looking at a new year in the same way. There is the initial excitement of the fresh start, as sweet and clean as the crisp pages in a brand new notebook.  There is the anticipation of the beautiful things that might be discovered in the coming days and weeks of this year. There is the hesitation over how to begin. How to place that first mark on something so pure. So altogether holy. Unblemished. But inevitably, it does begin. Usually with a dozen promises to myself, to God, to the world, of all the projects I will begin, the habits I will form or break, the ways I will be better, more, different. Things I want to accomplish. Things I want to change. The parts of me I want to discard like yesterday’s newspaper. The parts I want to sink more deeply into, attributes I desire to weave more deeply into the fabric of my being. The parts I want to take up and try on for the first time and see if they fit. As if any of these things could happen simply because one day rolled into another and we called it 2012.

I find the idea of New Year’s Resolutions too simplistic to be helpful. The idea that I, by sheer force of will and determination, could decide in one day to change the patterns and habits that I’ve been developing for years simply by resolving to do so. I mean, think about it. It isn’t as though I had a magical revelation on December 31 of all the things I wish were different and am now making my first genuine effort at changing them. I am constantly aware of things I want to change, from practical things like being more organized to heart issues like being less selfish. In most cases, they are things I have already tried (many times) and failed (many times) to change. Like my careful notes in my notebook during the first few weeks of a new school semester, I manage to keep some of my resolutions for a few weeks. But slowly and surely (or more often honestly, pretty quickly) I slip back into my old routine, my selfish habits, my less healthy choices, my overly busy lifestyle.

For me, New Year’s resolutions quickly become a reminder of new ways that I have failed. Failed to do what I said I would do. Failed to change things that need to be changed. Failed to keep that clean page of the new year free of angry ink-scarred blemishes. Over the past few years I have stopped resolving altogether, at least officially. But this year I am thinking something new. I am thinking that my failure doesn’t have to be such a negative thing. I’m reminded of another post I wrote many months ago about how ultimately, there is no such thing as ultimate failure, there is only feedback. And looking at it from that perspective I can see that my string of failures are valuable in several ways. At the most basic level, they help me eliminate something that does not work. A “solution” that did not have the intended result. But on a spiritual level failure is a stern teacher, a reminder of my brokenness, of my inability to fix myself, even when I can see what needs to be done. Failure gives witness to my sinfulness. To my need for salvation. And then I remember the great news. The news we celebrated just last week. Salvation is here. God with us. Hope is here.

So instead of making resolutions this year of things I will do or won’t do, I’ve decided to frame it in terms of hopes for this year. The greatest of which is that God would make himself known. That in my weakness, my utter inability to fulfill any of these hopes, I would see any progress as the work of the Giver of every good and perfect gift. That I would see any small successes as an outpouring of grace. That I would understand that in my weakness, I am utterly incapable of making the changes I want to see in my life. But my weakness is the perfect avenue for God’s strength. With that in mind, these are the things I am hopeful for in this year. These are not things I think I can accomplish and they are not items to check off like a grocery list. These are ways I hope to see God work in my life, but hopes I hold with open hands knowing that God’s desires for me may be different than my own.

My hopes in this year:

1. Develop a greater dependence on God and a greater desire to hear his voice and to obey it, both individually, and as a couple

Lily and Jonathan Swing. Courtesy of Asharae Marie.

2. Cherish and invest in the friendships God has given me

Scott and Sarah, some of our new friends. Who wouldn’t want to spend more time with these guys?! (This was at the state fair, by the way. There aren’t giant hotdogs just sitting around NC.)

3. Practice being a better listener. Be slower to speak.

Me listening. Also courtesy of the lovely Asharae Marie

4. Give more than I take. Especially with my husband.

5. Maintain a healthy lifestyle- eating well and continuing to run even after my half marathon is over

In case you never got to see this picture. So true.

 

6. Take time to write. Hopefully finish something I’ve started. It’s been years since I’ve completed something besides a blog post.

7. By this time next year I would like to be in a job or school situation that is more fulfilling, even if it isn’t my ultimate “dream job.” Take a step closer to understanding what God made me for.

I would like a path to follow. Any direction will do. 🙂

8. Bake more! : ) And practice the gift of hospitality that goes along with that.

Confession: I made these cookies like 5 years ago. But it was the only baking picture I could find today. So there.

9. Live an adventurous life, less hindered by fears that disguise themselves as “practicality.” Take opportunities to travel, to love strangers, to try new things, to learn from unexpected teachers.

Tintagel, England. Near Merlin's Cave. Photo by the lovely Jenny Hansma.

10. Find ways to spend time playing with little children (in the non-creepy way!)

Little guy I used to watch. Obvious why playing with kids is on my list. I have to get my baby fix or I'll start wanting one of my own.