'A FORTIORI' GRACE (Part 1) ~ 1/31/11

Hitler. Stalin. Pol-Pot. Bin-Laden. The names ring out like a ‘who’s who’ list from the pit of Hell. We read them off and, in our minds, we see evil, almost unanimously. It’s so easy. Maybe it’s too easy. I’m repeatedly surprised by the passion for judgment I hear in connection with these names, from people who normally consider themselves highly tolerant. Apparently, there’s a point-of-no-return to the sacredness of modern tolerance, a point that’s ‘so bad,’ the evil of it trumps mercy and forgiveness without a second glance. These are the people we’re forgiven for hating.

One of the most common questions I’m asked about, when I talk with someone who’s troubled about aspects of Christianity, is this thing we call ‘grace.’ Not about how wonderful it is… usually the question is about how hard it is to swallow. About how cruel or unreasonable or unfair it is. Let me explain this reaction, in case it confuses you.

On May 10, 1994, a man convicted of killing, abusing, dismembering and in some cases even consuming 17 men and boys between 1978 and 1991, made a confession of faith and was baptized while in prison serving 15 life terms. His name was Jeffrey Dahmer and, inevitably, his name comes up in the challenges I hear to the fairness of grace. The real issue isn’t whether or not Dahmer’s conversion was sincere (I believe it was)—the real issue is whether Dahmer’s conversion was possible. This is the idea that really upsets people; that God could forgive such evil. That it could be possible for such an evil man to escape eternal judgment and get a second chance.

Grace can just seem so unfair.

I recently read a less gruesome but similarly troubled reaction to grace in Leif Enger’s National Bestselling novel, Peace Like A River. At one point the narrator tells the story of watching his godly father get unjustly humiliated and fired by a horrible boss (‘Mr. Holgren’), who happens also to have something like chronic facial boils. Without a word, the narrator sees his father suddenly but gently touch his boss’ face before leaving the confrontation. Looking first after his father, then back to the stunned antagonist in disbelief, the boy is shocked to discover that the man’s complexion has been instantly and completely healed. “Listen,” he says—
There are easier things than witnessing a miracle of God. For his part, Mr. Holgren didn’t know what to make of it; he looked horrified; the new peace in his hide didn’t sink deep; he covered his face from view and slunk from the cafeteria. I knew what had happened, though. I knew exactly what to make of it, and it made me mad enough to spit. What business had Dad in healing that man? What right had Holgren to cross paths with the Great God Almighty? The injustice took my breath away, truly it did.

Grace can just seem so unfair.

If there’s one take-away from the book of Jonah, it’s that God is more merciful than human beings are. That fact alone is a judgment on the state of our moral blindness. If you’ve read these two stories and found yourself agreeing with the verdict of ‘unfair grace,’ I have a challenging proposition for you: I propose that your problem with grace isn’t that it’s unfair— your problem with grace is that it’s perfectly fair; that it treats everybody exactly the same. I think you love grace when you get it. I think you hate grace when those you judge to be ‘undeserving’ get it.

Have you ever tried to see a freckle on your eye-lid? Kind of hard, isn’t it? We can see the freckles on someone else, we can even see the freckles on our own arms and legs, maybe even the freckles on our own nose if we get cross-eyed enough for a moment. But a freckle that close to our own eye? Not likely; the freckles closest to our eyes are, ironically, the hardest to see. There’s a reason Jesus talks about ‘specks in eyes’ in his famous Matthew 7 treatise on judgment. It’s a cautionary tale about ourselves that we ignore, again and again, when it comes to the hometown of evil. I was startled the other day while watching a National Geographic special called “The Science of Evil.” Startled, because I watched the documentary certain I would witness scientists, reasoning evil away into some relativistic point of view. Although they did not make serious reference to the spiritual realm, the researches did come to the unnerving conclusion that, according to their findings, anyone is capable of the worst kinds of evil, given the right circumstances—anyone. Wow.

The apostle Paul understood exactly what Jesus was getting at with the whole ‘speck in the eye’ parable: Be careful of judging others without first taking an honest look at yourself! So Paul advises in Romans 12:3—
“For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you.” Instead of looking at others and seeing evil, Paul followed his own advice and looked at himself first. Here’s how he judged what he saw there—“Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Timothy 1:15). “Chief of sinners?” we think—really? Hitler, probably. Stalin, very likely. Dahmer—? He’s right up there. But Paul? This giant of an apostle, the archetypal missionary who penned between 13-15 books of our Bible? He hardly seems to fit into the same galaxy, much less the same category as these other men. So how can he claim this? Why? I think there are two reasons... 
(Continued in Part 2 ABOVE, coming soon) 


The light outside was fading to blue when we took our last walk as a family of four. We trundled slowly around the block and pretended not to covet this house or that one, the three of us holding hands while the oldest boy wandered behind or ahead, searching the skies for mysteries and the ground for clues.

The contractions had begun in earnest about an hour earlier, when I got a call at the office. “Are you coming home soon?” my wife asked. I glanced at my watch, oblivious to her tone. “Soon. I’ve only got a half-hour to go.” A heavy silence on the other end was the first hint of things to come. “Josh… I need you to come home. I’m not feeling great.” Jolted from idiocy, I grabbed my keys and ran. I was met at the front door by a woman of poise and patience who handed me several bags for the car. “Well?” I asked, eyebrows raised as I took the bags from her. “I’m not feeling great,” she repeated, “but… let’s go for a walk after you put those in the car. Just in case.”

You might find it odd, this stall tactic in the face of impending labor, even depraved, in light of our ‘hour-from-the-nearest-hospital’ mountain-town status. But that’s only because you haven’t experienced ‘FLG.’ A frantic sprint down the mountain the week before and 24-hours of false labor later, my wife and I had experienced, identified and labeled a new psychological phenomenon we now refer to as ‘False Labor Guilt.’ Chief symptoms? Cagey replies to pain-level questions, second-guessing phone calls to family members and stalled departure plans to emergency room check-in stations, all in the name of avoiding compounded false-alarm embarrassment. By the time we took our walk on that gloamy evening in January, we were well down the road of symptom #3. Almost too far.

It was dark by the time we got on the road. Like firefly watching on a summer night, I monitored the progress of labor by the light of her cell phone, which she activated intermittently to time her contractions. My stress levels increased steadily, in tandem with the frequency of illumination, until we arrived an hour later at the home of family friends. Dropping off the kids and feigning confidence, we hugged the boys and waved, heading off to our appointment with Mercy.

We stopped twice on the way to the front desk, just to let her breathe. Strangers offered kind smiles and knowing glances. These did nothing to ease the pain, but still, she returned their stares with laughter and a winking smile. How did she do it? Shuffle, breathe. Shuffle, breathe—laugh, wink. Shuffle, breathe, shuffle breathe. Finally, endless corridors and an elevator ride from hell later, we found the right green linoleum countertop and were admitted. It was 7:30PM.

An hour later and I was practicing Facebook intercession for the anesthesiologist to arrive. Stat. I alternated between status updates on my Blackberry, holding my wife’s hand and staring at the mountain ranges that continued to erupt spontaneously on the computer monitor next to the bed, but when I turned back to look at her, I froze.

I’ve seen things in people’s faces before, things I’m sure I wasn’t intended to see. I’ve seen a look of pure and utter horror on the face of a childhood friend as the vine he was on suddenly and abruptly snapped off at the pinnacle of his swing. I’ve seen a look of sheer panic on the face of a fellow seminary student as his name was called, for the first time, to stand up and preach before God and the entire preaching class. But there’s another thing I’ve seen in people’s faces, seen on the face of a 5year-old missionary kid as his parents drove away and left him at boarding school, seen on the face of an addict about to begin a long and tortuous journey of recovery. It’s the same thing I’ve seen in the faces of heroes from dramatic, heart-wrenching movies, the kind of movies which— incidentally— I love and my wife loathes.

My wife only watches movies with happy endings, or else the ones that are so obviously absurd that the endings are completely irrelevant anyway. But never dramas. Schindler’s List? Forget it. The Mission? Yeah right. I remember the last trip we made together before getting married. We flew to New York city to visit the seminary I’d be attending and, in the process, watched perhaps the last action/drama flick we’ve seen together since: Gladiator. It might just be my favorite movie of all time, but, of course— my wife hated it. And yet… when I looked at her in the harsh glare of the Mercy Hospital delivery room, eyes closed as she battled her way through yet another contraction, what I saw there was the same thing I saw in the face of the gladiator about to face his nightmare. It was the same thing I saw in the face of the addict and in the face of the trembling 5year-old missionary kid. The look I saw was courage.

It was so clear to me, so substantive and palpable and gut-wrenchingly real that I felt, had I taken a picture of her and shown it to complete strangers, they would have instantly identified the look on her face. My wife will, of course, challenge these observations and counter with claims of great fear rather than great courage. I will, of course, then remind her that it simply isn’t accomplishment if there aren’t risks. That it simply isn’t courage if you aren’t afraid.

The great irony is that my wife is the hero of her own drama, and still, she got her happy ending. Samuel Edward Thompson was born at 8:59PM, one and a half hours after my wife walked in through the hospital doors, smiling and winking. He weighed 7lbs, 14oz. and was 20 inches long. And so it was that my gladiator wife faced her nightmare, with a courage so admirable it made this particular man feel fearfully, humbly, thunderously PROUD. Gladiator… I salute you.


My office is a magical place, 'a crossroads,' as someone recently called it, where the fascinating and profound, to the utterly bizarre intersect to give me headaches or inspiration (depending on my coffee intake). One of my newer friends in Weaverville, Joshua Ottem, dropped by the other day and began playing this familiar song by the Ramones while I was talking on the phone. I decided it was too good to enjoy alone.

Ottem in Winter, Unplugged from Josh Thompson on Vimeo.
*Grace induces faith & Grace is obligated to faith ~