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)