Below is an excerpt from my forthcoming book One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World (David C. Cook, October 2013)
I was sixteen when my parents kicked me out of the house. What started out as run-of-the-mill adolescent rebellion in my early teens had, over the course of a few short years, blossomed into a black hole of disrespect and self-centeredness that was consuming the entire family. I would lie when I didn’t have to, push every envelope, pick fights with my siblings, carry on, and sneak around—at first in innocent ways; later in not-so-innocent ways. If someone said “black,” I would say “white.” Nothing all that terrible by the world’s standards, but given my Christian context and upbringing, it was pretty egregious. Eventually, everyone involved reached the end of their patience, and looking back, I can’t blame them. It’s not as though my parents hadn’t tried every other option. Private school, public school, homeschool, counseling, interventions—you name it.
Anything they did just made me want to rebel more. Eventually, my lifestyle became so disruptive, the fights so brutal, that my parents were forced to say, “We love you, son, but if you’re going to continue living this way, you can’t do so under our roof.”
My parents were well loved in our community, and their friends could see the heartache they were going through with me. I remember two separate instances of people caring enough to ask them for permission to talk with me one-on-one to see if maybe they could get through to me.
The first time was early on, when I was still living at home. Their friend picked me up after school, brought me to Burger King, and read me the riot act. “Look at all that God’s given you. You’re squandering everything. You’re making your parents’ life a living hell, acting so selfishly, not considering your siblings. You go to a private school. You have this remarkable heritage. Shape up, man! Snap out of it.” Of course, he was 100 percent right. In fact, if he had known the full truth of what I was up to (and what was in my heart), he would have had every reason to be even harsher. But in the first five minutes of this guy talking to me, I could tell where it was going, and I just tuned out. As far as I was concerned, it was white noise. I could not wait for it to be over and for him to drop me back off at home.
This first friend was the voice of the law. He was articulating the standard that I was falling short of—what I should have been doing and who I should have been being—and he couldn’t have been more correct. The condemnation was entirely justified. His words gave an accurate description of who I was at that moment. But that’s the curious thing about the law and judgment in general: it can tell us who we are, it can tell us the right thing to do, but it cannot inspire us to do that thing or be that person. In fact, it often creates the opposite reaction than the one that is intended. It certainly did for me! I don’t blame the man in question—he was trying to do the right thing. It’s just that his methods completely backfired.
The second experience happened about a year and a half later, and by this time I was out of the house. This man called me and said, “I’d love to meet with you.” And I thought, Oh no, another one of my parents’ friends trying to set me straight. But I didn’t want to make things any worse between my parents and me, and the free meal didn’t sound too bad either, so I agreed to get together with him.
Once we were at the restaurant, he just looked at me and said, “Listen, I know you’re going through a tough time, and I know life must seem very confusing right now. And I just want to tell you that I love you, I’m here for you, and I think God’s going to do great things with you. Here’s my phone number. If you ever need anything, call me. If you want to tell me something you don’t feel comfortable telling anybody else, call me. I just want you to know that I’m here for you.” And then he switched the subject and started talking about sports. That guy—the second guy—is still a friend of mine to this day. He will forever be marked in my personal history as an example of amazing grace.
Most parents and spouses, siblings and friends—even preachers—fall prey to the illusion that real change happens when we lay down the law, exercise control, demand good performance, or offer “constructive” criticism. We wonder why our husbands grow increasingly withdrawn over the years, why our children don’t call as much as we would like them to, why our colleagues don’t confide in us, why our congregants become relationally and emotionally detached from us.
In more cases than not, it happens because we are feeding their deep fear of judgment—by playing the judge. Our lips may be moving, but the voice they hear is that of the law. The law may have the power to instruct and expose, but it does not have the power to inspire or create. That job is reserved for grace–grace alone.
In Romans 7, the Apostle Paul makes it clear that the law illuminates sin but is powerless to eliminate sin. That’s not part of its job description. It points to righteousness but can’t produce it. It shows us what godliness is, but it cannot make us godly. The law can inform us of our sin but it cannot transform the sinner. Only the gospel can do that. As Martin Luther said, “Sin is not canceled by lawful living, for no person is able to live up to the Law. Nothing can take away sin except the grace of God.”
The law may expose bad behavior, but only grace can woo the heart.