By Charleston D. Wilson
Have you ever had to deal with stress in a relationship? Never, right? Have you ever been in a relationship with someone, or maybe in a job, that was so stressful — that was so bad — you ended it abruptly and angrily?
Who could forget the way Johnny Paycheck put it in 1977: “Take this job and shove it. I ain’t working here no more!” The Supremes chimed in a decade earlier: “Get out my life why don’t cha babe. Set me free why don’t cha babe.”
Have you noticed how we tend to talk about these suddenly ended relationships after the dust settles? Most of us use some version of the very same idiom. And it goes like this: “I’m so over it” or, less politely, “Well, he’s dead to me!”
The problem, however, is that it’s never really true.
When you’re at O’Leary’s at sunset and your friend opens and up and says, “Well, that was 25 years ago when she left me, and I’m totally over it,” that is called a bald-faced lie. He thinks about her every single day! She is just as present in her absence as she was when she was present.
And don’t listen to George Jones either. I don’t care if it was a number one hit. He didn’t just suddenly stop loving her “today,” and he even admitted, “As the years went slowly by, she still preyed upon his mind.”
Just because we say things like “She’s dead to me” or “He moved to Tulsa and I never think about him” doesn’t really make it true.
St. Paul tried to use the very same idiom with the young church in Rome. In the sixth chapter of his letter to the Romans, he told them the key to the Christian life was to consider themselves “dead to sin.”
And, instantly, they recognized what I’ve been saying so far; namely, that the phrase is liberally applied to all sorts of situations, but rarely means anything more than a cathartic release — a way to deal with conflict and relationship angst.
So they rose up and said things like this:
Paul, surely you’re just using a figure of speech for emphasis. You can’t really mean that because Christ is really alive our sins are really dead! If we go around saying sin is dead to us, the next thing you’re going to say is “Where sin increases, grace abounds all the more.” If we tell our people they are considered dead to sin by no effort of their own, they won’t ever change — we’ll be incentivizing sin! People need managing, not mercy, Paul, and we’ll have bedlam on our hands, if we don’t spend our time running around here imposing religious and moral standards on everyone!
Dead to sin?
In the grand scheme of things, the problem I see most often isn’t so much your sin and mine — it’s not so much our inability to keep religious and moral standards that keeps me up at night.
What frightens me most is our intellectual and spiritual incredulity — the patchwork of doubt, guilt, and fear that refuses to believe that God sees us differently than we see ourselves. “The only fear in our deepening relationship with God,” writes Bishop Michael Marshall, “should be that fear which is born of awe arising from the overwhelming knowledge that we are truly loved by the One who knows us as we truly are and yet who still persists in loving us to the uttermost.”
Think about it this way. Have you ever had one of those dreaded annual performance reviews with your boss or manager at the end of the year? I’ve been on both sides, and I find them completely ineffective, a gigantic waste of time.
No matter how many accolades are mentioned, all that is heard is judgement. “You have increased sales, you closed a record number of deals, you’re ahead of your goals, but can you work on this or that?” And no matter if 7,000 successes are mentioned, all we hear is judgment — “work on this or that.” So, we go home indignant, saying, “Honey, can you believe that she, of all people, had the nerve to say I need to work on my so and so?”
What if, however, on the day of the annual review — after a disastrous third quarter of botched deals and lost sales — we show up for the review and hear only this: “Your pay is doubled; go in peace.”
That would be called grace, and it changes everything, including you and me. And it’s the essential ingredient of a happy existence — it’s how honest-to-goodness everyday folks like you and me actually can change.
Do you want to walk in “newness of life” today?
Think about this. Real change never begins with “You need to work on this or that.” In his recent book Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What To Do About It, David Zahl writes:
Genuine transformation is the fruit of grace, not its precondition. Put in non-religious terms, people only truly change whey they no longer feel they have to in order to be loved.
Mercy and love change people. Demands do not.
Tullian Tchividjian is Billy and Ruth Graham’s grandson, and about seven years ago he wrote a fantastic book called One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace For An Exhausted World. In my opinion, he is preeminently qualified to speak about this topic, especially in light of all the press that has been made about his personal failings.
About midway through the book, Tullian tells the story of how his rebellious misbehavior wound up getting him kicked out of his parents’ house as a teenager:
I am fortunate to have experienced the power of one-way love. Whenever people learn that I was kicked out of the house at sixteen, they invariably ask how my grandparents responded. What they mean is how did Billy and Ruth respond to actual sin in their midst? Weren’t you shaming the family name? The truth is my grandparents never said a single word to me about getting my act together. They never pulled me aside at a family gathering and told me about how I needed to submit to Jesus. Never. Only God knows what they were thinking or feeling … they treated me exactly the opposite of how I deserved to be treated.
For Christians, sin never has the last word. Redeemer, we are “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
The Rev. Charleston D. Wilson is rector of Church of the Redeemer in Sarasota, Florida.