Grace Abuse (Yancey)

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The potential for “grace abuse” was brought home to me forcefully in a conversation with a friend I’ll call Daniel. Late one night I sat in a restaurant and listened as Daniel confided to me that he had decided to leave his wife after fifteen years of marriage. He had found someone younger and prettier, someone who “makes me feel alive, like I haven’t felt in years.” He and his wife had no strong incompatibilities. He simply wanted a change, like a man who gets an itch for a newer model car.

A Christian, Daniel knew well the personal and moral consequences of what he was about to do. His decision to leave would inflict permanent damage on his wife and three children. Even so, he said, the force pulling him toward the younger woman, like a powerful magnet, was too strong to resist.

I listened to Daniel’s story with sadness and grief, saying little as I tried to absorb the news. Then, during the dessert course, he dropped the bombshell: “Actually, Philip, I have an agenda. The reason I wanted to see you tonight was to ask you a question that’s been bothering me. You study the Bible. Do you think God can forgive something as awful as I am about to do?”

Daniel’s question lay on the table like a live snake, and I went through three cups of coffee before I dared attempt an answer. In that interval I thought long and hard about the repercussions of grace. How can I dissuade my friend from committing a terrible mistake if he knows forgiveness lies just around the corner? Or, as in Robert Hughes’s grim story from Australia, what’s to keep a convict from murdering if he knows in advance he’ll be forgiven?

There is one “catch” to grace that I must now mention. In the words of C. S. Lewis, “St. Augustine says ‘God gives where He finds empty hands.’ A man whose hands are full of parcels can’t receive a gift.” Grace, in other words, must be received. Lewis explains that what I have termed “grace abuse” stems from a confusion of condoning and forgiving: “To condone an evil is simply to ignore it, to treat it as if it were good. But forgiveness needs to be accepted as well as offered if it is to be complete: and a man who admits no guilt can accept no forgiveness.”

Here is what I told my friend Daniel, in a nutshell. “Can God forgive you? Of course. You know the Bible. God uses murderers and adulterers. For goodness’ sake, a couple of scoundrels named Peter and Paul led the New Testament church. Forgiveness is our problem, not God’s. What we have to go through to commit sin distances us from God—we change in the very act of rebellion—and there is no guarantee we will ever come back. You ask me about forgiveness now, but will you even want it later, especially if it involves repentance?”

Several months after our conversation, Daniel made his choice and left his family. I have yet to see evidence of repentance. Now he tends to rationalize his decision as a way of escaping an unhappy marriage. He has branded most of his former friends “too narrow-minded and judgmental,” and looks instead for people who celebrate his newfound liberation. To me, though, Daniel does not seem very liberated. The price of “freedom” has meant turning his back on those who cared about him most. He also tells me God is not a part of his life right now. “Maybe later,” he says.

--What's So Amazing About Grace? (Philip Yancey)