The start of a new year is supposed to be a hopeful time. We think about changes we’d like to make and things we’d like to do differently. But after a few decades of adulthood, it can be hard to be so optimistic. When I stop to take stock of my life, I can slip into discouragement. I can think, “I have followed Jesus for so long and it doesn’t seem like I’ve really made progress. It’s impossible that I’ll grow more and root out troublesome habits.” Whenever I think like this, I find an accusing voice is always there, quick to agree. “Give up. What’s the point of trying?”
Recently on this account, I’ve been encouraged by the lives of Peter, Jacob, and David. Their stories show God’s patience in dealing with people who have experienced His grace and yet manage to forget it, sometimes in truly disastrous ways.
Each of them had a promising start with a powerful experience of God. For Peter, it was the moment when he dropped his fishing nets and left to follow Jesus. For Jacob, it was at Bethel, where God confirmed the promise He had given to Abraham. David had his stunning victory over Goliath.
Years passed. Three for Peter, many more for Jacob and David. You’d expect that these life-changing spiritual experiences would result in just that: changed lives. And that’s partly true. They continued in faith. Peter had enough to step out of the boat and walk on the water to Jesus. Jacob acted honorably towards Laban, even when Laban cheated him. David took refuge in God when Saul tried to kill him.
And yet in spite of God’s continued demonstration of His love and care, Peter denied knowing Jesus. Jacob was reduced to fear and trembling at the prospect of meeting Esau 20 years after cheating him out of his birthright. David lusted after Bathsheba and had her husband killed. He didn’t miss the mark by just a little; he committed a massive moral failure.
The worst part is that these awful fiascos happened after they had come to know who God was. These people couldn’t make the excuse that they didn’t know if God could help them out. They had experienced His power many times, but this time they refused to trust Him.
However, this is where it gets interesting. Because instead of God booting them out of His family [as I’d be inclined to do], He kept them in. This required them to confront their sinfulness on a much deeper level than they ever had before. It must have been an excruciating experience after their victories and triumphs for God to realize how far they had fallen, and how much sorrow they must have caused Him. But God didn’t reject them for this. He gave them an even richer encounter with His love and grace.
This is encouraging for me to see. I tend to think the standard faith story is a much simpler and cleaner one. I take an experience like Paul’s, with his stunning change from sin to grace as the norm. I highlight the prodigal son, coming home for good. I begin to think we’re given one shot at grace and if we blow it after that, it’s all over.
But we can see from Peter’s example that coming to faith was only the beginning for him. He hadn’t been able to fully grasp how deeply flawed he was when he first fell at Jesus’ feet. It was only three years later when he experienced a major failure of faith, that he was brought to the end of himself. This time, his repentance touched his very core . I think Paul reached a similar point when he gave up asking God to take away his thorn in the flesh and accepted that God’s grace had to be sufficient for him.
There’s a cautionary tale in these stories though. They show that unfortunately it’s never to late to make a catastrophic failure. Even if I’ve been following Jesus for a while, I can still become blind to my sin and deceive myself. I can act as if God doesn’t love me, or pretend He doesn’t matter. I can take short cuts that leave me spiritually bankrupt while denying that I have any problem [usually shortcuts like relying on cheap grace or trying to create my own self-righteousness].
It would be easier and safer if God had taken away my free will when I decided to follow Him. But He didn’t. He freed me from slavery and let me keep the choice of whether to go my own way or to submit to Him.
But the good news remains. There is no statute of limitations on God’s grace. It doesn’t matter how long I have been following Jesus, or how badly I have disobeyed Him. He never gives up on me. When I get to the end of myself, I find that He is waiting for me. Not to condemn me, but to offer me what I desperately need: mercy, acceptance, unconditional love.
Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let’s not let it slip through our fingers. We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help.
Hebrews 4:14-16, The Message