Grace is love, but love of a special sort. It is love which stoops and sacrifices and serves, love which is kind to the unkind and generous to the ungrateful and undeserving. Grace is God’s free and unmerited favour, loving the unlovable, seeking the fugitive, rescuing the hopeless, and lifting the beggar from the dunghill to make him sit among princes.
– John R.W. Stott, Understanding the Bible
“Well, maybe you need to get another friend.” The words made chills run down my spine, and I could only stare at the coat rack in front of me and clutch my jacket dumbly.
Luckily, I was standing near the door. I cried the entire car ride home, wiped off my face and cleared my throat enough to convince my mother there was nothing wrong when I walked into the house, and then proceeded immediately to my room to continue crying. I had been praying ever since I’d first heard the comment (something to the extent of, “Lord, please don’t let me kill him”), but I decided to kneel. God, I’ve tried so hard to love him. You of all people know that I have. It hurts so badly.
Life has its ironies. I never dreamed that I would ever care enough about Josh to cry over him. He had always been around, so to speak. Only two months younger than me, he was also surprisingly similar in personality. He was an only child, and I was the oldest of two, so I suppose we were destined from birth to be overachievers who matured too soon. Both of us politely ignored each other, relishing our victories in grade-point averages and church competitions. When there were particularly unforgivable grievances committed, tempers (and fourth-grade egos) would flare. (One such situation left Josh gasping for air and me contemplating a threat from my mother that if I ever punched anyone again, I might not live to tell about it.)
It was safe to say that little love had been lost.
The more I prayed, the more I read the words of the apostle in 1 John 3:1 praising “the love the Father has lavished on us,” the more I wondered just how much love I had been lavishing recently. Fortunately, both Josh and I had mellowed out a bit since our days as fourth-grade nemeses, and we talked on the phone and ate out a few times. My picture of him became less obnoxious-spoiled-rich-kid and more someone lonely, hurt and misunderstood.
The Saturday night before Christmas found me holed up in front of a computer screen with a Bible in my lap and a highly sugared, highly caffeinated grape soda at my side, typing. I’d long since bought gifts for most of my friends, but I couldn’t shake the realization that Josh needed more than just another CD. So, being the eccentric writer that I am, I typed away until 4 in the morning, pecking out Bible verses and things that I wanted to tell him but couldn’t ever say right in person.
The following evening, after a classy fast food dinner and a Christmas cantata, I drove him back to his car at a parking lot where he had left it. We pulled in, and he was about to open his door and say good night when I interrupted him, eloquently mumbling something like, “Um, here’s your present.”
I wasn’t exactly sure what his reaction would be. I was having that last- minute gift-giving anxiety, wondering if I would freak him out or seem obsessive. But I never expected him to start crying.
We sat there for about 15 minutes, him wiping at his face, me concentrating very hard on peeling my cuticles. Finally he spoke up. “This is so nice,” he said. “Nobody’s ever gotten me anything this nice. You must have spent hours on this.”
I looked up at him, and he continued. “I really don’t deserve this,” he sniffled, repeating himself several times. “I don’t deserve this.”
A part of me wanted to relish his compliments, smiling and applauding myself for my generosity, but the other part, the one that had become less me and more God, inwardly screamed, No! This is not how it’s supposed to be! This is not how I meant for you to feel! “Yes, you do,” I replied, not sure of what else to say.
“But I’ve treated you so awful in the past,” he shot back. “You’re the last person that should be giving me this.”
We talked for about 20 minutes more before we parted ways and drove home. I told him that yes, he was worth this and much more, that the awfulness had definitely been a two-way street, and that he was loved. It was one of those glowing experiences, when you feel God, know you did the right thing, know that all’s right in the world.
After the book, Josh and I started spending more time together. We ate fast food often (grilled chicken sandwiches and side salads, mind you, with fat- free French) and talked on the phone for hours. He jokingly started referring to me as his therapist. It was all well and good until my absentmindedness caused me to make a little innocent mistake that Josh interpreted as not so innocent.
I apologized, genuinely sorry that I had disappointed him, but he just stared at me and ignored my smiles. When I brightly asked him how he was doing, he muttered a monosyllabic response and walked away. A few days later, I overheard Josh telling someone else that he didn’t think he could trust me anymore.
Then came The Comment. It was a simple sentence, not even spoken by Josh himself, but in light of my efforts to befriend him, it seemed particularly biting. Every time I managed to still my sobs, I heard the sick sound bite again and shivered in hurt and anger.
Kneeling by my bedside in the midst of clothes, books, and unfinished term papers, I played back the past couple months in my mind. The book. The night of the cantata. Our phone conversations. My mistake and the conversation I overheard. And I realized that I had a long, long way to go until I would be holy.
I was regretting that I had taken all that time in December to make a gift for someone who was all too eager to be rid of me. Would I have done it in the first place if I’d seen that this was going to happen? Probably not.
Then I remembered Jesus, crying out because he had been forsaken by His Father for the sake of humans who would later all too willingly forsake Him for a bit of popularity, acceptance, or personal gain. I saw myself and all the times I’d repaid His mercy with pain, and I wondered if the sins of the believer aren’t the most painful to God. We who sing of our undying love and then are too ashamed to even speak His name out in the “real world.” All the more amazing that Christ knew even this and still chose agony and shame and death.
Grace, I finally understood, is not something that’s warm and fuzzy, at least not to the giver. Grace is bitter, painful, lonely, often costing your pride and your dignity and giving little back to you in return. And God reminded me that in was in times like this that He was answering my prayers to be like Him. Christ drank of this bitter cup, and now it was my turn to follow in His steps. I was forgiven, and I had little choice. So I forgave.
Josh and I still have conflicts. Maybe we will never be the best of friends, but I’ve learned well the power of forgiveness to soften my heart, heal my scars and break the chains that bind me.
It wasn’t until a couple months later that I learned my final lesson in grace, at least for the purposes of this story. I was sitting on my front porch, hugging my knees against my chest and staring at the reflection of the sunset in the pond in front of my house. Pen in hand, I was trying to capture the moment on paper and failing miserably, so I set my notebook on the ground and simply watched. Moved by the beauty of it all, Josh’s words from months ago came to my lips: “I don’t deserve this.”
See, that’s the thing about grace: No one ever deserves it. And whether it’s a sunset or salvation, the very undeservedness is what makes it what it is. I sat there, letting God’s love wash over me, until the sky finally grew inky black, and He spoke to my heart the words that had eluded me when I had spoke to Josh that night in the car. “I made this for you. Not because you deserve it, not because I want you to feel unworthy. Just because I love you.”
Finally understanding it all, I murmured back a reply. “Thank you.”
Copyright 2002 Christina Turner. All rights reserved.