Listen: Chris Witts presents Morning Devotions.
I make a point of not talking about politics on this segment. But I was intrigued by the report in Sydney Morning Herald of Malcolm Turnbull’s action of kindness in a Melbourne street.
He was photographed putting a $5 note in the cup of a homeless man as he was arriving to give an important speech. Mr Turnbull was interviewed on radio about this and here’s what he said: “Every time I see someone in that situation I always think, ’There but for the grace of God goes me’. We should always remember that. It was a human reaction—I felt sorry for the guy.”
I believe there is something very special here in that statement: “There but for the grace of God goes me”. You’ve probably heard that statement before—and I think it’s quite a good and thought provoking one. I suppose it means that something bad which has happened to another person could easily have happened to me. It also may mean: “except for God’s mercy and grace, I, too, may have ended up a beggar seeking help from those that pass by on a busy Melbourne street”.
It is important we do something to help those who need our assistance. Whether or not you give them $5 can be debated, of course. This popular phrase is meant to be a way of expressing humble gratitude to God for the way in which God’s grace has been at work in our lives. It’s a way of recognising that we’re not where we are because of our own wisdom or excellence or righteousness, but because of God’s grace. But often the phrase is used as much as a judgmental comment about the other person as it is a testimony to God’s grace.
The Pharisee and the Tax Collector
The New Testament records a day when two men go into the temple to pray. One is a Pharisee, a prominent religious leader in the community—Pharisees often get a bad rap in the Gospels. While in the temple, he prays a prayer of thanksgiving to God that he is not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or tax collectors. Funny, he didn’t mention pompous people or arrogant elitists. You can almost see the man looking down his nose at the Pharisee and saying, “There, but for the grace of God and my own general awesomeness, go I.”
The other person is a tax collector, a profession that symbolised the lowest of the low in Jewish society. Tax collectors were Jews who worked for the Roman government, collecting taxes from their fellow Jews to give to their Roman oppressors. Tax collectors and sinners are often lumped together in scripture to signify the worst people in society, which is exactly where Jesus spent most of his time. In Luke 18:13 we read, “But the tax collector stood at a distance and dared not even lift his eyes to heaven as he prayed. Instead, he beat his chest in sorrow, saying, ‘O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner’”. His humility was outstanding!
The apostle Paul said, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (1 Cor 15:10 – NIV). He wasn’t boasting about his accomplishments or hard work. In fact he says elsewhere “I am the chief of sinners”. He pointed to the grace of God that saved him and kept his life on track. He wasn’t saying he was better than anyone else—he says, “God made me what I am, and His wonderful kindness wasn’t wasted. As I worked it was really God’s kindness at work, and not me”. (1 Cor 15:10 – NIV).
Instead of comparing ourselves to someone else, we are best served by reciting the old slave prayer used by Dr Martin Luther King at the end of his sermons: “O God, I ain’t what I ought to be, and I ain’t what I’m gonna be, but by your Grace, I ain’t what I used to be.” Thanks to the grace of God. If you want to be different, try talking to God and asking for his help.
How to Experience God’s Grace
How then do we experience God’s grace? We come to the Lord in our weakness, in our inability, in our sin and in our failure. We choose to believe his love and ability to change us, as we rest in his grace. The result is that we grow. Second Peter 3:18 says, “We grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
In the story of the prodigal son in Luke 15, the prodigal son left home, squandered his father’s wealth, finally realising his need and his father’s possible kindness: “How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread but I am dying here of hunger? I will get up and go to my father and I will say to him, ‘Father I have sinned against heaven and in your sight. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me as one of your hired men.” (Verses 17-19).
He humbled himself and he got up and went towards his father. He was truthful when he came back to the father. But you know what? The older brother didn’t like it a bit. The older brother who chastised the father for extending grace to this son represents legalism. Because that older brother was saying, he didn’t keep the laws, he doesn’t deserve your grace. But the father still loved that prodigal son no matter what he had done.
On the cross, Jesus died for our sin, for our badness. We were guilty and he paid for the guilt. When we confess our sins, we are taking care of what is wrong and what the cross already pays for. Being a man or woman of God is a matter of being humble and truthful about our sin and accepting his grace and growing.
John Powell said this, “We think we have to change, grow and be good in order to be loved. But rather we are loved and we receive His grace so we can change, grow and be good.”