Why recognizing our need for grace enlarges our capacity to give it

British author and thinker G. K. Chesterton was once invited by a London newspaper to offer his opinion on what was wrong with the world. Legend has it he sent a brief letter in reply:

Dear Sirs, I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton

This echoes the thoughts of another philosopher. In one of his final letters, Paul wrote his protégé Timothy and volunteered an answer to a hypothetical question: Who is the world’s worst sinner? Which human being was the biggest problem, in Paul’s mind? Was it Nero, the wicked despot who gleefully slaughtered innocent Christians? Was it the weak people of faith who abandoned Paul in a time of need? Was it the perennially dysfunctional church in Corinth?

None of the above. So who did this aging apostle finger as the chief sinner? Shockingly, Paul pointed to himself (1 Tim. 1:15). Yes, in Paul’s mind, he was the problem. This is the same man who planted churches throughout the known world, penned much of the New Testament canon, and boldly declared the gospel before kings.

Today, we might dismiss Chesterton and Paul as either falsely humble or lacking in self-esteem. But nothing about the lives of these two men suggests a pattern of narcissism or self-pity. Neither were they deluded about the real presence of evil in the world. They understood the problem of sin down to its very core and recognized the hope that sets men free: I am a great sinner, and I have a great Savior.

Our default setting is to say the other guy needs to change. We’re prone to notice everyone else’s need for repentance while ignoring our own. And this double standard nurtures grudges, builds walls, and encourages a suffocating self-justification.

The gospel offers something both shocking and hopeful to relationships. It reminds me of my own need for grace, a poverty I share with the person who has provoked me. This new vision empowers me to see others in a new light. When my wife sins, I stop using it as leverage to get my way. Rather, I offer forgiveness, knowing my capacity for sin is no smaller than hers. When my children disobey, I’m not surprised—only eager to correct them in love. When I read about a famous celebrity who can’t seem to make wise choices, I’m less likely to join the mocking chorus.

There is potential for this sanctifying process every day of our lives and in every relationship. And yet, quite often, when presented with an opportunity for growth, we resist. Since the fall, we’ve been inclined to blame our sin on those around us. We really do think that if only everyone else would change, then we could find peace and joy. This is why we must routinely return to the good news of the gospel. It frees us from the prison of ourselves, opening us up to the Holy Spirit’s regenerating power. I’m amazed at how easily I resist this kind of relational freedom. Recently our family moved from Chicago to Tennessee. Even though we eagerly anticipated this change, the journey tested our relation-ships in many ways, stretching us to the breaking point. Quite often, when problems arose, I was quick to blame everyone around me, mostly my wife. My thinking went like this: If she’d only have done this . . . or If she would just stop doing that, I . . . This kind of reasoning always leads to conflict.

It wasn’t until I stopped to listen to the Holy Spirit and consider my own sin that I found the warm waters of grace wash over my soul. The gospel, applied to our relationships, enables forgiveness and repentance to do its work. Repentance points the finger inward, acknowledging our sin before God and others. And forgiveness stands ready to let Jesus’ mercy flow through us toward those who have hurt us by their words and actions.

Relational intimacy doesn’t take place because two people just “magically” happen to get along. It takes place because two people regularly apply the principles of Scripture to their own hearts, freeing themselves to look up, with fresh eyes, on the one they are called to love.

K. Chesterton and the apostle Paul were both on to something. They understood that the real problem with the world—and relationships for that matter—doesn’t lie out there somewhere. It’s inside me; it’s inside you.

This was originally published by In Touch Magazine.

photo credit: Wendell
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