So I’m sitting in youth group yesterday, listening to someone recite James 1 from memory. It’s a well-done affair, with only an occasional reversion to cue cards. But one verse leaps out and trips me up, and it occurs to me that it’s always done so.
“If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you.” (James 1:5)
There’s a quick splash of non sequitur in there, the kind that makes you blink, jump back, and scan it again to make sure you read it right. As if you were reading this sentence and suddenly octopus. That’s how it feels.
God gives generously to all…without finding fault?
It’s the Bible, so it can’t be a typo (despite what the skeptics say). It must be telling it like it is. And the reason for my dissonance becomes clear all too quickly.
“Without finding fault”? I thought that’s all God ever does.
Don’t get me wrong – God’s got plenty of fault to find in me. He’s certainly entitled to search; our lives and hearts are an open book to God, and he has the right to sanctify us and make us more like him. I’m very accustomed to that process. Any healthy Christian is.
But…without finding fault?
How could he be that generous? I’m not sure I can be trusted with that kind of grace. I sin constantly. If God gives me good things while I’m sinning, wouldn’t that be encouraging and enabling sin? Wouldn’t it make sense for God to wait until I’m in a strongly obedient position before he bestows me with anything? It’s what I’d do in his position.
But I’m not in his position. And as it does so many times, God’s grace defies my expectations.
When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?”
“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”
Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”
The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”
Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”
Jesus said, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15-17)
Do you know what’s happening here? Jesus is reinstating Peter, one forgiveness for every time Peter denied him before the crucifixion. Not just reinstatement even – promotion. It is understood by theologians that Jesus is appointing Peter to lead his post-ascension church.
This is amazing. Mind-blowing. Keep in mind that Peter should have incurred the curse of Matthew 10:33 – “…whoever disowns me before others, I will disown before my Father in heaven.” By our best understanding, there is no reason Peter should even have a place in the Book of Life right now. Yet Jesus not only forgives him, he hands him a place of leadership in the coming kingdom! If I were God writing this story (and Peter is probably glad I wasn’t), I would have moved differently. I would have set up for my church leader someone who stood heroically by Jesus in his darkest hour, not someone who hid and denied him like a coward. Talk about a bad example. (Of course, there was nobody who had stood by him, but as God, I could have ensured there was.)
God leans the other way. He makes an example of his grace. It is that grace he wants us to learn, his generosity and magnanimity. No more “earn the rain” like the Old Testament. God is flooding his kingdom with almost stubborn favor.
And this is not the only such moment. Jesus sees the paralytic lowered through the roof and forgives his sins without being asked, healing him afterwards. He blesses Canaanites, strangers to the Law of Moses and its righteousness. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.
Do I live as if this were true? Does my view of God reflect the gentle graciousness of James 1:5? That night, God used James to tap into deep lies in my heart about who God is and how he operates. Do I really believe he’s gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love? Or am I constantly waiting for the drop of a cosmic other shoe? When I come before him in prayer, do I expect him to triple-check my week’s track record like an IRS agent and apportion my daily bread accordingly? Or do I see the God who promoted Peter?
I’m still not sure how all this works in practice. I still believe in the principle of the talents (Luke 19) and wonder how much of his kingdom must genuinely be earned. Surely some of it must be. There were times Jesus had to withhold from people, and there have been times he’s had to withhold from me.
But this I know: he remains, defiantly and freely, a God of grace. Whatever he’s willing to give is up to him, but that generosity is where I’m starting from. May God help me.
Drawn to redemption by the grace in his eyes
If his grace is an ocean, we’re all sinking