My family and I live in China. We once hosted an ex-military American man who had served in Afghanistan. At 6 feet, 6 inches and a slim 250 pounds, this man could easily intimidate a Hell’s Angels gang member. He had sleeves of tattoos on his arms. Some of his tattoos were in Chinese script and happened to be profanity! Since his early medical discharge from the military, he had come to know Jesus and was radically transformed from the inside out. His angry, selfish core had been exchanged for a gentle, sweet spirit. During his several days with us, many people would come up to him and say, “You were in the military and you have these dirty tattoos, but you say you are a Christian. How is that?” Then he would reply, “That’s a great question. Can I tell you my story?” He would proceed to tell his eager listeners how Jesus’ love changed him. I noticed how they would listen, riveted to every detail of his journey. And then I realized how the scars of our sin can be redeemed to make more of God’s love and grace. When asked if he would ever get his tattoos surgically removed, he said, “No way. They open up way too many doors for me to share my testimony.”
I have heard some say, "I know we have grace, but there's a higher calling." While it is a good goal to not want to take advantage of grace, most of us need to know that grace is actually saying, “Take advantage of me! Just try me and see what happens to you.” That’s why it’s a scandal. Because when we learn that we can take advantage of God’s grace and he will still love us, it is exactly at that point that we will never want to sin again. Really knowing his unconditional love and acceptance—knowing that we can lean into it and it will never fail us—leads us to love him more and rips out the roots of all other appetites and passions that are not yet surrendered to that grace. We love him because he first loved us.
The truth is, we actually live in a free world where people have the power to kill other people, to sexually abuse children, to hate everything good, to cause harm to their own bodies—even the ultimate harm of suicide. With that “freedom,” God has provided even greater grace to cover all of these things under the blood of Jesus. The only reason we hide from that grace is because we don't believe God's love and forgiveness are capable of handling our messes. The more we believe this lie, the more we will stay in the dark and continue doing more awful and more sinful things. The sooner we believe that we can sin and God will still forgive us, the sooner we will turn from evil and live in the light.
But if you want to hide from grace and stay removed from God, get religious. Religion is the best place to hide from grace. The history of Israel in the Old Testament proves this. They often got stuck in this downward spiral into more and more depravity until they ended up eating their children and sacrificing them in the fire. Sick. The only way to break this vicious cycle is through leaning into the Lord's compassion and mercy. Trusting in more laws to self-correct adds fuel to the fire. Paul says it emphatically in Galatians, “If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Gal. 2:21 NIV) It is interesting that in Israel’s history there was an increase of religious legalism at the same time social injustice grew. This is because flagrant sin and legalism (read, hypocrisy) are two sides of the same coin. One is out in the open and one is hidden. In fact, religious legalism is worse as it hides its hypocrisy. Broken people know they are broken. Religious rule-followers think they are fine. In the Old Testament, the recurring plea from the Lord and his prophets was: "Return to the Lord, who is slow to anger and abounding in love. He will be gracious toward you and restore you" (paraphrase mine). Leaning on their own understanding and creating more rules (and thereby more hypocrisy) drew them farther away from his protective covering.
Rules are necessary only when we're not living by the law of love. And they're only useful to protect ourselves from further hurt or disappointment. When we put rules in place, it is based on the assumption that we are still hurting, fallen, bleeding creatures that don't have love, honor, sacrifice and trust as the foundations of our relationships. By walking according to the Spirit—when we live by the law of love, we put to death (i.e. have no need of) all of the "Do not touches” and "Do not eats” and all the other rules we thought were necessary to live rightly (See Col. 2:20-23). There's room for condemnation when I walk according to rules. There is no room for condemnation when I walk in relationship with the Spirit. Author and pastor Danny Silk says this in his book, Culture of Honor,
"If I still have a mindset informed by the law of sin and death, I hear Jesus saying, 'Keep your relationship with My rules!' An Old Testament perspective makes John 14:15 sound like another attempt of God to control us: 'If you love Me, you will obey my commandments.' The problem is, of course, there is no list of commandments from Jesus. We may attempt to assemble one in an effort to protect our relationship to His rules, but that is not the point of that verse. Jesus is not trying to introduce the New Old Testament to those He's died to make free! But when we hear this command from the mindset of the law of Christ, we hear, '...It is your attention to our relationship and your ability to manage yourself in this relationship in order to create and sustain intimacy that manifests the law of life in Christ. Intimacy is how you learn what is important to Me, and if you love Me, you'll adjust your behavior to protect My heart.'" pg. 86,87
Remember, you’re more likely to meet Jesus in the pub, the drug alleys and the hideouts of your life. That’s where Jesus found the lost in the New Testament and that’s where he wants to find you. Because he’s not looking for your attendance in religious services. He’s looking for your heart. If your heart is in some illicit desire or addiction, be forewarned, Jesus is coming. And when he finds you in that space, that place that you thought only you knew about, the place you never expected to see Jesus, a light gets turned on. He puts out his hand, pulls you up onto your feet, brushes the dust off of your shoulders, wipes the dirt mixed with tears off of your face, smiles light into your heart and says, “C’mon, let’s get this cleaned up.” He hands you a broom and a bucket and he gets down on his knees and starts scrubbing. The place that you thought was your den of sin, he is now turning into a sanctuary…a garden of beauty…a playground for children to play in again…a safe place for family.
And you see that you were loved all along. You were never turned away or rejected. His judgment of you was never as harsh as your own. You had just been resisting a relentless love. And why? Because you wanted to protect your heart from pain and disappointment. A wound, an offense, a traumatic experience of some kind had stolen your true self and kept you from living out of joy. But now you're free and never want to leave again. Jesus gets you like no one else ever did. He loves you like no one else can. And to stay in that love, he says to love others like he loves you. And you will because others have to know just how amazing, energizing and freeing this love is. You pick up the broom, squint upward to the sun now peeking out of the clouds and join Jesus in the Renovation.