“Son, your sins are forgiven.” ~ Jesus
I heard the gravel crunch under big tires in the driveway of my first Church. I went to see who it was. It was Otis. He had a box of fruit in hand and said, “I brought you something, Preacher.”
A kind gesture from a man who owned a fruit deliverer company in that small Oklahoma town. Kind gesture, but there was no smile or softness in his eyes. That was unusual. He was a light-hearted and gracious man. But there was something darker in his eyes on this day, in spite of the bright fruit in the box.
After pleasantries, I asked him, “Otis, is there something bothering you?”
“Yes, preacher. June and I are going to leave the Church.”
Otis had been a member of the church for over 20 years. I was shocked.
“Why are you going to leave, Otis?”
“Well, we just don’t feel like we are being fed,” he said. “The fellowship has grown cold. We don’t feel like it is a very friendly church anymore.”
I was 27 years old and this was the first time someone had threatened to leave a church that I pastored and I didn’t know what to say or think. But something in me told me to just listen. So, I asked him a few more questions. He told me more about what was wrong with the church and my ministry as pastor. The list grew and grew, the more he talked. It was if he was talking himself into more criticism.
Leaning up against his blue Chevy pickup, I remember asking God to help me understand. No one else had ever listed the things he was listing as problems in the church. In fact, just the opposite. Almost everything that he said was a problem, I had had 10 other people tell me were strengths.
I became quiet and listened some more.
Finally, I said, “Otis, if I fixed all those things you just mentioned about my preaching, leading, and the fellowship of the church—would you and June stay?”
He got quiet.
Finally, he said, “No.”
“Why? Is there something else?”
“Yes. I don’t like it that I haven’t been asked to sing in the church anymore,” he said.
“You know I don’t have anything to do with that, right? That is Ellsworth Honeycutt’s job to arrange special music.”
“Yeah, but you could tell him to ask me to sing.”
I sighed and said, “Okay.” I didn’t know any better than to let a church member blackmail me so I asked Ellsworth to invite Otis to sing special music on Sunday mornings from time to time.
I’ve learned a thing or two since then. And one of those things is that more often than not the stated reason behind someone leaving the church is not the real reason they are threatening to leave.
I’ve also learned in doing hours and hours of counseling with folks in my study, that the issue they come to see me about is often not the issue that is really troubling them. I’ve learned that there is a question underneath the question. An issue underneath the issue. A problem underneath the problem.
My wife’s favorite story in the New Testament is about four men who bring a paralyzed man to Jesus, tear a hole in the roof of a house and lower the man into the presence of Jesus. The first thing Jesus says to the man on the mat, “Son, your sins are forgiven.” Seems like the most obvious issue the man is dealing with is his inability to be self-mobile. Jesus bypasses his physical need and goes straight to the brokenness of his soul.
The problem under his paralysis was his estrangement from God.
What’s more, Jesus announces to this broken man forgiveness of his sins without the man repenting. This is not the pattern in Scripture. Every other time in the Bible God forgives after contrition and repentance. Not in this story. What’s going on?
Jesus had the ability to see into the hearts of all people. I think he saw that underneath the paralysis of the man’s body, and underneath the obsession of being healed, there was an inkling of desire to be whole at the soul level.
Jesus is so gracious, so eager to pour out mercy and embrace this guy, that He even responds to fragmentary, imperfect expressions of contrition and repentance that are left unexpressed in our hearts. Jesus is aggressive with His grace. He comes after you and pours His grace into you if you just give Him the slightest of openings. Faith is a gift.
It’s almost as if Jesus has a “grace gun” and it is always pointing at us; all He is waiting for is a flinch in His direction and He’ll blast us with grace.
Jesus knows that there is a problem underneath our problems. Our deepest need, the need under all of our needs, is that we need God. In some ways you just have to ache in his direction.
Most of us go to Jesus to have Him help us get our saviors. We want God to get us over the hump in finances, attractiveness, job, family, health, career…we want Jesus to fix our externals. We believe that if our externals are fixed, we will be happy and fulfilled. It never occurs to us that we are still looking to something other than Jesus to validate our existence.
The problem underneath our problem is that we are all looking for love in all the wrong places. We come to him with an inkling of desire for grace, but a blue pickup load of desire for him to fix our circumstances of life.
But Jesus didn’t leave the three-corner table in heaven to help me be happy, successful, and fulfilled. He came to be King and Redeemer.
He’ll be that or He’ll be nothing.
So, flinch in His direction, I dare you. You never know what might happen.