When I was 19, I had what I can only describe as a conversion experience. The odd thing was that I had already been a committed Christian for a few years by that stage. Normally when you hear about people having conversion or spiritual experiences, it is when they first come to some sort of active faith. For me, though, it was a bit different. 

For a while, I had been very attracted to the more assertive side of Jesus, the passages where He confronts the Pharisees over their hypocrisy, or when He turns over the tables in the temple. These aspects of Jesus attracted me because they were not naturally me. I was more timid and reserved (even though I had a level of confidence about me).

Finding Grace

Grace found. PICTURE: Dewang Gupta/Unsplash.

 

"When grace is shown to us, we can respond in different ways. We can, like Peter when he had the miraculous catch of fish, tell ourselves that we don’t deserve it and turn away and remain in our misery. We can believe it’s too good to be true. Or we can, trembling, step forward slowly and take it. Some of us may even leap forward and grab the bull by its horns and run with it."

After some months of pondering these aspects of Jesus’ life, and feeling intimidated in a particular aspect of my own life, I gradually became sick of my self-pity. The best way I can describe my response is an old-fashioned one: I repented; that is, I turned from my attitude of self-pity to one of assertiveness.

The impact was staggering. God felt more real to me than ever before in my life. Particular passages from the Gospels suddenly came to life. When I read that if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed, and that you will know the truth and the truth will set you free, I felt like those passages perfectly described my experience. As I write this, I can still picture myself at my desk at Mum’s place reading those passages.

This sense of reality that I was experiencing was like something that had been lost but now was found. It was like this was what I had been searching for my whole life but had never really been consciously aware of it. It felt almost too good to be true. Surely it couldn’t last. 

And therein lies the point of this article. Can we really grasp the goodness of God’s grace to us? In other words: how good can we handle it?

There is a peculiar story in John’s Gospel where a man who had been crippled for 38 years faces the same question. It’s a question from Jesus as He is at the Pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. Jesus knows that the man had been there for a long time, and he asks the man an odd question: do you want to be healed?

Put yourself in the mind of this man for a moment. You’ve been crippled for 38 years, almost four decades, and every time you go down to the water to get well, someone else gets there before you. 

Then along comes Jesus. You’ve been crippled for more years than He’s been alive and yet He dares to ask you what can only feel like an insulting question. Of course you want to be healed! What do you think?!

But there is a point about human nature to this question. For a young man of about 30, Jesus had incredible insight into life. When you’ve lived a certain way all of your life, and been shamed by others because of your condition, you will accept the shame as just being who you are. You will see yourself as not worthy. Why wouldn’t you? That’s all you know. 

Shame tells us that we are nobodies and that no-one cares. And what’s more, there’s no way out of it. It’s too much effort. It’s actually more comfortable and familiar to stay in our misery. To be healed means you will be a regular member of society like most other people. That means being responsible for yourself. But when you feel shame, you don’t believe in yourself, so you don’t have the confidence to go and try and get out of your comfort zone.

So when Jesus asked the crippled man if he wanted to be healed, He was asking him if he understood what it meant to be a person who could walk tall and look the world in the eye and stand with a sense of dignity. In effect, Jesus was asking, “How good can you handle it?”. 

When grace is shown to us, we can respond in different ways. We can, like Peter when he had the miraculous catch of fish, tell ourselves that we don’t deserve it and turn away and remain in our misery. We can believe it’s too good to be true. Or we can, trembling, step forward slowly and take it. Some of us may even leap forward and grab the bull by its horns and run with it. 

Grace is bigger than shame. It is not too good to be true, and the great thing is, that it is how the universe bends.

Do I want to be healed, or do I want to stay where life is mediocre at best but comfortable? Do we want to know what it is to come out of ourselves and know a life of loving and being loved? As he often did, CS Lewis put it eloquently: "To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no-one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable."

Another great thinker, Soren Kierkegaard, said, referring to life in the affluent West, that we are “tranquilised by the trivial”. We accept the mediocre happinesses of a comfortable life while living with our anxieties and depressions when we could have and do much more. 

A life of meaning, of energy that comes from living for others and for something bigger than ourselves, is actually possible by taking the risk that Jesus offered to the crippled man. The question for is, “How good can we handle it?”