Why I struggle to return to God after I sin (again and again and again)

She described in painful detail how Multiple Sclerosis upturned her life. I heard her story on NPR. Once active and fit, it took only three years impair her ability to exercise, enjoy a walk around a museum, and even help herself to a glass from the cupboard. With profound honesty she shared the hardest part of her disability: always being the one who is helped. 

One day she will need her her husband to help her to bathe, to do everything. “It’s hard not to feel beholden,” she said. The balance and equality within their relationship tips away from her; receiving help constantly diminishes her sense of dignity.

Hearing this, her interviewer paused, then asked, “So it’s a question of grace?”

“Yes.”

How true. Her story points to a spiritual reality that’s easy: true grace is disorienting and difficult to receive.

Grace is unearthly. We have no categories for it. There are analogies, perhaps. A disabled person receiving unconditional love from a spouse. A newborn relying on his mother’s careful provision of food. A murderer adopted by the mother of the man he killed.

These are pictures of grace, but no earthly analogy can capture the depths of human guilt, need, and darkness. No earthly analogy can capture the extravagance of God’s forgiveness, mercy, and grace.

That’s why we struggle to understand grace. We try to fit it into preexisting categories, but find they lead us astray. We think of God as a family member who loans us money to help us through tough times. But God’s grace is so enormous that it cannot be paid back; “loan” is too light a word. Conversely, his grace is so free that efforts to repay him undermine the value of it.

His grace is unearthly. There’s nothing like it. That’s disorienting.

Remember your first job interview? Your first date? Your first day in middle school? They’re all terrifying and exciting and confusing because we don’t know what to expect. How should I dress? What will I say? What will they think? How do I act?

For many, their first experience God’s grace creates a flurry of disorientation. We see ourselves, friends, family, and life experiences with new eyes. We yearn to live differently.

That first disorientation is never the last.

As his grace drills deeper into our lives, we’re confronted with a confusing array of experiences. For instance: how does grace respond when I fall into patterns of sin like lust, gossip, pride, greed, and apathy?

I repent. I return. His grace meets me. He forgives me. I feel relief.

But what happens when I sin again, in the exact same way? And again? And again? Do I despair? Do I wonder why I didn’t get fixed the first time? Maybe I try to clean myself up before I repent. But I can’t, and my acts of self-righteousness is just another sin on top of sin. So I helplessly repent. His grace meets me once more.

After years of sinning, repenting, and being forgiven, the drill of his grace digs deeper. I wonder if there’s a limit? Is God like a disappointed employer, who wonders why I don’t improve my job performance after so many opportunities? Does his grace run dry? Will he let me go? After years of gracious help, shouldn’t I stop sinning like this?

These questions crash like waves on my soul. Like the tide they recede and return. Every time I hear Jesus’ words to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven,” they feel, at once impossible to believe and impossible to ignore. I understand the crowd’s response, “We never saw anything like this!”

I have no category to understand his grace. I have no category for being the one who always receives. I have no category for the infinite depths of love, which stoops to meet my every need. Learning to receive grace over and over and over and over is a Spiritual education.

I mistakenly believe that my sojourn on earth is about moral performance, but Paul’s prayer is that I comprehend the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love for me (Eph. 3:18-19). My journey is about receiving Jesus’ lavish grace and love in ways I struggle to comprehend.

It’s my preparation for an eternity spent in awe-full exploration of his grace.

Do you think you’ve reached the bottom of his forgiveness? That you drained the last drop of his love? That his grace runs dry for you? You’ve mistaken grace for something on earth. His grace is unearthly. There’s nothing like it. It’s infinite. Unending. Unceasing. No sin, no power, no suffering, no man, no woman can stop it. You may not feel it, but he lavishes grace on you now, abundantly flowing over every sin to meet you in this moment, no matter where you are or what you’ve done. Will you receive it?

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