June 2, 2020

The Arithmetic of Grace

The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

• Deuteronomy 7:7-8, NASB

• • •

Peter W. Marty once wrote, “In a memorable Dennis the Menace cartoon, Dennis and his friend Joey are leaving Mrs. Wilson’s house loaded up with a plate full of cookies. Joey turns to Dennis and says, ‘I wonder what we did to deserve this.’ Dennis is quick to reply, ‘Look Joey, Mrs. Wilson gives us cookies not because we’re nice, but because she’s nice.’ So goes the arithmetic of grace.” (The World of Grace)

Dennis’ sentiment captures what I have always loved about the sentence from Deuteronomy 7 cited above, though I have not meditated on it or internalized nearly enough. If you take out all the intervening clauses in the verse and boil down what God is saying to Israel, what you have is, “I love you…because I love you.” It’s as simple, and profound, as that.

It’s not because we’re nice. He loves us because he loves us. Period. It’s who God is that makes the difference in matters of love, grace, and choice.

And who is he? A remarkably indiscriminate lover! After all, he loves you and me.

The Biblical record is clear from beginning to end, and well-summarized in these NT words: “Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?” (James 2:5)

By “poor” he means not only those who have few material or monetary resources. All kinds of poverty are in view here — the intellectually poor, the morally poor, the relationally poor, the reputationally poor. In order to show that he does not discriminate against anyone, he has made a special effort to reach out to those who are, in our eyes, the most unlovely and undeserving.

God’s team roster is set forth in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12). In the world’s eyes at least, we are talent-poor (poor in spirit, mourners, meek, crushed by injustice) and we are power-poor — we try to engage the world with inadequate, futile strategies (through extending mercy, seeking purity of heart, acting as peacemakers). Ultimately, we are the “losers” (persecuted, insulted, accused). Nevertheless, by his love and grace, Jesus calls us “blessed.”

Similarly, the Hebrew people God spoke to in Deuteronomy 7 were poor. Their ancestors had been homeless wanderers. Their parents and grandparents had become slaves, the dregs of society, under foreign rulers in Egypt. After about four hundred years of that humiliation, God intervened and delivered them in spectacular fashion from their bondage by pure grace.

You might think that would have made them grateful, but instead they became a group of unruly complainers wandering through the desert. Moses tried to shape them up during a long camp-out at Mt. Sinai, but they proved so unmanageable he had to plead with God at one point not to wipe them out in divine frustration and wrath. When they left Sinai to go to the Promised Land of Canaan, all but a few of them rebelled so badly they ended up wasting forty years walking the desert in circles. Eventually, Israel wore even poor Moses down. One day he’d had enough of their bitching and moaning, and he blew up in angry, exasperated unbelief — an act that won him a grave in the wilderness.

And, these were the people to whom God said, “[I] wasn’t attracted to you and didn’t choose you because you were big and important—the fact is, there was almost nothing to you. [I] did it out of sheer love…” (The Message) Tens of thousands of dirty-faced Dennis the Menaces got full plates of cookies because of who God is, not because they were so nice.

And guess what? The new life we have received in Jesus came the same way. There we are one day, playing in the yard, fighting and hollering, breaking stuff, getting all dirty and tearing holes in our jeans, when Mrs. Wilson opens the door and hollers out,”Hey kids, would you like some cookies? I just made some. Come and get ’em!” And if we have any sense at all, we stop what we’re doing immediately and race to see who can get there first.

Oh, there’s nothing like the taste of fresh cookies, washed down with cold milk!

The problem is, we start thinking we must be pretty special to deserve such a treat. We strut our stuff around the neighborhood and brag on the gift we received. “Why the big smile?” the kid down the street asks. “Mrs. Wilson just gave us cookies!” we exclaim. “Man, were they good!” And for some reason, we get all caught up in that warm feeling in our belly and start to think we must be pretty good kids to deserve such a treat.

Then we look up, and see that Mrs. Wilson has come out of her house again, and this time she’s offering cookies to the neighbor children who live behind us. Those kids are a pain in the butt! In fact, they’re weird. They dress and talk differently and they don’t fit in to our games very well. We try to stay away from them, but sometimes we can’t and it seems like we always end up fighting and yelling. It really gripes us that they get cookies too.

We forget the “grace” part. Remember? Mrs. Wilson’s the nice one, not me.

Peter Marty quotes Barbara Brown Taylor, who once said, “I’m not so worried about God loving me less. It is the prospect of God loving that other person I can’t stand, just as much as God might love me.” He then comments,

The most outstanding feature of God’s grace is its indiscriminate character. I’m thoroughly convinced of this, even if I cannot always appreciate it. All of the factors that determine how God might show favor rest solely on God’s wishes. Our capacity to discriminate, establish devilish screening devices, and discern unpalatable idiosyncrasies in other people cannot hold back God’s grace. Jesus refused to respect the boundaries people set up between respectable and disreputable people, between right-thinking and wrong-thinking people. In the end, it was utterances like his “prostitutes and tax-collectors entering the kingdom before the rest of us” that — literally — hung him. (The Wideness of Love)

If receiving grace doesn’t make us both grateful and gracious, we really haven’t grasped grace.

If, in our lives, we don’t “cause [our] rain to fall on both the just and the unjust,” we are not following the One who does just that. Lavishly. Freely. Indiscriminately.

If we’re upset that Mrs. Wilson is sharing her cookies with kids we don’t like, we’ve probably developed the opinion that we deserve them more. And that some don’t deserve them at all.

Hey, if you’ve got a head full of rules about who deserves the cookies and who doesn’t, I don’t think you have much room in there for a guy like Jesus. He loves us because he loves us.

And that’s the whole story.

Comments

  1. Lovely and oh so true.

  2. It’s a lovely sentiment, but I find it shipwrecks a bit when we carry the metaphor out a bit.

    What happens when Dennis decides he doesn’t want those cookies? Does Mrs. Wilson harangue him with threat after threat concerning what happens to those who reject the cookies? Does she angrily point out that there is a day coming when those who refuse the cookies will not only be cookie-less, but also denied all sustenance, to suffer in endless darkness and pain forever? When those who refuse the cookies are cast into the outer darkness to gnash their teeth for eternity, even if an hour later they get hungry and decide the cookies might seem good then. Nope…they had their chance at cookies, and they blew it. Now they suffer.

    What about kids who are diabetic, who seem to have a nature that the cookie itself poisons them? Or those whose parents taught them cookies are bad for you, that you should eat fruit instead? Or that they’re not kosher?

    Or the kids who once trusted an old person who made them cookies, but got dragged inside and raped, so now anyone who seems even vaguely related to cookies fills them with fear and loathing. Now they reject even the most well-intentioned cookie offers.

    Not to mention the many other neighbors offering various other kinds of cookies – oatmeal, sugar, vanilla wafers – all of which seem as good as Mrs. Wilson’s cookies, except that if you take the wrong cookie, and miss the ‘true” one, you’ll be made to suffer for eternity for your mistake.

    Not to mention the many who hold the idea that Mrs. Wilson decided long, long ago who would be offered cookies, and who would eternally do without cookies. Her invitation is only effectual to those whom she has predetermined will get the cookies. In fact, she somehow ensures that no other child will ever even ask for the cookies, but nonetheless then blames them for not doing so, before casting them eternally from her presence.

    I’m sorry, but my problem is not that Mrs. Wilson is so indiscriminate in her cookie-distributing choices…it’s that I keep hearing reports that she’s nowhere near indiscriminate enough, that in fact the vast majority of humans who have ever lived are specifically and forever cursed to a dark eternity free of any kind of cookie, and that Mrs. Wilson KNEW that in advance, and in fact even chose it to be so.

    And any time I put forward the point that perhaps Mrs. Wilson is better than we think, other cookie-eaters call me a universalist, and refuse to eat cookies with me any more. I wish there were a little more clarity on the point of Mrs. Wilson’s cookie distribution scheme.

    • Which is why we will just stick with the original, simple metaphor.

      • Did I over-think things again? My wife hates that.

        • Might want to mix in a little meditation like ‘Ooooohhhhmmmm’. :~)

          • Uh, I’m pretty sure that “meditation” is one of those other cookies that, although they taste great, I’ve been warned will doom me to a cookie-less eternity should I indulge in them. You can’t trust those Asian-inspired cookies. (Although, I believe the Western brand “Contemplation” is accepted by at least some portion of decent cookie eaters.)

        • Richard Hershberger says

          Have a cookie. It does wonders for over-thinking.

    • JPL, I like the points you make here and am sympathetic to them, Especially, “And any time I put forward the point that perhaps Mrs. Wilson is better than we think, other cookie-eaters call me a universalist, and refuse to eat cookies with me any more.” And in regard to your, “Although, I believe the Western brand ‘contemplation’ is accepted by at least some portion of decent cookie eaters”….I am part of that portion.

      I think we often try to put God in a box…God will do this and God will not do that. We do not KNOW what God will do and will not do. The most we know is that God is love. Jesus said so, proved it so and he showed us what love is like with his story about the good Samaritan. We know love when we see it. And if we know it when we see it, that can give us SOME idea of what a God who is love is like.

  3. Putting the food analogy aside, this post screams for a high view of the sacraments. Unilateral grace for beggers receiving a gift (a gift with profound promises).

  4. I find God’s grace to be irresistable…don’t you?

  5. I love the Dennis analogy. Been thinking grace is like anointing oil. It gets poured out liberally. Praise God.

  6. “Tens of thousands of dirty-faced Dennis the Menaces got full plates of cookies because of who God is, not because they were so nice.”

    I like that, Chaplain Mike.

  7. Let’s pursue it just a bit, JPL.

    For those who scorn the cookies, Jesus tells us the story of the Faithful Father who saw his prodigal returning from afar and threw a party at his Homecoming. He didn’t force the prodigal back, but waited patiently and faithfully for him to come home.

    For the diabetic, Mrs. Wilson would never offer something that would harm the child. She would give good gifts and gifts that are good for the children. And if you followed the strip, there was a lot more to Mrs. Wilson than just handing out cookies.

    As for the wrong cookie, no, we don’t take candy from strangers. And yes, there are other cookie vendors out there. But given a choice between some Oreos from Kroger and fresh, hot chocolate chip right out of the oven with the chips still melting, is there really any argument where the kids will go? This is why Jesus was killed. His cookies weren’t hard or stale. And so the religious leaders of his day couldn’t let him survive.

    Finally, I think the point of CM’s post is exactly what you conclude. The character of Mrs. Wilson is not defined by Dennis or Joey, both of whom have an imperfect understanding of her, but by Mrs. Wilson herself. Are there children out there saying things that are inaccurate or even untrue or possibly even malicious? No doubt. But does that mean Mrs. Wilson is at fault?

  8. Regarding the Barbara Taylor quote….(and I wish I could remember where I read this, so if anyone knows the source, please fill it in. This is NOT original!)

    “God loves EACH of us as if there were only ONE of us”

    Another one of those omnipotent skills of His. I can only really LOVE a handful, and my total heart is only with one. I have to remind myself that God doesn’t have this limitation, and that His total devotion to me is not diminished by His equally total devotion to you!!

  9. What a thought to start my Sunday, “He loves us because He loves us.”

    I feel like I just got a hug!!