An excerpt from Tullian Tchividjian's "One Way Love"
EX-CONVICTS, FAILED DISCIPLES, AND
There wasn’t one thing in particular that snapped me out of my “wild man” phase, no big crisis or single clarifying moment that inspired me to repair the damage I had done to myself, others, and my family. As humdrum as it may sound, what led me out of that rebellious period was simply the nagging sense that there had to be more to life than what I was experiencing—there had to be more to who I was than what this world was telling me. In fact, I can’t even pinpoint the exact moment when God raised this dead rebel to life. All I know is that sometime in the fall of 1993, my culminating discontent with life made me decide to start going back to church.
I was twenty-one at the time. Kim, who had been my girl- friend for two years at that point, had actually started going to church with my parents a few months earlier, and before I knew it, we were both going every week. My parents were understand- ably overjoyed. Their prodigal had finally come home. “For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found” (Luke 15:24 NIV).
Since Kim did not grow up in a Christian home like me, this was all brand-new to her. But to me, it felt like a homecoming. Even in my unruly years, I had never really ceased to believe in God. In fact, if you had given me a theological exam at the height of my rebellion, I would’ve passed with flying colors. I was just choosing to ignore it all. Maybe it was the timing, maybe it was the circumstances, but something finally clicked, and God became real to both of us in a new and exciting way.
About three months later, in January of 1994, Kim and I got engaged. Our new faith naturally led us to take a hard look at our relationship. God was changing us, and we knew our relationship needed to change as well. After being so out of control for so long, we knew we had to adjust the way we related to each other, and the physical realm was no exception. We were both coming out of a world where sex outside of marriage was completely the norm—a norm that we had embraced—and we knew the right thing to do would be to pull back until we were married. Easier said than done! Despite our best intentions and most earnest efforts, we slipped up three or four times during our engagement.
I’ll never forget when Kim came over to my apartment one night after work and told me she was pregnant. I was devastated. Not just because the news was a shock or because I hadn’t expected to be a par- ent at such a young age. I was devastated because everyone who had celebrated my return “to the fold” would think the turnaround was a false alarm. I had caused my family so much pain and heartbreak with my self-absorbed shenanigans, and they had been so relieved and excited that their reckless son had finally come back; it had been the answer to years and years of prayer. I had put my parents through more than any son ever should and had asked for their forgiveness on numerous occasions. To drop this bomb might crush them all over again, and I just couldn’t bear it. I was scared, ashamed, and angry at myself for failing yet again.
Somehow we summoned the courage to go over to my mom and dad’s house the next day—Mother’s Day, believe it or not. After some awkward small talk, I asked my father if we could speak to him alone. We walked out to the driveway. Dad was standing in front of me, and Kim was by my side, shoulder to shoulder.
“Dad we have something to tell you.” I burst into tears. “Kim’s pregnant.”
Kim started bawling too. Next thing I knew, he was embracing both of us, me with one arm, her with the other, while we wept. He held us for ten minutes. He could see how overwhelmed we were. I can still hear his voice telling us, “It’s okay. We love you. It’s going to be okay. This child is going to be a blessing.”
Kim and I had been so excited about getting married, and now we were going to be parents as well. In addition to the embarrass- ment and shame involved, we were grieving the happy expectation that we’d have a few years, just the two of us, before starting a family. We were in a state of shock. Yet my father did not condemn or lecture us, even though he had every right to do so. Instead, he comforted us. More than that, he gave us good news. He told us that while the circumstances clearly weren’t ideal, this was going to turn out just fine. This baby was going to be a blessing to both of us and a gift to the whole family. Every time Kim and I look at our oldest son (now eighteen), we realize afresh that my dad was absolutely right that day.
The whole situation was wrapped in grace: I deserved his reproach and disapproval—premarital sex resulting in unexpected pregnancy is no father’s dream for his child—yet his gracious response assured me that he not only wasn’t crushed, his love for me was stronger than ever. When I told him (through many tears) how sorry I was for once again letting him down, he simply hushed me by hugging me tighter and saying over and over again, “It’s okay. I love you. It’s okay. I love you.” At that moment in the driveway, when I rightly deserved my dad’s disappointment, he assured me of his delight.
Even now it is hard to put into words the emotional relief I felt. Lifesaving is not too strong a word. I thank God with every fiber of my being that He put me in a family where I was surrounded by such one-way love.
The love my father showed me that day is not a one-to-one approximation of God’s one-way love for you and me—nothing is! In fact, before we go any further, I should clarify: the Gospel is the announcement of Jesus Christ given for and to sinners. It refers to the one true act of Grace, or one-way love, to which all others point. Like small-l law, small-g grace refers to the infinite reflections or echoes or outworkings of big-G Grace we see and experience in relationships, art, etc.
My father was not preaching the Gospel to me that day—he didn’t sit me down to tell me that, on account of Christ, my sins were forgiven. Instead, he showed me grace. That is, he treated me in a way that was analogous to how God treats you and me. He was not God, of course, but like many fathers, he did play a similar role in my life: someone in authority who showed me love in the midst of deserved judgment. As it is with big-L and little-l law, if occasionally we use big-G and little-g grace interchangeably, it is not because they are the same thing, but because we often experience them that way.
So what is grace exactly? There are three things about my interaction in the driveway that day that point to the essence of grace, or one-way love. First, one-way love has nothing to do with the beloved—in that case, me. It has to do with the one doing the loving—in that case, my father. I was at my least lovable in that instance—a repeat offender whose offense was going to have very real consequences—yet somehow my father treated me as though I’d never been loved more.
One-way love is always at its most palpable and transformative when we are at our lowest ebb. Grace, like water, flows to the lowest part. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8 NIV, emphasis mine) is how the apostle Paul puts it. It can be something momentous, like what I just described, or it can be something as mundane as someone giving you a compliment when you’re feeling particularly ugly or incompetent.
Second, and perhaps self-explanatory, one-way love comes from outside of us. It is external. We cannot love ourselves in this way, at least not in the midst of real failure. Kim and I could not have assured each other with any confidence. Only a third party could speak such a gracious word and have it be remotely believable. We needed someone who was not in our situation to address it, and not just anyone. We needed someone with authority. My dad.
Third, one-way love is unexpected. Grace is always a surprise. We are hardwired for reciprocity and punishment; tit for tat is an utterly instinctual mode of thinking and living. So when someone with- holds judgment, especially when it is deserved, we are astonished. Kim and I were astonished that day, and we still are. When was the last time you were astonished by someone’s surprising response of grace toward you?
Another Way to Go
I’ll give you another example, this time from literature. One of the most enduring works of art over the past two hundred years is Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables. Rarely does a decade go by without a fresh film adaptation or staging of the classic musical it inspired. Les Mis has stood the test of time for good reason; it is an incred- ibly moving story of redemption—one that deals with the deepest themes of human life: mercy and guilt, justice and inequality, God and man, men and women, parents and children, forgiveness and punishment, and yes, the relationship of grace and law. It is also a notorious tearjerker. Like a true artist, Hugo burrows inside the rib cage and plays a symphony on our heartstrings. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the entire story hinges on a stunning act of one-way love.
Out on parole after nineteen years in a French prison, pro- tagonist Jean Valjean is denied shelter at several respectable establishments because his passport identifies him as a former con- vict. He is finally taken in by a kindly bishop, Bishop Bienvenu. Valjean repays his host by running off in the middle of the night with the church silver. When the police catch up to him, Valjean lies and claims that the bishop gave him the silver as a gift. The police drag him back to the bishop’s house, where Bienvenu not only validates Valjean’s deception but chastises him for not accept- ing the candlesticks as well.
Jean Valjean is utterly confounded. His identity up until that point had been that of thief, prisoner, number, sinner. Now he has been seen as human and shown mercy.
But it is more than mercy, isn’t it? Mercy would involve simply dropping the charges, but the bishop goes further—he actually rewards Valjean for his transgression! Bienvenu acts, in other words, in the polar opposite way of what would have been expected of him. He is not wise or responsible. He treats Valjean recklessly, overrul- ing what the law—literally standing in front of him—demands. He takes a major risk and blesses this criminal who has shown no ability to act in a nonshameful way. His love has everything to do with the sacrifice of the one doing the loving rather than the merit of the beloved. Needless to say, when I first saw the scene portrayed on the screen, I fell to pieces.
This one surprising act throws Valjean into a complete break- down, causing him to question absolutely everything in his life and the world. In the musical, his bewilderment at the goodness that has been shown him is made plain when he sings:
One word from him, and I’d be back beneath the lash, upon the rack. Instead he offers me my freedom.
I feel my shame inside me like a knife.
He told me that I have a soul … Is there another way to go?1
There is another way to go, thanks be to God—the way of grace as opposed to law. It is this way that Valjean takes from this moment forward—or I should say, the way that takes him. He doesn’t become a superhuman or even any less of a broken vessel, but from here on out, his life is fueled more by gratitude than greed, giving than receiving, love than fear. This one moment of grace changes him in a way that a lifetime of punishment never could. In fact, Valjean’s heroic, self-sacrificing actions in the rest of the novel flow directly from the word he hears from the bishop, which is the word of Grace.
Just as it is difficult to experience forgiveness without some knowledge of what you have done wrong, so it is difficult to under- stand Grace apart from the Law. If the Law is the first word, Grace is the last. Listen closely: The Law exposes Valjean (and us), while Grace exonerates him. The Law diagnoses, but Grace delivers. The Law accuses, Grace acquits. The Law condemns the best of us, while Grace saves the worst of us. The Law says “cursed,” Grace says “blessed.” The Law says “slave,” Grace says “son.” The Law says “guilty,” Grace says “forgiven.” The Law can break a hard heart, but only Grace can heal one. Which is precisely what happens to Valjean. He may be a fictional character, but our response to his predicament is not fictional. The tears come, because each one of us is dying to be treated this way. The scene gets us in touch with that one time someone showed us a little sympathy when we deserved reproach. It points us, in other words, to the truth at the very heart of the universe—the one-way love God has for sinners.
What makes a disciple?
Of course, the one-way love of God is not just something we find in our families or in works of literature. It is the driving theme of the Bible itself. Nowhere is this more striking than in Jesus’s dealing with his disciples. His choice of disciples was deeply coun- terintuitive, almost categorically opposed to any qualifications they might hold for the job. Consider his calling of Levi, also known as Matthew:
After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.
And Levi made him a great feast in his house, and there was a large company of tax collectors and others reclining at table with them. And the Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:27–32)
Jesus was turning the tables on all that we think is good. Tax collectors were not a respectable lot. They were traitors and villains, the ancient equivalent of mob loan sharks, extorting their fellow men for the sake of the occupying Roman government (and their own pockets). They were widely despised and for good reason. Think Sheriff of Nottingham in the legend of Robin Hood.
But here we have Jesus interrupting Levi at the office and giv- ing him an invitation to follow. In response, Levi throws a party (of course!)—not a holy huddle of all the righteous people in town, but a gathering of fellow scoundrels at his house. The Pharisees and the scribes naturally object, as do you and I when something so egregiously irrational happens before our eyes. “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” they ask. How does Jesus answer? With his mission statement: “Those who are well [or who think they are, like you guys] have no need of a physician [which is what I am], but those who are sick [like these guys]. I have not come to call the righteous [like you think you are] but sinners [like they know they are] to repentance.” Jesus didn’t just say such things—he put his money where his mouth was: not one of the original twelve disciples was a religious person. Christ was inter- ested in those who couldn’t bring anything to the table, not those who thought they could handle this righteousness gig pretty well
on their own. He knew that only those who didn’t have anything going for them would be able to accept the one-way transaction. You only go to the doctor when you suspect you’re sick.
This is important. As Paul Zahl writes, “One-way love is inscru- table or irrational not only because it is out of relation with the intrinsic circumstances on the part of the receiver. One-way love is also irrational because it reaches out to the specifically undeserving person. This is the beating heart of it.”2 The Gospel is addressed not to the godly but the ungodly (Rom. 5:6), not just those who are down on their luck or brokenhearted and suffering, but to perpetrators themselves—tax collectors, prostitutes, murderers, adulterers. Not just theoretical sinners, but actual flesh-and-blood repeat offenders like me. We celebrate this aspect of one-way love when it is directed our way, but like the Pharisees, we hate it when it is directed at our enemies.
No one in the Bible is more of a repeat offender than the apostle Peter, the so-called “rock” upon which the church is built. His con- sistent ineptitude is almost comic, or at least it would be, were he not also the one who Jesus appointed to be their chief representa- tive. As you may remember from Sunday school, Jesus called Simon Peter (and his brother Andrew) while they were fishing by the Sea of Galilee. He immediately left his family business and followed the Lord. After he answered Jesus’s famous question, “Who do you say that I am?” correctly, Jesus changed his name from Simon to Peter, which means rock. Peter lived with Jesus for three and a half years, witnessed many miracles, and heard his teaching. He was part of Jesus’s inner circle of three (Peter, James, and John) and was clearly captivated by the Lord and his teaching. Peter was the one who asked Jesus to explain parables, the one who asked for more clarification about forgiveness. He had given up everything for the Lord he deeply loved (see Matt. 19:27), and he loved his Savior more than he had ever loved anyone.
And yet, his track record was abysmal. A few bullet points from his spiritual resume:
• When Jesus told him to walk on water, Peter was afraid and sank. (Matt. 14:22–33)
• Peter tried to persuade Jesus that he would not have to die and received the following reply: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God but merely human concerns.” (Matt. 16:23 NIV)
• He fell asleep in Gethsemane three times, despite the explicit instructions of his sorrowful Lord, who asked him, “Could you not watch one hour?” (Mark 14:32–42)
• When the guards came to arrest Jesus in Gethsemane, Peter drew his sword and Jesus rebuked him for it. (John 18:11)
• After Jesus was arrested, Peter denied him three times, after being told by Jesus—in no uncer- tain terms—that he was going to do so. (Mark
• When he and John got word that Jesus had risen, they both ran to the empty tomb. It was a race Peter lost. (John 20:4)
Apart from his being the first to acknowledge that Jesus was the Christ, the son of God, almost everything he did in the Gospels ended in a correction, a rebuke, or just simple failure. It is hard to imag- ine how to be a worse disciple than Peter, short of rejecting the faith entirely, once and for all. He could be relied upon to fail at doing God’s bidding, with one or two salient exceptions. Yet these exceptions were enough for Jesus to proclaim that he was the rock. Why?
It is no coincidence that Peter was both the weakest and the one who recognized who Jesus was. He could recognize the Savior, because he knew how much he needed one. His faith was directly tied to his failure. As Richard Rohr once wrote, “The great and mer- ciful surprise is that we come to God not by doing it right but by doing it wrong!”3
Breakfast on the beach
It gets better though. After the resurrection, the disciples left Jerusalem to return to Galilee. There, by the Sea of Tiberius, Jesus appeared once again to seven of his fearful disciples, but not in anger, disappointment, or judgment. He came to cook breakfast for them:
Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” (John 21:4–5)
Consider how the Author of one-way love addressed his unbe- lieving disciples, those who deserted him during his greatest time of need, those who struggled to believe he had risen from the dead. He called them his “children.” This word can, of course, be used for one’s biological children, but it was also used for “a person of any age for whom there is a special relationship of endearment.”4 He called them his dear children.
Jesus then asked them whether they had caught any fish during their night of labor, although he already knew they hadn’t. “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some,” he said. The understatement is astounding. You can almost see him smiling to himself, knowing that they won’t just find some, they will be so overwhelmed with fish that their nets may break. Given their dismal performance in Jerusalem, the disciples had every reason to expect punishment, but Jesus had other plans. He knew they were hungry after fishing all night, so he had a charcoal fire ready with food cook- ing on it. He cared about their hunger, their need.
If you believe that Jesus loves and blesses only “good people,” those who stand faithfully in times of trial, never deny him, and always trust and obey, then you’ll have a hard time explaining Jesus the short-order cook. If we believe in tit for tat, then what these men had earned was to be shunned and shamed. Where were they when Jesus was in need? When he was hungry and thirsty? When he was in agony? Instead of leaving these turncoats to themselves and finding others who would be more faithful, he gave them yet another gift—not just the disciples in general, but Peter specifically:
When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep.” (John 21:15–17)
Again, consider the scene: Peter’s stomach was full. His Lord, whom he loved, had returned, yet the awkwardness of Peter’s fail- ures hung in the air. Jesus took him aside for a private stroll down the beach (see John 21:20). Maybe he walked off with him so Peter wouldn’t be humiliated in front of the others, who knows? But their conversation was one for the ages.
Three times during this interaction, Jesus addressed Peter as Simon, his “old” name (Matt. 16:14–18). It was in the context of Peter’s proclamation of Christ’s identity that Jesus gave him his new name. Jesus called him by that old name, Simon, to remind him of his identity outside of Christ: Simon the Poor, Simon the Fisherman, Simon the Loser, Simon the Coward. The word Simon, in this sense, is a word of Law.
Jesus asked Simon if he loved him, not once, but three times— the same number of times that Peter had denied him, a coincidence that was clearly not lost on Peter. He realized that the Lord saw him as he was, and whatever sham facade he had been parading in those intervening weeks and months was shattered. Jesus knew Peter’s heart better than Peter did himself.
Once Peter was completely dressed down, instead of strip- ping him of his “post,” Jesus did the opposite: he gave him more responsibility. Peter had been spectacularly unreliable, and yet Jesus reinstated him as “rock.” Irrational, inscrutable, the opposite of a good idea—this is how Christ chooses to work in the world. The wonderful truth is that Jesus doesn’t need perfect vessels to accom- plish his will. He needs broken ones—men and women who have been slain, humiliated, disillusioned of all their “I can do it, really I can!,” “This time I’ll try harder!,” “Just give me a little more time and some secret steps, and I’ll get it together!” self-deception.
Peter was an utter failure on every level, but Jesus commissioned and used him anyway. Why? Because the success of the church doesn’t rest on Peter’s good—albeit deluded—confessions. It does not rest on us, on our collective abilities or progress at all.
The feeding and tending of Christ’s flock wasn’t contingent upon Peter’s abilities, his track record, or even his love for Christ. Jesus didn’t need Peter any more than God needed Jonah. Christ’s overflowing love restores Peter for Peter’s sake. He met Peter’s fail- ure head-on, in the full light of a morning by the shore, restored him, and commissioned him three times. Remember: Jesus is the one doing the feeding here, not Peter. Did he spend the night fishing? Sure. But how did that work out? They’d caught nothing! So Jesus built a fire and directed fish into their nets and fed them. Then he told Simon, “Feed my sheep.” How could he do that? Only because Jesus already had all the feeding that needed to be done well in hand.
Right on the heels of Peter’s most disqualifying behavior, Jesus commissioned him. Human wisdom—the wisdom of this world— has no system or plan for dealing with the mistakes of yesterday. What does the wisdom of this world have to say to you and me in the darkness of night, when we are feeling overwhelmed and guilty about yesterday’s failures? When we have done the one thing we told ourselves we would never do? Sure, it can assure us that we’re not so bad, that these failures are not our fault, but the world’s hollow assurances do nothing to assuage the knowledge of our utter failure to palliate our guilt and shame. All the world can do is hand us over to the assaults of conscience or, when our conscience has been so repeatedly bruised and seared, to the dreary deadness and dullness of living life detached from hope. I know firsthand what the world has to offer us in terms of yesterday’s failures and the guilt we own: get drunk, fall in love with yourself, buy more things, work harder, tell yourself you’re really okay after all.
Too Good to (Not) Be True
The one-way love of God meets us in our failures. Our failures make His one-way love that much more glorious. What qualifies us for service is God’s devotion to us—not our devotion to Him. This is as plainly as I can say it: the value of our lives rests on God’s infinite, incomprehensible, unconditional love for us—not our love for Him. Such relief! We can finally exhale!
When Kim and I took such a right turn all those years ago, and I embraced the faith I had so publicly walked away from, I remember being asked, “What was it about God that was finally so attractive to you? That drew you back to Him?” The answer is a simple yet radi- cal one: God had given me so much—a loving family, a remarkable heritage. I had squandered it all, and He had continued to come after me. His forbearance and His kindness, in the midst of my open rebellion, was just too magnetic in the long haul. It is, after all, the kindness of the Lord that leads to repentance (Rom. 2:4). I didn’t deserve it then, and I don’t deserve it now.
But wait. Does this mean our failures are somehow victories? That Peter’s weakness was a good thing? That my scandalous behav- ior was any less shortsighted, wrong, or hurtful? No!
This is an extremely important point. The one-way love of God is restorative and reconciling because in the mystery of His cross, God has neutralized the effects of sin, forgiven its offense, blotted out its stain, expiated its guilt, and created a new beginning. “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Ps. 103:12). Thanks to Jesus’s sacrifice on my behalf, the sins I cannot forget, God cannot remember. Jesus is not waving some magic wand or being dishonest about who Peter was (or who we are). He is acting on the firm foundation of what his death on our behalf has accomplished. There is nothing cheap about the grace he offers repeat offenders. On the contrary—it cost him everything!
The Gospel announces that Jesus came to acquit the guilty. He came to judge and be judged in our place. Christ came to satisfy the deep judgment against us once and for all so we could be free from the judgment of God, others, and ourselves. Jesus came to unburden us of our efforts at trying to deal with judgment on our own.
In his letter to the Colossians, the apostle Paul announces, “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Col. 2:13–14).
The Gospel declares that our guilt has been atoned for, the Law has been fulfilled. In Christ, the ultimate demand has been met, the deepest judgment has been satisfied. Jesus took on himself all the judg- ment we deserve from God, so we can be free from the paralyzing fear of judgment. There are no ifs, ands, or buts. We no longer need to live under the burden of trying to appease the judgment we feel, full stop.
In fact, the judgment we feel is just that: a feeling—no longer a reality. We may judge others, and they may judge us; we may judge ourselves, but God does not. His love is one-way, and it is inexhaust- ible. This is not just good news, this is the best news: the assurance that in our darkest moments, when you and I, as a last resort, come knocking on “heaven’s door,” the voice that greets us is the same one that met Jean Valjean that fateful night:
You are suffering; you are hungry and thirsty; you are welcome. And don’t thank me; don’t tell me that I am taking you into my house. This is the home of no man, except the one who needs a refuge. I tell you, a traveler, you are more at home here than I; whatever is here is yours. Why would I have to know your name?… Your name is my brother.5