People have often tended, quite wrongly, to view me as saintly. I attribute that undeserved reputation to the fact I have always had a very strong sense of the kind of person I should be. I would describe my ideal persona as one who was conscientiously obedient and loving. I strove to be a person of strong moral character whose actions were always wrapped in love.
When my church-pillar parents’ marriage blew apart during my pre-teen years, and my father came out as gay and began a life with the young man, half his age, with whom he had been having an affair, I strove to let him know that I accepted them both and my love for him had not changed.
When my mother married the abusive man with whom she had begun an affair in response to my father’s affair, I was determined to maintain a loving relationship with her, despite his abuse toward both of us, even after she left me with friends and followed him thousands of miles away.
When my first husband, my high school sweetheart, ironically also came out as gay, I was determined that we would remain close friends, which we are to this day.
When my second husband was emotionally and at times physically abusive, I tried as hard as I could to show him love and respect, staying with him and supporting him through the cancer that ultimately took his life, because I believed that was the right way to respond.
I chose to act in those ways not so much out of fear of God, but from a desire to please him. My outward actions were not much different after I learned of grace than they were before, but internally everything changed.
When I learned that despite my best efforts I would always fall short of earning God’s approval, and that, for that very reason, Jesus came to live a perfectly pleasing life, which he credited to me, and then died for my sins, I discovered that I no longer had to deny what I felt on the inside. I could be honest with myself about the tremendous sense of abandonment I felt because of what both of my parents had done. I could admit the anger and betrayal I felt. I could confess the resentment I harbored against them.
I had permission to acknowledge the very real damage I had suffered because of their choices; but I could also see that it was possible for those feelings to coexist with the love I still had for them. I could love them because I could see them as people just like me, with the damages they brought with them to parenthood from their own childhoods. I could see them not just as my parents but also as fellow sinners in need of a savior.
Because of grace, I was able to admit that my feelings toward my first husband were not so straightforward and forgiving, but that they were actually complicated and messy. I could acknowledge that they were inextricably tangled with my feelings about my parents’ divorce, and my father in particular. I could allow myself to be gentle with the abandoned child in me that arose to process and grieve both failed marriages. And I could simultaneously allow myself to want to preserve a friendship with someone who had been my best friend.
Grace also allowed me to admit that, despite my desire to be the selfless wife to my second husband, I was actually bitter and full of self-pity. I held myself, and what I saw as my sacrifice, in high esteem. I was proud of my noble long-suffering for this undeserving man. The fact of the matter is, both of us were undeserving and my choices were made as much, if not more, from my own selfish needs than for any noble reasons. To be honest, I feel that my husband, in the final months of his life, demonstrated more genuine grace to me than I did to him.
Here’s the truth: None of our acts of grace, no matter how they may appear to others, are ever pure. They are, of necessity, very faint imitations of the grace we have received. They are always tainted with things like resentment, self-pity and self-righteousness. Our best acts still require forgiveness.
I am not suggesting that we should stop trying to do what we believe is right because our motives will never be pure! I am saying, however, that we are free to stop pretending that our motives are pure. We are free to declare that we are simultaneously saints and sinners. We are free to confess all of the messiness of our hearts. We are free to acknowledge that the longing to do good coexists with the reality of our hurt and anger. We are free to admit that our acts of grace are never worthy of any praise or glory directed at us. They are only our very limited, faulty response to the undeserved grace that has been freely and generously poured out on us in and through Jesus Christ.