Since 2001, MercyMe’s enormously popular song “I Can Only Imagine” has encouraged us to imagine what heaven will be like, standing before God, overwhelmed by his holiness and power. Such flights of imagination can help us gain important perspective on earthbound life and its concerns.
Here’s another imaginative exercise that can change a Christian’s perspective: imagine what you would be like without God’s grace.
For some of us, this doesn’t take much imagination. For people new to faith or early in the journey toward becoming more like Jesus, a short trip down memory lane might show you exactly who you would be a without grace and forgiveness through Jesus. But for others, like me, thinking back to life without Jesus means remembering life as young children, certainly sinful but lacking the capacity and opportunity for the kind of great and scarring sin that can mark the lives of adults and teenagers. I used to think this made me boring; now it just makes me grateful.
For longtime Christians like me, it’s natural to lose sight of what we have been saved from, and to judge others by the standards we think we can live up to. Self-righteousness is one of our great temptations, especially for those of us who, by God’s grace, avoided picking up a lot of war wounds and haunting habits that regularly remind us what we’re capable of.
I once belonged to a Bible study group in which the discussion often degenerated into a head-shaking session, with pursed church-lady lips railing against the pervasiveness of sin in the world around us. One person in particular often steered the conversation in this direction and seemed especially fond of pointing out the depravity of celebrities. I couldn’t help wondering what was going on in her life that made her want to look so hard at what was wrong with other people.
I have a pretty good imagination and often a bad attitude, and these elements conspire to remind me who I might be without God’s grace and transformation. It’s truly not a pretty picture.
The Great Apostle Paul knew he wasn’t pretty either: “ ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’—and I am the worst of them all. But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:15-16).
“Though I am the least deserving of all God’s people, he graciously gave me the privilege of telling the Gentiles about the endless treasures available to them in Christ” (Ephesians 3:8).
“The worst of them all?” “The least deserving of all God’s people?” At first glance, this might sound like false modesty. After all, Paul was the first missionary, responsible for bringing the good news about Jesus to Gentiles, for spreading Christianity throughout the ancient world and ultimately for extending God’s grace to people like me. He sacrificed everything for the sake of this mission, endured hardships greater than most of us can even imagine, and most likely died a martyr. He authored half of the books in the New Testament.
Yet Paul didn’t have to use his imagination to consider what his life would be like without grace. Before Jesus literally stopped him in his tracks on the road to Damascus, Paul was a self-righteous hater. He zealously persecuted people who followed Jesus, dragging them from their homes and throwing them in prison. He participated in the stoning of Stephen, and he probably had the blood of other Christ-followers on his hands as well. He didn’t experience a change of heart through gentle conviction, coming to realization of his sin and his need for God’s grace through Jesus. Instead, in order to change Paul’s heart, Jesus had to personally appear to him, speak audibly, strike him blind, and send him begging for help to the very people he had been persecuting. I think Paul was genuine in his characterization of himself. He knew who he was, and he knew he didn’t deserve what Jesus did for him.
Even after his dramatic conversion and his powerful ministry, Paul was aware of his ongoing appetite for sin: “I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin” (Romans 7:21-25). No question who Paul was in his natural state.
When Paul wanted to remind the Ephesian church that their salvation was a gift from God—not something they had earned—he reminded them who they were without it: “Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else” (Ephesians 2:1-3). They didn’t deserve God’s gift, and neither do the rest of us.
One more thing Paul said, this time to the church in Corinth: “It isn’t my responsibility to judge outsiders, but it certainly is your responsibility to judge those inside the church who are sinning. God will judge those on the outside; but as the Scriptures say, ‘You must remove the evil person from among you’ ” (1 Corinthians 5:12-13). In other words, we should be harsh with our own sin, but it isn’t our job to judge the world around us.
Next time you’re tempted to shake your head at the sinful choices of someone who hasn’t been changed by God’s grace, try using your imagination to picture yourself in the same circumstances. Then thank God for rescuing the person you could be. You might find that your gratitude overwhelms your capacity for judgment. It’s hard to be shocked by someone else’s sin when we’re honest about our own potential.
© 2012 Amy Simpson.