Guilty. That's the only way to describe my friend the day we had lunch. He had recently been battling some issues that had begun to affect his young marriage. His wife suggested we talk, so there we were at lunch. I began to ask him how he felt God fit into his life. He recounted his Catholic upbringing and very honestly confessed he really wasn't sure. All he was sure of was how guilty he was feeling. He and his wife have been attending our church, which was his secret attempt to appease his guilty conscience.
By now you may be wondering what he was feeling so guilty over. I'm not totally sure the whole story, but much of it was accumulated over a lifetime of being the rebellious kid who was always in trouble. This pattern continued into college where he found plenty to feel guilty about. The guilt was deeper than simple remorse over a few bad choices. It seems he grew up in an environment where he just never measured up to the expectations.
After we had eaten our salads, it became clear to me that this guy needed the Gospel. I don't mean that in a "know-it-all preacher" sort of way. I don't think I've ever seen someone facing that level of guilt while still holding it all together. This guy is successful, drives a great car, recently married to a beautiful young lady - everything seemed to be going for him...except this gnawing guilt he was carrying.
I decided to share with him the story of the brick mailbox...
Imagine that you were in a hurry and while backing out of your driveway, and you crash into your neighbor's brick mailbox across the street. Frustrated that this only makes you more late than before, you know you have to stop and take responsibility. About the time you get out of your car, your neighbor appears. You recognize him but only because you pass him on occasion as he mows his grass; he always seemed like a decent guy.
Before he gets close enough to assess the damage you announce, "I'm really sorry, man, I was in too big a hurry and just didn't see your mailbox. I will gladly take care of the expenses." Your neighbor seems a little more concerned than you expected, after all it's only a mailbox. He then tells you that the mailbox is no ordinary mailbox. In fact, he had these bricks specially made out of a rare material. The cost is astronomical. Each brick costs in the millions of dollars. You chuckle at first, thinking this must be some kind of joke. You wonder if you are on an episode of Punk'd, but then you see he is serious. Your heart sinks; you know you cannot afford it. You ask him to explain the situation again, hoping you simply misunderstood. He repeats his explanation of how each brick would require literally millions to replace, he even offers to allow you to see the certificate of authenticity that comes with each brick. Immediately you begin to stutter, attempting to figure out something to say to make things better.
Standing there in the mire of inescapable guilt, you meekly say, "Sir, I can't afford it." There is an uncomfortable pause. Then your neighbor reveals a grin on the left side of his mouth and says, "No worries, I'll take care of it." You can't believe your ears. "Really?" you say. "Really." he replies. "Have a good day." Then he turns, picks up his paper and heads back inside. You stand there until his door closes behind him, and you get back in your car and drive off. All the way to work you cannot believe what just happened.
A few weeks later you notice some brick layers hard at work resurrecting the mailbox you destroyed with your carelessness. Sure enough, the bricks were unlike any you had ever seen. After work the mailbox was complete and looked great.
Obviously, this story is absurd in order to make the point about grace clear. The neighbor extended grace in a way that reminds us of God's grace to us. In the midst of our guilt, we have nothing to offer God except a contrite admission that we just can't fix the problem we have created by our sin. In a scandalous reply, God simply says, "I'll take care of it." This is the reason we believe in the death of Jesus on the cross. His death was the payment for the sins we committed. Someone had to pay, and Jesus willingly took the hit.
To push the parable a little bit further...imagine if a few weeks later the same generous neighbor approached you about picking up his paper while he is away on business. Would you do it? Of course you would! After the display of generosity he showed, it's the least you can do. In fact, it's likely you would offer to mow his grass or anything else he needed! Here's the deeper question, Do you think your willingness to pick up his paper or mow his grass in any way serves as a reimbursement for the expense of the mailbox? Definitely not. You aren't trying to pay him back; you are simply showing your gratitude. It's the least you can do! This is how the grace of God leads us to obedience in the Christian life. We obey and do "good works," not because they in any way reimburse God for His great mercy and sacrifice, but rather to reveal our gratitude for His grace...as the least you can do.
Guilt is a funny thing. It doesn't just go away. You have to do something with it. Some will carry their guilt all their lives and live on the treadmill of trying to be good enough to make it go away. Others will discover the good news of the Gospel and by faith place their guilt on Jesus and walk away free and clear. Believing in Jesus actually means believing that Jesus freely receives your guilt. Believing in Jesus means living in the understanding that you are free from guilt and shame. Believing in Jesus means living a life of obedience to His Word because you are grateful, knowing you couldn't pay for grace in the first place and you can't pay God back for it now. Everyone has to decide what they believe about Jesus.
My friend told me this understanding of God and Jesus is something he missed along the way in Catholic church. He told me he would give it some serious thought. Perhaps you will too.
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