Grace for the Incompent


It is necessary that I carry on from yesterday, building upon that moment of refulgent insight that the property of every child is first incompetence and second garbage collecting.

But first, let me say that their rooms look very nice, very presentable, very clean, except the boys’ room for which nothing can be done. Large Star Wars posters have been affixed to the wall with duck tape (!) and there is an expansive dusty lego battle scene arranged on a card table. How this came to be an essential part of their bedroom experience, a permanent fixture, as it were, I cannot fathom. Childhood is a mystery to the adult. Perhaps it’s better that I don’t try to understand.

And now, cue obvious metaphor for the Christian’s experience with God. Or, as I like to think of it, the only way to understand grace.

There isn’t any better way to see the grace of God than to go in and try to fix something for someone that shouldn’t have been broken or ruined in the first place. But the thing was broken. So then it should have been mended and restored by that person, but that didn’t happen either. Even if he had wanted to fix it, and that is a dubious proposition, he was Unable to fix it. In the world of the adult, this reality, though surely the truth, isn’t perhaps as obvious–lest all civilization perish. Most of the time you function in the sphere of your own competence. You might get a job, for instance, that you are properly trained to do, and then you go on doing that job, you even get money for it, money that lets you do other tasks that you are able to do and therefore enjoy doing.

Sometimes, though, the divine breaks through and your own terrifying mistakes and failures ruin it for other people. You forget to make a call, perhaps, or you calculate something wrongly, or misunderstand someone in the office, or you realize, as you are keeping house, that you have no idea what you are doing. But these kinds of problems can often be remedied by you yourself, whoever you are. An apology, a refiguring, a quick phone call, a google search for Remove All The Stains.

This being so, it is but natural to project one’s own competence into the heavens. Look, you say, I’m not perfect. I make mistakes. But nobody is and I’m a basically good person so just give me some quick task so that I can show God how together I am, and I’ll be good to go. That is generally the posture of the adult towards God. And it’s why Jesus, when presented with a small incompetent (and I would venture to say garbage collecting) child, seizes upon the obvious illustration and turns it into a sermon.

‘Unless you become as one of these, a child, you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.’ And probably a still deathly silence fell, because even though Big is a really funny movie, nobody really wants to go back in time and relive the horror of adolescence, not even for the charm of childhood.

But consider the child. He is not all that charming. His world is difficult and troublesome. By reason of his dependent incompetence, he is always trying to do the things he ought to do, but he can never completely do them. He lives in an adult world without the gifts and abilities of the adult. In this way he is the perfect icon of the individual before God. The measure by which we are measured is perfection. Jesus says it himself. ‘Be perfect’ he says ‘as my father in heaven is perfect.’ That places you in an impossible situation, one much like a child trying to clean his own room.

He cannot do it, and neither can you.

But he has something that you haven’t considered–parents, or a guardian, or, even better, childlike knowledge that someone, anyone, will clean it for him.

And that is inevitably what happens. You clean the child’s room. You dig out the muck. You sort and throw and sort and throw while the child lies on the floor, or dances around in the background saying things like, ‘I was going to throw away the garbage, and make my bed, and hang up my clothes, can I go play now?’ When you clean the child’s room you give grace, you lift the burden, you actively pull that child out of the pit he has dug for himself.

And this is forgiveness. This is grace and mercy embracing one another. When you do for another what he is unable to do for himself, the very thing that he should have done, you let the person go free from the burden and the guilt of not having done it. You have given to that person grace. Which is what God does with us.

He says Be Perfect, and then, when we fail at this basic point, he comes in and is perfect for us. He does for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Sitting on the floor gathering up broken shards of crayon and play doh always makes me want to weep. I am not the child who sees someone digging me out and is happy to strap on my nerf sword and my awesomeness and run away to play. I am the child dancing around on the margins, humiliated and worried about the bailout. I’m the one mumbling, ‘I was going to do that, I was going to fix that, I was going to pick that up, I was going to,’ all the while waiting for God to go away so that I can set to rights what I know he is destroying. Sure, it looks nicer when he’s done, but he’s arranging it wrongly, and he’s throwing away too much.

The child has no ultimate control, and neither do you. Not even all the way into eternity. To become “as a child” isn’t to embrace the foolishness of youth, it is to acknowledge the frailty, the weakness, the incompetence, the garbage, the basic fact that you need help, you can’t do it. That’s the first step. The second step is to rejoice over the help, to be happy over the forgiveness, to be relived by the lifting up of the burden. Incompetence and garbage collecting are the properties of the child, but even more so are gratitude and joy. The faltering, unencumbered prayerful joy of the very young child far surpass the troubled, anxious prayers of the adult.

At the end of the day, when everything was finally, finally clean, my youngest child jumped around in a circle and announced, ‘Look, we cleaned the room!’ Which was not particularly true. I cleaned it while she kept messing it up. But it’s hers. It is for her.

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