Eric Fromm, in his classic “The Art of Loving”, writes that a healthy environment for growing up would include parents who, between them, would receive both an unconditional love and a very conditional and demanding love. That sounds controversial of course, and probably is. But I wonder if there isn’t some merit in thinking about it a bit before dismissing it outright. After all, Jesus, we’re told, was full of grace and truth. He told his followers that they needed to be perfect, and the road was both narrow and terribly demanding. On the other hand, he continually reached out to people whose lives, by any standard, would be called failures, and healed, embraced, and transformed them. And what seems even more significant to me is that when people who signed on to follow him failed (as they all did at various times), his response was restorative and grace filled every time. Peter, who lied and denied knowing Jesus on the night of Jesus’ arrest was the guy who, after the resurrection was given significant leadership by Jesus in his new enterprise. Truth and love. Grace and holiness. Failure and Mercy. It seems that each one in these pairs needs the other.
I have a couple of memories firmly fixed in my childhood that embody this grace/truth paradox. In one instance, I’m about to get my rear struck with a paddle (and don’t miss the point for the story, because the point isn’t to glorify or demonize spanking) because of something I’d done wrong. In the other, I think the same thing’s going to happen, but it doesn’t because in the 2nd story the parent, no less appalled that I’d broken the rules (and because of breaking the rules, had also broken a window), offers forgiveness that’s so thoroughly woven into the punishment that I still point to that restorative moment as the most powerful grace moment in my life up to that point, foundational for helping me trust a God of grace.
The two stories, taken together with Fromm’s quote, have me thinking a lot about grace and truth these days because it seems that we’re having a hard time as Christ followers showing the world both of these cards in the same hand. There are groups that play the grace card all the time, but their plays have become pretty much meaningless, because grace means that though you’re forgiven from falling, the goal is still to climb something. Falling was a mistake, and mistakes can be made, even should be made. They’re only mistakes though, if they mean we’ve slid further away from the goal, the summit. If there is no summit then falls become the new normal, a way of slowly descending into the mediocrity, entitlement, and self-pity that characterize so very many in our broken world. Instead of an upward call, these grace folks are descending into canyons, and getting there by fall after fall.
Those who only have the truth card in their hand aren’t faring any better because if all they can offer is a demand for obeying the rules, if the only acceptable step is a step toward the summit, then we find ourselves in a culture of pretense and paralysis – afraid to move for fear of falling, and afraid of telling anyone when we do. A man tells his wife that he’s struggling with lust, and she labels him a sex addict and leaves him. A woman shares her struggles with intimacy, rooted in past abuse, and her husband freezes, not knowing how to nurture her in her vulnerability, which only helps build a thicker shell against real connection. Children give right answers they don’t believe, fearing rejection. Religious leaders become pompous pretenders of righteousness, living in a confession free zone where their vulnerability isn’t encouraged because people want a “strong leader”, and so it goes until said leader is exposed for being human after all, at which point he/she is labelled a hypocrite.
What’s a person to do? Realize and accept that:
I’ll only fall “from” if I have a noble goal.
There was a girl from Mississippi who participated in our wilderness program, and when she saw snow capped Mt. Baker for very first time as I was driving her to the mountains from the airport I said, “you’ll be climbing that in five weeks!” The color drained from her face and she got very quiet. It’s a longer story than this moment, but five weeks later she was on the glacier practicing crevasse rescue, smiling, laughing, comfortable. You don’t do that without being willing to go after something bigger than your capacity. That’s why Jesus made following him hard and talked about selling everything, and being perfect. It’s not that he demanded perfection as a condition for following – it’s that he has a vision of what we can be, both as individuals and as a species. It’s not the failure that breaks his heart. It’s that he sees us settling in the lowlands when the heights of knowing God and participating in God’s story are offered us. As Lewis says,
“It would seem that our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half hearted creatures, fooling about with drink, sex, and ambition, when infinite joy is offered us… we are far too easily pleased.” Indeed! What would happen if we believed that we were created for “good works” and determined that we’d spend the rest of our days discovering what those are and living into them? Grand adventures would await, along with great joy, great meaing….and yes – failure.
Falling’s a vital part of reaching the noble goal.
You didn’t learn how to walk without falling, or ride a bike without falling, or spell, do math, or any other thing, without falling. If you’ve fallen along every worthy path you’ve ever pursued, what makes you think that you won’t fall on your way to the summit of making Jesus visible in every area of your life?
Environments where it’s safe to fail are environments that encourage honesty, confession and these are the two critical elements that result in our transformation. Take them away and our fear of falling will mean we never move. Sadly, “never moving”, or “afraid of moving”, or “risked greatness once and failed” are becoming increasingly familiar themes in our culture.
Choosing between these two truths isn’t an option. Like so many realities in life, try to pick only one and you’ll lose them both! Because of this, I plan on climbing and falling… climbing and falling… ’til the day I die!