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Couple cancels their big wedding and gives Thanksgiving dinners to the needy: The paradoxical path to transforming grace

Posted December 04, 2020

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Emily Bugg and Billy Lewis had to change their wedding plans in Chicago due to the pandemic, getting married at city hall last month instead. There was this piece of unfinished business, however: What should they do with their $5,000 nonrefundable catering deposit?

They decided to turn it into two hundred Thanksgiving dinners for people with severe mental illnesses. Emily is an outreach worker at a nonprofit that helps people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other psychiatric conditions. As a result of their contribution, clients received a boxed dinner of turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, green beans, and other dishes. 

“So many people have told me this was a beautiful way to start our married life together,” she said. 

Hope has a name 

How did reading this story make you feel? 

Redeeming challenges for a greater good strikes a chord in us. This is because, as Moral Foundations Theory states, it is human nature to affirm decisions that show we care, uphold standards of fairness, demonstrate loyalty to others, respect traditions (such as Thanksgiving), and strive for nobility. 

But there’s an even more foundational explanation for this impulse to kindness: it reflects the imago Dei, the fact that we are each made in the image of God and bear even in our fallen nature a likeness to our Maker (cf. Genesis 1:27). 

Over and over again, Scripture reveals that our Father loves us. He assured his people that “the Lord delights in you” (Isaiah 62:4). He says of us, “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands” (Isaiah 49:16) and calls us his “treasured possession” (Malachi 3:17). His saving desire is to “present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him” (Colossians 1:22). 

Can we believe that God loves us even in the midst of a pandemic? Actually, as Christmas reminds us, it is in times of suffering that his love is most relevant to us. He is “Immanuel,” which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23). The prophet said of our Savior, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwell in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shown” (Isaiah 9:2).  

As a result, as Chris Pappalardo writes in Christianity Today, “Even as we weep, we do so with a thrill of hope. Hope does not stop our tears; hope gives them meaning. Hope does not remove our longing; in Christ, hope redirects it. That which we long for—justice, wholeness, healing—has a name. His name is Jesus, and he is near to the brokenhearted.” 

He was born to die that we might die to live 

This week, we’ve been exploring practical ways to experience Jesus more intimately during this Christmas season. Today, let’s focus on the wrong way to respond to his unconditional love, then we’ll choose the path that leads to his best for us. 

When we know that God loves us unconditionally, we are tempted to view such love as a license to live without consequences. We can always repent of our sins and be forgiven, we say to ourselves. We know we are going to heaven, so we can do what we wish on earth, exercising what Friedrich Nietzsche called the “will to power” and living as our own God (cf. Genesis 3:5). Or so we think. 

Such presumption is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer described in The Cost of Discipleship as “cheap grace.” He defined it as “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession . . . grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” 

Cheap grace ignores the cost of our salvation to our Savior. It ignores the fact that he left his throne in heaven to be born in a feed trough. He left the side of his Father to be born to peasants and worshiped by field hands. He left the worship of angels to lead sinful and often disappointing disciples. 

He was born to die that we might die to live. Now he calls us to respond to such grace with gratitude that fires and inspires our highest commitment to holiness. 

The obedience that leads to transforming grace 

The psalmist proclaimed, “Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in his ways!” (Psalm 128:1, my emphasis). Note the present tense, regardless of circumstances. If we “fear” and revere our Savior by walking “in his ways,” we will be “blessed.” 

Why is such obedience essential to experiencing God’s grace? 

Our Creator is a Father who seeks to bless his children whenever and however he can. However, we must live in such a way that his blessing helps and does not harm us. If he blesses me without calling me to repent for my sins, he reinforces them, leading to further sin and disastrous consequences. If I will pay the price of holiness, however, I will be blessed beyond the cost of that commitment. (For more, see my latest video, “What does the Bible say about temptation?“) 

In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis said of those in hell, “They enjoy forever the horrible freedom they have demanded, and are therefore self-enslaved; just as the blessed, forever submitting to obedience, become through all eternity more and more free.” 

If I am in jail but wish to be free, I must obey the jailer who can lead me out of prison. I can exercise freedom to disobey the jailer and thus to stay in jail, or I can exercise obedience to the one who alone can set me free.

Which will you choose today?

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