It was a huge mistake. And it was not a mistake that one could run from. It was the sort that had to play out, no escape. The consequences had to be faced, and the reality swallowed.
Those are the worst mistakes.
Those are the mistakes for which grace seems a hollow promise, an unsubstantiated possibility that you know will never come to be in any truly comforting way.
Yes, of course, the promise of eternal absolution remains. The priest gives us his assurance at the confessional booth, or the words of ‘grace through faith’ are proclaimed from the stage.
But this does not always feel like enough. This often fails to give us hope in the midst of the right-now consequences, the right-now reality, the right-now guilt. Grace is hard to imagine when you total your car. It’s totaled, end of story. Grace is hard to imagine when someone’s adultery irrevocably destroys their marriage. It’s spoiled, end of story. Grace is hard to imagine when one says debilitating words to another. It’s said, end of story. Grace is hard to imagine from behind jail bars. You’re convicted, end of story. Consequences must come, and there is no escape. God will forgive us in heaven, but for now, He still intends to punish us. And that’s the long and short of it. And that is overwhelming and debilitating, and saps all hope from this life that we must endure until that day.
We are probably wrong to impatiently expect temporal well-being, present-day freedom from consequence and guilt, since we have only been promised an eternal comfort.
Still, the weight of our mistakes right now, in this world, is overwhelming. It is sometimes all we can see.
On good days, with small mistakes, we see them as challenges that call us to do better next time. Or we see them as a necessary reality of living in the ‘not-yet’ of the ‘already-not-yet,’ that must simply be endured. But there are also bad days. And there are also bigger mistakes. There are moments in which a path out of this very particular hole, that we have very personally and carefully constructed for ourselves, does not appear to exist; there is no way out, no enduring, no better next time. We will be yanked out and the hole will one day be filled in, we know, because the whole field of holes is going to be filled in eventually. But that still leaves us stuck here, for now.
It’s one of the more well known stories of the Old Testament, but far from most popular. Israel, ever rebellious, ever wanting to ‘be like the others,’ asks for a king. Severe warnings are given as to what a king will mean for them. There are severe consequences they should be prepared for. They beg regardless. The Lord hands them over to the consequences of their actions. And it does not take long before they realize the gravity of this mistake. But it’s a mistake they are stuck with. They are burdened with king after king, who manipulates and ‘idolitrates,’ leading them all into one pit of disaster and sin and guilt after another. The consequences are heavy. There is no grace here.
Yet. That promised eternal grace is no mere abstract promise of a do-over. Because, when we read a little further, we see that the whole Old Testament, from then on, hinges upon the context and language of this big ‘mistake,’ this ‘sin.’ A King is coming. And He will set up a Kingdom. And He will come straight from the line of one of these ‘accidental’ kings. This big ‘oops’ becomes the very vehicle and context of the plan of salvation. This guilt-ridden pit becomes the very hole out of which the greatest grace of all springs forth.
Grace is being worked out all around us, right now, right where we are. The times we fall down are not just blips on a screen, or burdens to carry, anomalies to push through. They are potential graces. They are mirrors of a faithfulness of God we may not yet understand.
I guess this really is back at that whole ‘all things work together for good,’ thing. I’ll completely confess that there are days in which this is not a very comforting sentiment. There are some pains that nothing really seems able to make up for. There are some losses that are, as far as we can tell, irrevocable. There are mistakes that demand to be felt, and absorbed as they are – any attempt at seeing a silver lining is a lie.
There is necessary mourning, there is necessary regret, there is necessary pain. And they are not just means to an end. But at the same time, this paradox remains: Grace is born out of failure, new out of the dead.
Even in our deeply-dug holes. Yes, even in our right-now consequences and our right-now guilt, He is preparing greater graces than we could ever imagine. I do not know if we always find them. I do not know if it is up to us to accept them. I do not know if they are always in this present life. But I believe that, somehow, they are there – or at least they can be.
And this is far from separated from the Eternal Promise. After all, who ever said eternity was some blank slate with no connection to our present life? The whole story of the Gospels is of the eternal Kingdom making itself known in the present – taking up real flesh and blood, with a particular ancient-Palestinian pigment, and with particular scars, into the eternal. Even the very particular mistakes and guilts that surround us, are unhatched eggs of new life. They themselves are going to turn into grace, perhaps in eternity. Or this may be the wrong way of thinking of it – that which bursts with God’s grace is eternity, if only in fragment.
This is that other piece of the faith and works dynamic in the book of James. Works are important, but faith is what reminds us that there is more to our works than us – there is grace. There is a grace that is working through, and even with, our failures – our lapsed works.
And so, when we are weighed down by the very-present-reality of our mistakes and their temporal consequences, let us remember that these are not hopeless realities or existences that we must endure until they are smashed by eternity. They are true opportunities for very real grace. Surprises exist behind every corner. Even when our Lord hands us over to consequence, to the realities of this world and our actions in it, it does not mean that grace has been lost. It does not mean that grace is something devoid of meaning, and abstract, and far-off. There is glory yet to come that will surpass even the weight of the consequences, so much so that this light and momentary affliction may begin to look like an eternal weight of glory.