I was stunned at his words, words that were my words. He was telling me what he’d heard me say about him, and while they weren’t intended as such, hearing those words again I couldn’t believe how callous they had been. How arrogant and mean. The man was right, I had treated him wrongly. I had sinned against him, and I had no excuses. Yet, he wasn’t angry. He had been angry–furious, really–that I had spoken ill of him behind his back, and his anger was fully justified.
But there was no anger now. In fact, he sat calmly and quietly, inviting me to respond.
How do I respond, when I was so clearly in the wrong? What could I say that would fix the situation? I had nothing. There was nothing I could deny. There were no excuses to make. All I had was a request. The Request. So I made it.
“I am sorry. Will you forgive me?”
He smiled. “Absolutely. I want us to be friends.” And he stuck out his hand, and our handshake became a hug. “Me too,” I said, and I meant it.
After he left, I remained standing for a minute, taking deep breaths and willing my heart rate to return to normal. The knot in my stomach of guilt and adrenaline loosened a bit, and I wiggled my fingers to encourage the blood to return to their icy tips. But the heaviness in my chest didn’t abate.
I had gotten a glimpse of my own arrogance. I’d seen my sin, and it was ugly. This guy’s love and a desire for reconciliation gave me the opportunity to examine my wrong actions and make things right. And afterwards I felt grateful to him, but my gratitude did not take away my regret. I regret the things I said, and I am grateful for his compassion and love. The two emotions undulated within me like waves traveling different directions. This, I thought, is what grace feels like.
We don’t receive grace in a vacuum. Whether from God or from someone else, grace comes to us in the context of our weakness and inadequacy. In fact, grace is the answer to the problem of our sin. But when we attempt to receive grace without grasping the gravity of our situation, we’re trying to get grace on the cheap.
Thus Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes in his most well-known book, The Cost of Discipleship, “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentence, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field… [I]t is costly becuase it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ… It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner. Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son: ‘ye were bought at a price,’ and what has cost God much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered him up for us.”
When we try to minimize our sin, we deny the cost of grace.
So there this man was, reaching out his hand and telling me that he wanted to be my friend, even after what he overheard me say. That was costly. By extending grace to me in that moment, he had to sacrifice his anger, his bitterness, and his right to be right, all for the sake of a relationship with me. And how can I ask for or receive his forgiveness without first counting his cost?
John Newton had it right. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound! that saved a wretch like me.” Some might find his self-deprication objectionable; “Oh, there’s that religious guilt and self-shaming.” I don’t think that’s Newton’s point. I think Newton just knew very well that grace is amazing only when we see it from the perspective of the wretch. The lost person, the blind person, the poor in spirit who stands before God with empty hands and a request. The Request.
“I am sorry. Will you forgive me?”