The early, formative years of my Christianity were good for teaching me essentials for what it meant to have a relationship with God. i learned how to read the Bible, how to know i was forgiven of sin, and other core tenants of the faith.
It was bad, however, with regard to some of the ways of thinking that were passed on to me which became themes of my relationship with God.
God’s unconditional love was something i heard about often, but it seemed like that was mere talk because there was still a focus on how i performed as a Christian.
i heard a lot back then about “cheap grace,” which i always thought was a weird phrase. The idea was that if i kept sinning and returning to God, relying on His grace, i was actually mistreating His grace. Some even held that if i did that i probably was deceiving myself and most likely i wasn’t actually a Christian.
i look back on those years with mixed feelings. On one hand, i learned some valuable things and i got a foundation for my faith. On the other hand, i had fear and anxiety about my faith.
This was particularly acute because i was addicted to porn, lust, and masturbation at the time. Those were things that immediately put God’s unconditional love to the test, and seemed to put me directly in the crosshairs of the Cheap Grace firing squad.
i was caught in a whirlpool of faith, fear, sexual acting out, and confusion. Confusion about my heart, my true desires, and about the heart of God.
Naturally, my compulsive behavior went viral. Beginning in college and progressing steadily afterward, i pursued my sexual appetites — still riddled with angst as that behavior collided with my professed faith in Jesus — and the whirlpool intensified.
What i have learned since that time is that God really does love me unconditionally, and i am unable to exhaust His grace.
The interesting thing is that rather than abuse those truths, i cherish them and i am transformed as i live in them. Becoming convinced of my status as a true child of God for whom He kills the fattened calf has caused me to actually desire God and His presence more and more in my life, which means my heart seeks that rather than my sinful, compulsive sexual behavior.
Knowing that God’s grace flows abundantly doesn’t make me want to sin and “get away with it,” which is what various mentors in my early Christian development told me would happen if i failed to grasp the dangers of “Cheap Grace.”
Rather, the abundance of God’s grace, and the inexhaustible nature of it, makes me want a deep, intimate life with the giver of the grace.
This is exactly the opposite of what i feared in the early days of my faith. i had become convinced, based on what i was hearing in the church and from other Christians, that taking God at His word regarding unconditional love and grace would lead to licentiousness. In other words, i’d spin out of control in my sin.
The irony, of course, is that i spun out of control with my sin by following the constrained understanding of love and grace that was being taught to me. i spun out of control as i followed the religious model for how to keep my life under control. i spun out of control by not taking God at His word on love and grace.
But that’s what fear will do to you.
Fear reduces the great news to good news — sort of. The great news is that we can rely on the Father’s reaction to the younger son in the story of the Prodigal Son being the same response we will get from Him no matter how many times we run off.
As a result of Fear, however, we think that what we read in the story of the Prodigal can’t be real. What we are left with is so-called good news, which really isn’t good news at all. We come to believe that we have to make ourselves moral so that we don’t push our luck where grace is concerned.
Fear twists the promise of God’s full-bodied celebration at our return into the Gospel of Sin Management — as Dallas Willard called it — and before you know it, we are all the older son in the story of the Prodigal.
The irony, of course, is that sin management never works and it is nowhere close to the vibrant, abundant life that is ours for the taking.
The truth is that God really does love us unconditionally, and we are unable to exhaust His grace. If we lean into that fully we will draw ever closer to real freedom because that truth changes our hearts and aligns them with His.