Recently, Oprah had a show about Ted Rodrigue, the 45-year-old homeless man who was selected as the subject of a documentary on homelessness. After passing the medical exam, a psychiatric evaluation, and a drug test, cameras began following him around his daily routine. That's when Ted discovered the briefcase planted by film producers with a $100,000 in it. Filmmakers also offered Ted a variety of free services including counseling, financial planning, and job placement. It was a grand experiment of grace.
Ted was excited. So excited that instead of pursuing the services offered him, he began buying gifts for family and friends. Later he said ... "I thought with that money I could go back to Sacramento and reunite with my family and that it would change everything. It did for a while. I had more friends than I could count. I even got married." But only a year later, the $100,000 was all gone, along with the friends, family, and even the new wife. Today, Ted Rodrigue is homeless again, just as before, but now even more cynical about the world and his own potential. Grace failed.
Why didn't that "undeserved favor" work? How is that kind of grace different from the grace offered to us by God through Jesus?
Many of us know that little verse in Romans 3:23 reminding us that "the wages of sin is death. I've heard a lot of folks use that verse to teach that God's love and sacrifice are mysterious and unexplainable provisions of grace from which we worthless, scum-sucking, bottom-feeders can benefit. It's a pretty harsh way to view grace (and love); but it's the natural conclusion of people who only look at wages.
Thankfully, there is more to humanity than our wage. There is also our worth. And the difference is substantial.
A wage is what we earn by doing; but worth is what have by simply being. Our wage depends on our behavior; but our worth depends only on our identity. God sees our worth - the worth He created in us and still sees, despite our sin and its wage, and He loves us for it. He loves us because we're worth loving. And His grace comes from His love... not the other way around!
$100,000 in a briefcase to a homeless man is truly a gift of grace; but there was only money in that case, no love. There was no personal relationship in which love could even begin to function ("You cannot love what you do not know"). That's why Ted Rodrigue's life was unaffected. God's grace, however, is founded upon and directed by His overwhelming love for us and is always given in the context of a personal relationship! It's a love that we do not EARN but are nevertheless WORTH because of who we are as His creation.
And ... not only does God give us His transformational loving grace, but then He invites us to take on His grace-giving ministry! 2 Corinthians 5:18 says that Jesus has "given us His ministry of reconciliation". It's His ministry of grace, to be given as it was received... flowing from our authentic love through personal relationships with those who are worth much more than their wages have earned them.
Christians are too comfortable with giving loveless grace. Writing checks is way easier than engaging messy people in loving, personal, gracious relationships. But God's grace, real grace, only functions in us when we pass it on; and we can only pass it on in the same way we received it.
Want to help the poor, broken, orphaned, addicted, or imprisoned? Then go find them, get as close to them as you can, love them authentically, and then give your gifts of grace! Meet messy people, build loving relationships, pray for them by name, get personal, give grace. Forgive the individuals who have torn your heart out and betrayed you. Let God's supernatural grace flow into and out of you, like a healing river, to the messiest people you can find. Freely you have received. Freely give. Let the river flow.