It was a cold spring morning in Pittsburgh. Paul Zahl and I were getting ready to leave his house in Sewickley, PA at 5:00 a.m. to travel to San Diego for a fundraiser. Now our flight did not leave until 9:00 a.m., and it only takes about 20 minutes to get to the Pittsburgh International Airport from Paul’s old home. In the car Paul said to me, “Thank you Jacobus for being here so early; I like to give myself plenty of time when I travel,” to which I responded, “No problem. It is always better to be safe, rather than sorry.” “Only in an airport sense,” he responded, “in all other situations, it is always better to be sorry rather than safe because when you are sorry there and there alone can you be forgiven.”
That statement cut me to the heart because it was so true and cleared up for me what the Christian life is all about — repentance. The majority of our lives are spent trying to be “safe.” We want to justify ourselves in every situation: from why we were late at work, to why we shouldn’t let our spouse off the hook for their angry outburst the previous night. Sadly the majority of apologies I hear in the ministry today always have attached to them the conditional statements “if” and “but.” “I am sorry if I hurt you.” “I am sorry but you were doing this to me.” That is not true repentance, rather those statements are simply attempts at being safe, masquerading as sorry.
When safety is the goal, we stand on our own two feet. This then puts us on the defensive because we must maintain our own perceived idea of perfection. In this posture, grace is a noun; it is what I need from God to help me maintain my perfection and stay safe. This is contrasted with being sorry, which places us on our knees. Grace then is a verb, God’s unmediated forgiveness and mercy towards the imperfect. Therefore, the importance of being sorry, rather than safe, is central to understanding the Gospel.
It is when we are sorry that we can hear the message of Jesus Christ, the man of sorrows, declaring his forgiving promises over not only our trespasses, but our entire lives.
Paul taught me in that moment that the Gospel is not for those who are safe and busy justifying themselves, even in an airport sense. Rather the Gospel is for the sorry, those who know they are miserable offenders – victimizers — standing guilty and justly condemned before a holy God. It is when one is sorry that they understand what grace is all about and know from the cross that there is a God who justifies the ungodly. As the British missionary W. Spencer Walton articulated, “In tenderness he sought me, weary and sick with sin, and on his shoulders brought me back to his fold again.” It is better to be sorry rather than to be safe because when you are sorry there and there alone can you be forgiven.