And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.
I once had a friend in college who was a kind soul but profoundly confused and deeply conflicted due to some difficulties in his past. Like many people, the outward bearing of his inward struggle resulted in, shall we say, an achievement gap of sorts—so much so, in fact, that his grades in school were a consistent catastrophe, which really only exacerbated the issues.
On one particular occasion, after a Spring semester, he and his father were together when the mailman came by and happened to deliver my friend’s grades. As expected, my friend’s father opened the envelope, scanned the grades, looked at my friend, said, “Well, that’s pitiful,” and walked off in disgust. As he told me, I was reminded of Hank Williams’ famous “Men with Broken Hearts,” which goes “Have you ever watched with helpless hands while the heart inside you dies?” My friend could help what was happening inside no more than he could help his father’s reaction.
Did he deserve the rebuke? I suppose his father’s reaction was just. He hadn’t done enough work, he hadn’t gotten the grades, therefore he hadn’t gotten the praise which comes from achieving the grades. And his father’s expectations for achievement are not unfair or cruel in itself. I happen to know his father loves him and, for the most part, parents generally want their children to succeed and be happy.
And yet his father failed to see what was really going on. That’s nothing new–any parent or boss or civic entity denies the deeper realities of bondage and deep hurt. Albeit unwittingly, this denial can sound an awful lot like cruelty to the “Men with Broken Hearts.” The higher-up’s rebuke may be intended in loving interest; it still sounds like cruelty.
The message of Christianity is Romans 4:5, the good news of justification by grace alone, through faith alone. It is exactly the inverse to the cruel, manipulative language of achievement. When my friend’s paralysis took him to a dark cave, he helplessly watched his own heart inside him die. Feeling alone and doomed, he found company in Jesus Christ and His cross, who made his home in that self-same cave, with the dysfunctional, the paralyzed, and the hurt. When the world walks out on us, muttering “Pitiful,” our Lord turns to us and says, “Surely I am with you, even to the end of days.”