‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ Nehemiah 8:9-10
As the people weep and mourn for the sinful, law-breaking ways, Nehemiah, Ezra, and the Levites call the people to look no longer at themselves but at Another, God himself, because His unmerited joy in them is their strength. All hope rests in Him not in them, the people. Look no where else! They proclaim, look to the One who is your strength, hope, comfort and who will rescue you. Because if we do look somewhere else, especially at ourselves—at how unworthy we are—we will despair.
I’ve spent a good deal of my adult life as a Christian having difficulty accepting God’s free, gracious gift of grace, of being freely justified by faith in Christ alone. Because of some of the events of my past, I’ve always felt—deeply and palpably—my unworthiness, my unseemliness, my dirtiness. I’m not pushing the hyperbole to say that I would have rather had Christ’s eyes look anywhere else than my direction—do not look upon me, my shame, my wretchedness. Even as I embraced—desperately—the doctrine of Justification and the actuality of God’s two words, and as I understood to great depths that it was free and by faith alone, the free gift didn’t sink in personally. It remained out there, for others, and not for me. How could God really love someone this abused, this broken and unworthy? As I looked at myself and looked at the Gift, I couldn’t reconcile the two, surely some merit had to be involved on my end, and surely I did not possess it. I could understand the Gift for others—self-righteously presuming they were somehow less dirty than me. I saw myself, a teacher of this very theology, as merely a signpost on the way to condemnation and death, don’t follow me, but go in the direction in which I point, it is not too late for you. I remember the first time, a little over a year ago, when my therapist requested that I say the words, “I am justified by faith alone.” I pushed them out through a clenched jaw and gritted teeth. Now, those words, rather than bring shame or pain, bring comfort. They are the words I repeat when confronted with recurring feelings of guilt and failure.
I’m not alone. My experience is not unique. If we are honest, we’ve all been caught between the awesomeness of the gift and the truth of who and what we are. And that position feels like being caught between a rock and a hard place.
So why is it so hard to accept such a free gift? People mistakenly think that a free gift is easy to receive. Sure, a free stick of gum I’ll take any time. But something larger, more substantial? I really want to earn it. It’s not easy to receive a free gift. In fact, it’s quite difficult. Being naturally poor recipients, we, to some degree, abhor the free gift. We would much rather pay for it, but we can’t and the free gift is offensive because we are unworthy—in our terms—to gain such a gift. We are small in comparison to the gift, and we spurn the gift and turn away, too focused on ourselves.
Luther writes in his commentary on the book of Galatians,
Therefore if I am little and the thing that is being given to me is great—in fact, the greatest there is—I must think that the One who is giving it to me is also great and that he alone is great. If He is offering it and wants to give it, I do not consider my own sin and unworthiness, No, I consider the fatherly will that He who is giving it has toward me. I accept the greatness of the gift with joy; and I am happy and grateful for such an inestimable gift granted to me in my unworthiness, freely and by hearing and faith.
Luther, like Nehemiah, exhorts us not to look too long upon our lowly estate but to the one who gave the gift to us in the first place: the Giver. If it is the Giver’s will for us to have such an immeasurable, beautiful gift, who are we to deny Him? The Giver, the Lord, the Creator of Heaven and Earth has stooped low and given us the greatest and most costly gift that could ever be: His Son. All that Christ is and offers is ours by faith alone, thus the gift is free. By His love we are declared worthy to receive such a gift apart from anything we have ever done–or that has been done to us.
Now that is an occasion for a party.