“Is the Gospel of Grace Even for My Abusers?”
This is the first article in our series, “The Hard Questions.” Being a student minister is tough. You’re often the person being approached with some of life’s most challenging questions. Sometimes you know what to say right away. Other times, you need to take a step back and consult with the Word, your piers, or your mentors. We’ve asked some very wise people about the hardest question they’ve been asked these days, and how they responded.
We sat in a circle looking at her as she processed what she had just heard. A few days ago the three of us were complete strangers, but now we were anything but. We had spent the last hour and a half listening to her describe to us, in heartbreaking detail, all of the people who had abused her – physically, mentally, and emotionally – when she was younger.
After explaining the gospel to this young lady who, tragically, seemed to have missed it in all her years at church, she asked a very pointed question:
“That’s all really helpful, and thank you for sharing it with me. But is what you just described available to the people who did these things to me?”
Let me backtrack. This girl (we’ll call her Zoe) was about to be a senior in high school, but didn’t go to the church where I was a youth pastor. I had met her just several days prior at a high school conference, where we broke out twice a day in small groups of about 30 people. Our group was led by a middle school art teacher (we’ll call her Ali). On the fourth day of the event, after everyone else had left for the evening, Zoe walked back through the door with the weight of the world on her shoulders. “I’m having a really hard time with some of the sermons this week, and I was hoping to talk about it.” So Ali and I sat down as Zoe opened up her life to us.
I played the Good Youth Pastor throughout. I prayed silently for wisdom as I listened, asking clarifying questions when needed, and Ali and I did what we could to make Zoe feel heard – something that, it turns out, was rare in her life. After listening to her story, I shared with her the Gospel of grace.
Her tearful smile faded. She thanked me, and asked that question which stopped me dead in my tracks. “I know it’s wrong, but I can’t help but feel anger towards these people who hurt me in so many ways. I want them to experience every hurt that I experienced. I want them to feel exactly how they made me feel.” I admired her honesty because, frankly, I didn’t blame her.
At its core, Zoe’s question was a cry for justice. Having heard this gospel of grace she wanted to know where the justice was in it all. I could have reminded her that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23), and yet “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). I could have told her that grace has to be for them because, if it isn’t, then how is it available for me? But as I heard about the many people in her life who had robbed her of her voice, her self-worth, and her ability to interact with God, these words didn’t seem quite right.
Part of the beauty of the gospel is that it is grace freely given. Sometimes the fact that it isn’t an “eye for an eye” offends our sensibilities as humans who long for a world that is fair and just, the way we understand fair and just. We want evil people to fall and godly people to prosper. But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what justice is, the way God sees it. The fact is that true justice will never be done on this side of heaven.
Let’s say your house is broken into and you’re robbed. Worldly justice says that the authorities catch the people who robbed you, they return to you the things that were stolen, and the thieves receive punishment for their crime. But this limited justice cannot undo what has happened to you. You are still left with a sense of distrust and lack of safety; this is something no worldly court can restore to you. No matter how much the wicked suffer for their evil deeds against you, their suffering does not undo your own. Not everything that was taken can be restored to you.
What makes God’s justice so beautiful is that it is ultimately restorative. In Revelation 21:2-5, we are told how the story ends. The New Jerusalem comes down from heaven and God finally and fully dwells with His people. We are promised that this means the end of suffering – of crying, pain, and tears – for God is making all things new. But we don’t have to wait until the New Jerusalem for this restoration to begin. C.S. Lewis put it this way in The Great Divorce:
“That is what mortals misunderstand. They say of some temporal suffering, “No future bliss can make up for it,” not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory… [this will] begin even before death. The good man’s past begins to change so that his forgiven sins and remembered sorrows take on the quality of Heaven.”
Where humans prefer an eye for an eye, God says that if that were the case we’d all be done for. So He sent His son to go in our stead. As we come to know God better and the Holy Spirit works in our lives, this restorative justice – this profound recognition of our own pardoned sin – slowly brings wholeness. We are loved in spite of ourselves, which is a transformative realization that over time “takes on the quality of heaven.” So we wait. But we do not wait through this process alone, for Jesus has promised “surely I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).
I did my best to share this with Zoe at the time. But, mostly, we all just wept and prayed together because sometimes we are called to simply “mourn with those who mourn.”
When we had our last small group for the week several days later, she hung back after the other students left to give a big hug and thank you to Ali and to me. As I hugged her back, she whispered “Thank you…for everything.”
Later that day, I saw her talking with her own youth pastor. I hope that he, or somebody else, has helped her to understand that, “Yes Zoe, this grace is for you, for me, and for them.” It wasn’t the right moment for me to hammer it in then, but it is foundational to the Gospel. And in those moments when I remember Zoe, I thank God for this grace. I pray for her abusers, and others like them, that the Holy Spirit would draw near and transform their hearts, just as he has done for a sinner like me.
Join us for Rooted 2015, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore how the good news of God coming to mankind in the person of Jesus Christ offers student ministers and teenagers, hope, healing and connectedness.