God’s Shocking Preference for Mercy

I heard Larry Randolph recently describe someone being helped through a low patch by memorizing scripture. Ever up for a challenge, I started with Ephesians, having heard it set alight by fantastic teaching from Alfred Pinnington in my church about the links between the Roman adoption process and the images in Ephesians 1, (ref. William Barclay). I love growing in God’s understanding of my identity, because I always seem to access hope and joy that way.

Some Bible passages are so full of big concepts and tightly written that it’s easy to gloss over the words, as if they are an indigestible wad of food that’s too rich for me.

Memorizing seems to overcome this, and it becomes an act of interacting with someone who has had an extraordinary experience of God, which then enriches my own.

So the letter to the church of Ephesus opens with the announcement of the author, as letters did back then:

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, to the saints in Ephesus…”

As I walked along through sunny streets chewing on these words, I started thinking about how Paul is writing this in prison, and how he chooses to focus on God’s will in making him an apostle.

Memorizing forced me to slow down and repeat my reading until I a saw the choices the writer had made, and started fully engaging with his meaning. Since I’ve found it hard to memorize more than the first few verses, I’ve wanted to start at the beginning again and I’ve discovered new angles every few times. It’s really cool. What rich writing!

So it occurred to me that Paul’s choice of words implies that he’s still very conscious that God was prepared and willing to choose him as his representative, even though he once persecuted Christians. When God met him on that road to Damascus and challenged him, that in breathing murderous threats against Christians, he was actually persecuting the one who was showing up on that road as God himself.

Why do I keep coming back to Paul’s story? Why start with Ephesians, when the gospels hold more direct stories about Jesus? For one thing, I’m encouraged that Paul was discovering Jesus and interacting with him as we do: through prayer, meditation on the word and was intentional about using the testimonies of the disciples who had been privileged to walk with Jesus during his bodily lifetime on the earth.

For another, I think I still have a long way to go in really appreciating God’s grace, and leaving behind a desire to earn it. God is so incredibly kind and merciful. Every time I feel like I should be so much further along in my walk with him by now (or some such harsh judgment) he sends me someone to encourage me and remind me that God’s love doesn’t see me in those impatient terms. In such a week, I will find myself having several conversations with friends, or reading passages, or having experiences, that show me that God is a lot less ‘Religious’ and mean than my self-criticism suggests he is. How come I still fear he’s like that after apparently knowing him so long? Perhaps I need to do as Paul does, connect the dots and give thanks for how far he’s brought me, instead of worrying how far I have to go to some imaginary ‘pass’ mark. He’s brought me a long way out of shyness, of looking for approval from others, and so much else. For the record, I didn’t used to kill Christians. But every time I give myself a hard time for not being a better x y z, I am killing a little part of me, a Christian whom God is trying to encourage and teach and help grow, not shrink. Sorry God. There are more interesting things to think about!

Paul’s letters always go to thankful praise. What can you thank him for today? Let me also count the ways.