You know the classic story by Dickens, A Christmas Carol. The main character, Ebenezer Scrooge, is a life-long miser.
Unmarried. No children. No friends.
But lots of money.
Loving his fortune, he keeps a close eye on “the books,” making sure that there is no decrease in his personal wealth.
When approached with the greeting, “Merry Christmas,” he replies in the now famous quip, “Bah, humbug!”
He is not a happy man. Nor kind, joyful, giving… nor is he at peace. Something has a hold on his heart that is slowly killing his soul from within.
Much like Tolkien’s Ring of Power, the cold gold coins do the opposite of what the possessor expects. Rather than bring life, they become tokens of misery that he must protect and preserve in order to live. But in living this way, he is dying.
Then, on Christmas Eve, he is unexpectedly aroused from his slumber by his former money-loving but now deceased partner and three ghosts.
The ghosts take turns showing Scrooge his past, his present, and his future. It is the future that most distresses the man who realizes that he is lying, that very night, upon his deathbed.
But he wakes. And is alive.
What transpires next is near to unthinkable, as Ebenezer Scrooge is transformed from the most hard-hearted, unloving man in town to the most kind-hearted, generous man in town!
In the night, Ebenezer realized that he deserved to die the way he had lived. Alone, unloved, and miserable. But now, when he wakes, he is not merely physically alive, but reborn.
The grace of new life, an undeserved new life, must be what erupted with the uncharacteristic joy, generosity, and kindness that we see on Christmas morning.
It is a painful thing to be seen from the perspective of the ghosts. But it is only when we wake up to the wretchedness within can we begin to wake up to–really come alive to— the wonder of God’s grace in Jesus, who received the death Scrooge deserved and that I deserve.
I need what happened to Scrooge to happen to me.
After all, I am Scrooge. Scrooge is me.
Even if I do not have bags of gold to count, I have a reputation to protect. Just as the miser had spent his life accumulating more and more wealth, I have sought to accumulate more and more respect, honor, and appreciation, using my role as a pastor to position me for applause.
This has not been a conscious decision nor something I even knew was going on in my heart. But this underlying, miserly craving for approval has been there, influencing everything.
This sickens me to confess. Seriously. I feel like I want to vomit.
But I also feel very real.
In being real, I find encouragement in a quote from The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams Bianco.
“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
The challenge with being real is that there are folks who don’t understand. But my concern is not for them. It is for you.
Maybe you can identify with the Velveteen Bunny’s wornness–realness. But your realness is not from being loved as much as it is from the ravages of sin. If that is how you are experiencing realness, I want you to know that there is a staggering grace in having deep, hidden places of remaining sin exposed–the sin for which Jesus died to set us free from ourselves.
Like an unknown tumor is caught before it kills, we have an opportunity to deal with it.
What if we never find out it is there? It is better to know.
The ghosts helped Scrooge diagnose the real disease that lay behind the symptoms of his greed, grumpiness, and heartlessness.
It was the tumor of self righteousness.
That same tumor of self-righteous pride is underneath my need for pastoral applause as a competent leader, skillful preacher, and helpful counselor, and why I become so easily irritated by and even angered at those who do not give me the praise my flesh demands.
Not that I have achieved a righteousness that deserves the praise of men. Not at all. But I have sought it. It has driven me.
The result is that I have not had the capacity to love.
Like Scrooge could only love his wealth, I could only love my reputation. I have loved myself and used everyone else–even God.
How else can I explain why I grow angry with those who don’t clap or point out areas of defect or places where I need improvement?
Why does my love for God often feel so… lukewarm and sometimes downright cold?
I identify with Paul in Romans 7, when he cried out, “Wretched man that I am! Who will save me from this body of death?”
Who will rescue me from the cancerous sin that I have let metastasize within my heart?
I know the right answer. I preach about it every week. And you know the answer. Paul certainly knew the right answer when he exclaimed in Romans 7:25,
“Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
There is a word in that statement that is easy to overlook, but possibly is the most critical for experiencing the new Scrooge of Christmas morning.
Paul didn’t say, who delivers others or people in general. He made it personal. Jesus had delivered him from the wrath of the law. Paul, yes, Paul the self-righteous, murderous persecutor of the church who continued to struggle with his flesh, he had been rescued.
“Who delivers me!”
This was the source of the apostle’s worship. His praise to God was rooted in not only being self-aware of the tumor, but self-aware of the love, mercy, and grace of God that was his.
Paul’s “thanks be to God” was not a formality or liturgical response in a worship bulletin.
Here is the lesson for me.
Until I take my own tumor to the cross and believe, really believe that it is forgiven–totally, unreservedly, and gladly– the tumor will spread and the symptoms will only get worse.
What I am learning is that the blood of Jesus is the radiation of God for the tumor of sin. And I will never be in remission. Radiation treatments will be my life, having the blood cover me, always in the now.
This is what Francis Schaeffer meant when he spoke of the present value to the blood of Jesus. Not just the past value or future value, but the present value. Right now, in the moment, at the point of another epic failure. This is when the blood of Jesus has value. Not when I think I’m better or have overcome my flesh, but when I wake up in the gutter, covered in my own feces.
Will I look up to the cross and be covered then? In that present moment? That is what it means to experience the value of the blood of Jesus–the present value.
But I have to believe this. Which is hard. Really hard.
It is radically unnatural to live by grace. I want to make up for my sin. I want to cure myself so that I can say, “Look what I did! I am in remission and no longer need radiation!”
Whenever I find myself saying, “Look what I did,” I can be sure that what I did was not for the glory of God but for the glory of self and nothing more than an attempt to justify myself, not only in the eyes of God, but in the eyes of my peers, family, congregation, etc.
The difficulty in submitting to mercy may be why we at times will cry out to God, “I want to believe. Help my unbelief!” Or it may be a silent, head down, and without fanfare prayer, “Father, have mercy on me.”
However I get my tumor to the cross–push, pull, or drag–that is where it must go. With the simple repentance of handing it over to Jesus and the childlike faith to let his blood be all the cleansing I need.
Solo Christo. Christ alone. Over and over again.
Not that we are saved over and over again. No, the going back to Jesus for the present covering of his blood over our sin is the way we live consciously aware of our new self. This keeps us spiritually awake and fully alive, filled with the Spirit and empowered to love like Jesus–no longer using people but really loving them, serving them, and blessing them… even our enemies.
All as an overflow of our “thanks be to God for Jesus.”
This is the new self. This is the Christmas morning Scrooge. The transformed man, freshly convicted of sin and having nothing to live on but mercy.
But what more does he need, and what more is more powerful to cultivate the truly abundant life?
He no longer needs the self-righteousness of wealth. He was free to give it away!
In the same way, I no longer need the self-righteousness of pastoral applause. I can give the applause to others, not the lease of whom would be Jesus!
Oh, I will always appreciate words of affirmation, but I don’t need to live by them. Knowing that something good is coming from God’s work in my life is a tremendous encouragement. But if Jesus’ gift-righteousness is actively functioning as my complete and only righteousness, I can blow it as a leader, preacher, counselor, husband, father, or friend, and admit it to those whom I have failed or wounded.
I am free to repent because I’m already forgiven. I’m covered by the blood in that very moment.
I kind of wish Dickens would have showed us the days and weeks of Scrooge’s life after Christmas morning. I wonder how long the emotional high lasted? We can assume that the “old man” would try to find his way back into Ebenezer’s heart.
I suppose it wouldn’t long before the jerk-miser would rear its ugly head again.
What would Scrooge do then?
In that moment he would be tempted to forget the message of the ghosts. He may go back to living the old way. Then, I suppose the ghosts might return, awakening him once again to the great gift he has received.
These moments of awakening would not be classified as experiences of rebirth but of renewal. Having been reborn so to speak, he would need ongoing reminders of grace that would function like a heart defibrillator, awaking him again and again, enabling him to be fully alive.
The same thing happens to me, and I assume to you, as well. The jerk-miser returns, tempting me to live the old way and to forget the message–not the message of the ghosts but of the cross.
I may indeed forget. I have forgotten more times than I know. But then we receive a reminder of mercy, whether God uses the defibrillator of a sermon, a blog, or a personal failure.
What I do with that reminder is where the battle lies–whether I will look to myself for strength or to Jesus for grace. It is when I can feel myself covered by the blood, washed, and cleansed, not as a sinful wretch but as a righteous son–that is what we call renewal. The kind of renewal that expresses itself in passionate love for God and practical love for neighbor.
Remember, we never go into remission but live with a perpetual need for the blood of Jesus, moment by moment of every day.
However, if you have never experienced the message of the cross this way, then for you, this may be rebirth! Oh, what a change you can expect! But you should also anticipate a continuing battle–the battle to believe that you really are fully forgiven, perfectly accepted by God, and dearly loved.
I want to fight with you and would like to send you a free mini-book as a resource to help you grow in grace and live by mercy. Just post in the comments below or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I would be honored to help you as a peer on the gospel journey.