“…not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?” Romans 2:4b
Around Christmas of 1983, outside of Kohl’s Department Store, in the bitter Wisconsin cold, a line of women waited for the doors to open. Their mission: to find the “Willy Wonka Golden Ticket” in the form of a Cabbage Patch doll. Elementary-aged girls, including myself, desperately wanted to adopt these dolls with hard plastic heads and cloth bodies. One of these women was my grandmother, who managed to purchase one for me that day. Upon receiving my doll, I quickly filled out the paperwork and waited for my official adoption papers to arrive in mail for my little Oliver Xavier. A few years ago, I found my doll in a crate. He was stained, scuffed and, to my surprise, one of the ugliest dolls I have ever seen! As an adult, I have no idea why these dolls captured the imagination of my generation. Despite its ugliness, I remember treating this doll like a real beautiful baby.
A few years ago, I made a rude comment to a family member. I called this person out publicly on what I perceived as hypocrisy in a situation that, frankly, was none of my business. I justified it by claiming righteous indignation. Even though there was truth in what I said, my attitude and response were completely wrong. I offended someone that I cared about, and even though I tried to rectify the situation, my sinful response damaged that relationship permanently.
My heart breaks when I think of how many times my responses towards others have been sinful. Like the situation above, I have justified my actions and words. These justifications have often been rooted in my own insecurities, hurt feelings, and pride. My feelings were real: I did feel diminished, shamed, excluded, and humiliated. But no matter what I was feeling, I had no right to diminish someone else’s self-worth or character.
Recently, I heard a sermon by Timothy Keller where he juxtaposes the concepts of grace and legalism within Christianity. His sermon is so full of incredible insights that I am linking the totality of his message here. His concept of repentance changed my paradigm of how I want to approach God. Keller says, “the legalistic repents out of fear and anxiety, the Christian repents out of gratitude for what Christ has done for him or her, and for a desire to be like Christ.” This simple statement helps me to clearly see the God that is written about in scriptures, especially the scripture in Roman 2:4, where Paul writes, “not knowing that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance.”
Although I have sung songs about his kindness that leads to repentance and have read that scripture, it didn’t totally resonate with me. I didn’t see God as some do, a terrible judge who was ready to pounce on me anytime I did something wrong. But I also didn’t see God as this benevolent father whose grace would inspire me to repentance. Instead, I landed somewhere in between, often repenting out of a sense of duty and obedience, which lead to feelings of guilt and shame. After repenting, I worked hard to discipline myself, focusing on character flaws like my unruly tongue. I would then study out scripture on what God expected of me and desperately try to align myself to His word. Then situations in ordinary life would test my resolve and I would find myself failing again instead of measuring up, repeating the cycle of repentance, discipline, and failure without success all over again. This approach closely aligned itself to the legalistic paradigm of Christianity. I certainly didn’t have this sense of gratitude that Timothy Keller talks about, until recently.
Gratitude is defined as an appreciation for someone else’s kindness. In the case of God, it is appreciation for His unmerited kindness. When I mediate upon how He loves me despite the times I have been insulting, spoken words out of anger, and been unkind, it shifts my perspective. It humbles me that, despite my apparent ugliness, the creator of the universe loves me! Not only does He love me, but that He wants to spend eternity with me. His desire was so strong that He was willing to pay a debt I couldn’t pay. He was abandoned by his friends, publicly humiliated by the religious leaders, stripped naked, beaten, and, ultimately, hanged on a cross to satisfy my debt of sin. He did all of this because He loves me. And when I think about the cross and Jesus’ love for me, I am forever grateful. Now, when I sin, which I am prone to do, I repent out of gratefulness and my desire to be more like Jesus.
After seeing my once prized Cabbage Patch doll through adult eyes, I decided that this ugly doll was not worth keeping. I chose to throw it away. I am so thankful that God never decides we are not worth saving. He sees the ugly stains of sin on us and chooses to invite us into a relationship with Him. He knocks on the door of my soul and waits patiently, even when I ignore Him. And because of this kindness, I can truly repent with gratitude!