Who could ever wrap their minds around the riches of God, the depth of his wisdom, and the marvel of his perfect knowledge? Who could ever explain the wonder of his decisions or search out the mysterious way he carries out his plans? For who has discovered how the Lord thinks or is wise enough to be the one to advise him in his plans? Or: “Who has ever first given something to God that obligates God to owe him something in return?” And because God is the source and sustainer of everything, everything finds fulfillment in him. May all praise and honor be given to him forever! Amen! (Romans 11:33-36 TPT)
The above verses are the conclusion of Paul’s written wrestling match over his people rejecting Jesus– the subject of chapters 9-11. Paul, in this portion of his letter, is wrestling over the fact many Gentiles are responding to the message of God’s grace and believing in the work and person of Jesus while many Jews are not. It breaks Paul’s heart, so he is lamenting, he is processing, he is questioning, and he is seeking understanding. All of these things have a place in our faith walk, but pay attention to where Paul lands–read the above verses again. He acknowledges that in God there is mystery. We don’t understand all there is to know about God. We won’t understand all there is to know about God. If we could fully explain God, he wouldn’t be God.
Paul’s understanding of this, reminds me of the beautiful words of Isaiah 55–
“Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost…. Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good, and you will delight in the richest of fare.
Give ear and come to me; listen, that you may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you….Surely you will summon nations you know not, and nations you do not know will come running to you because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel…
Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the Lord, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord.“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts...”
(excerpts from Isaiah 55:1-9 NIV)
So, with the mystery that we cannot understand and the thoughts and ways of God in mind, what can we know about God? What has he revealed to us?
John 3:16; For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.
1 John 4:9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.
1 John 4:16b God is love
And from Paul’s pen in this very letter: But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (5:8)
Also from this letter…neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (8:38-39)
So back to Romans 11. Paul affirms that God has not rejected Israel, and uses himself as proof of that. Paul points out in verse 20 that the Jews are not currently grafted in because of their unbelief and in verse 23, God is more than ready to graft back in the natural branches when they turn from clinging to their unbelief to embracing faith. (TPT). Why? Because God loves them!
Paul addresses another issue in Romans 11, and it’s one that we need to pay attention to, especially in these days of incredible division where Jesus’ name being used among groups that bear no resemblance to the Jesus revealed in the gospels. It would appear that the Gentile believers were forgetting that they were saved by grace alone and thinking that they were better than those who were rejecting the message of Christ, so Paul says to them: So don’t be so arrogant as to believe that you are superior to the natural branches. There’s no reason to boast, for the new branches don’t support the root, but you owe your life to the root that supports you! (11:18 TPT). I love that translation. We owe our lives to the root that began when God made a covenant with Abraham which was fulfilled in Christ–that root supports us, not vice-versa.
So, we’re back to Paul’s overarching message of his letter to the Romans. God loves us, all of us. God extends his grace to all of us. We don’t work ourselves or behave ourselves into a relationship with God. We come into a relationship with God by receiving his grace. That’s the path. Paul reminds us of this in verse 6:…And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace...
God’s grace is not because of us and our behavior. God’s grace is because of the goodness, the kindness, and the unconditional love God lavishes upon all of us. When we truly grasp that we are deeply loved and so is everyone else, comparison and self-righteousness dissipate, and humility, gratitude and love for God and people grow within us.
I write about the fruit of the Spirit all the time. When we are connected to the vine (Jesus), the root who supports us, we begin to look like Jesus in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. (Gal 5:22-23)
The Apostle John, in his first letter, makes clear what people who are in real relationship with God act like. He writes:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love…This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son…since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another…we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them… We love because he first loved us. Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1 John 4:7-8, 10, 16, 19-21)
I don’t put these verses in here to say “let’s just all get along”. To love means to wrestle. To love means to address issues that are harmful and divisive. To love means to be in the nitty gritty with one another. To love means to help each other grow in Christ. To love requires both humility and strength. Paul does this. He is direct in his approach and addresses conflict frankly (remember he’s an attorney), but he makes clear that his motivation is for all people to know the incredible love of God through Christ. On the other hand, even with all of his vast knowledge, he is willing to admit that he doesn’t know it all.
Paul admits that he can’t explain the mystery of God, he can’t explain why Jesus is so appealing to Gentiles but not yet to his own people. He wants to be able to explain it, but in the end he comes to the conclusion that God’s wisdom and riches are too vast for him to understand, and he leaves it there.
What Paul can explain is what he himself has experienced personally. God is love. All people mess up. God’s grace covers all. We are loved. God desires a relationship with all of us and proved that in Jesus, even while we were his enemies. Paul also explains that following religious rules is death, but a relationship with Jesus is life. Paul shows us that he loves people by embracing Gentiles, and by agonizing over his own people’s rejection of Jesus, and in that love he is committed to praying, to sharing, to reaching out to everyone he meets.
How about us? Are we able to share the things of God we’ve experienced personally? Are we able to understand that we won’t understand it all? Are we willing to live in that mystery? Do we know, that in the end, it’s all about love? Do we live as if that’s true?
Luanne wrote, “…in God there is mystery. We don’t understand all there is to know about God. We won’t understand all there is to know about God. If we could fully explain God, he wouldn’t be God.”
One of the most mysterious things about our God is the manifestation of his grace in our lives. We can’t define it well or understand it fully, but when we experience it, we know. It is impossible to walk away from an encounter with Grace unchanged. Defining it is difficult, because comprehension isn’t what God is after. He longs for us not to understand, but to receive the grace he offers. Luanne said it this way, “We come into a relationship with God by receiving his grace. That’s the path. Paul reminds us of this in verse 6:…And if by grace, then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace would no longer be grace…”
Fr. Richard Rohr writes of grace, “As John says, “From this fullness we have all received, grace upon grace” (1:16), or grace responding to grace gracefully” might be an even more accurate translation. To end in grace you must somehow start with grace, and then it is grace all the way through.”
To end in grace, you must somehow start with grace…
Let that sink in for a moment. I can’t help but think of the beginning of the book of John…
In the very beginning the Living Expression was already there. And the Living Expression was with God, yet fully God. They were together—face-to-face, in the very beginning. And through his creative inspiration this Living Expression made all things, for nothing has existence apart from him! (John 1:1-3, TPT)
To end in grace, you must somehow start with grace… Nothing has existence apart from him… The grace of God, then, existed from the beginning. Grace didn’t come onto the scene once we needed it. Grace was present, an integral part of the story from the very beginning. Later in John 1, this thought is expanded, as the gospel writer explains who Jesus is and what he brought to humanity:
And so the Living Expression became a man and lived among us! And we gazed upon the splendor of his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father overflowing with tender mercy and truth!
John taught the truth about him when he announced to the people, “He’s the One! Set your hearts on him!
I told you he would come after me, even though he ranks far above me, for he existed before I was even born.” And now out of his fullness we are fulfilled! And from him we receive grace heaped upon more grace! Moses gave us the Law, but Jesus, the Anointed One, unveils truth wrapped in tender mercy. No one has ever gazed upon the fullness of God’s splendor except the uniquely beloved Son, who is cherished by the Father and held close to his heart. Now he has unfolded to us the full explanation of who God truly is! (John 1:14-18)
From him–Jesus–we receive grace heaped upon more grace, as part of the full explanation of who God truly is. Pondering these truths can leave my mind spinning–there’s so much I’ll never understand. But I don’t have to understand it; my job–like yours–is to simply receive it. Only, that’s difficult sometimes, isn’t it? It’s why we get trapped in try-hard living, why we live under a burden of shame, because grace just doesn’t make sense to our humanity. In one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, The Broken Way, Ann Voskamp writes these words:
“Is there a grace that can bury the fear that your faith isn’t big enough and your faults are too many? A grace that washes your dirty wounds and wounds the devil’s lies? A grace that embraces you before you prove anything–and after you’ve done everything wrong? A grace that holds you when everything is breaking down and falling apart–and whispers that everything is somehow breaking free and falling together. . .”
Ann goes on to say, “. . . Shame is a bully but grace is a shield. You are safe here. What if the busted and broken hearts could feel there’s a grace that holds us and calls us Beloved and says we belong and no brokenness ever has the power to break us away from being safe? What if we experienced the miracle grace that can touch all our wounds. . . No shame. No fear. No hiding. All is grace. It’s always safe for the suffering here. You can struggle and you can wrestle and you can hurt and we will be here. Grace will meet you here. . .
We all want to believe that, don’t we? That grace will meet us “here,” wherever that means for each of us?
Pastor John spoke to us on Sunday about parts of Paul’s story and also Elijah’s. He told us that they both experienced grace when that they were the furthest away from God, and even when they were full to the brim with their own pride. As he talked about their stories, I nodded in agreement, because, yeah, it’s true… God’s grace often explodes into our lives during the worst scenes, when we would least expect to have such an encounter. God steps into those moments and the shock of finding grace there–even there–leaves us all a little bit speechless sometimes, doesn’t it? God takes that opportunity, when we’re in awe of his presence, to show us who he really is, just as he did in the lives of Paul, Elijah, and so many others we meet on the pages of scripture. Has this been true for you?
It has for me. In the moments I have felt most ashamed of my story, as well as in the moments I have been most arrogant, most certain about my “good standing” before the God of the universe–these are the moments I’ve experienced collisions with Grace. It doesn’t always feel good–but there is no mistaking that it’s God. Grace is disorienting, and that is exactly what we need before we can reorient our lives around Christ as our center. Paul really understood this, because he experienced quite the collision. And he wanted everyone else to experience the grace and the love that he had come to know himself.
Grace is evidence of God’s lavish love for all, as Luanne wrote about above. And when we receive that grace and love, it begins to grow inside of us so that we can love one another in the same way. Luanne wrote, following the beautiful passage from 1 John, “I don’t put these verses in here to say “let’s just all get along”. To love means to wrestle. To love means to address issues that are harmful and divisive. To love means to be in the nitty gritty with one another. To love means to help each other grow in Christ.”
When we say it’s all about love, and we emphasize God’s grace, we’re not watering anything down. Real, committed, lasting love that means anything at all requires everything. Our whole selves have to be invested in loving or it’s not love (See 1 Corinthians 13 for more on this). And the ability to extend grace to one another is directly related to our ability to love. Grace can’t exist apart from love. Just as God’s grace is born out of who he is–Love itself–so our grace is born out of us also embodying the love of God toward one another. We aren’t the manufacturers of grace, nor does love have its origin in humanity-thank God. We are vessels that carry and outshine God’s love and grace that we have encountered. Ann Voskamp has this to say about what love lived out looks like:
“Love is the willingness to be interrupted. Interrupt comes from the Latin word ‘interrumpere’, meaning “break into.” Love is the willingness to be broken into. There are never interruptions in a day–only manifestations of Christ. Your theology is best expressed in your availability and your interruptability–the ability to be broken into. This is the broken way. This is all love. And I hadn’t known–I will only love as well as I let myself be broken into.”
Can we let love be made real in us in the way Ann describes, so that out of that love, and out of gratitude for the grace we have received, we can extend grace to others? It’s the way of Jesus, the way of his Kingdom, and the only way forward during tumultuous times. Love requires us to look at the brokenness with eyes wide open, to be willing to wrestle, to address the problems and work toward reconciling them equitably. It is not the easy way of apathy and living with blinders on to the pain of the world. It’s the broken way of seeing the truth and letting it break our own hearts enough to move toward all the other broken ones, arms extended wide in love and grace, inviting all to come in and wrestle things through together. Real love, real grace, looks like that–it looks like Jesus.