Cha Wang looked at me with that little confused crease between her eyebrows. “I cannot understand. What is this grace?”
As one of the international ministers at the University of Kansas, I taught Bible and English to students from all over the world. Cha was a post-doc, a brilliant Chinese woman who recently became a Christian. Now, I was discipling her and introducing some of the basic principles of the Christian faith.
But how could I explain the beautiful concept of grace? Who of us can truly understand how it works?
Especially for Cha, the brilliant scientist who needed logical explanations for anything she believed.
“I’ll get back to you,” I said, then finished our discussion with a prayer for wisdom.
During the next week, as I prepared, I prayed that God would give me a simple way to explain the difficult concept of grace. On my way to visit another student, I noted all the bicycles parked outside the student union. And suddenly, I knew how to answer Cha’s question.
When we met again in her apartment, she served me green tea and some delicious vegetables that smelled like they marinated all day in some type of healthy herb. We chatted easily about the food and our favorite recipes, then I told her I was ready to answer her question – to explain further about grace.
Cha cleared the table, plopped her Bible beside her and opened her notebook. She held her pen at attention, ready to quickly jot down everything I shared with her.
I touched her wrist and smiled. “Let me explain three terms – justice, mercy and grace.”
“Let’s pretend that another student has parked her bicycle outside the student union. You like her bicycle, because it is red, shiny and new.”
Red pillows stood erect on Cha’s beige sofa while a red and black rug covered a portion of the wooden floor. Her red coat hung neatly from a peg by the front door. I knew Cha would appreciate a red bicycle. “So…you like this red bicycle in our story and you decide to steal it.”
“What? I do not steal? No. This is not a good thing.”
“Cha, it’s just a story. I’m making this up as an example, and I know you would never steal anything in real life.”
She harrumphed, but let me continue. “So the police come and take you to the station and you stand before the judge because you stole this bicycle. The judge says you are guilty and you must give the bicycle back to the owner. Plus, you will stay in jail for three weeks. That is justice.”
Cha thought for a moment. “Yes. This is fair. A just punishment for stealing a bicycle. I understand justice.”
“Good. Now let’s talk about mercy. You see the red bicycle and you decide to steal it. The judge says you are guilty, but you ask for mercy. You tell the judge that you needed a ride to the hospital, because your mother is sick. You ask for mercy from the judge.”
“I do not like that my mother is sick in this story.”
“I know, Cha, but let’s continue. The judge understands your need for the bicycle, but it still does not belong to you. So he shows you mercy. He gives the bicycle back to the owner, and you do not have to spend any time in jail. That is mercy – no punishment for what you have done wrong.”
“Mercy is good. I understand this word.”
I sipped more of the green tea. “Now comes the best part. Grace. You steal the red bicycle and the police take you to the station. But you remind the judge that your mother is sick and you needed a ride to the hospital, so that is why you stole the bicycle. You are genuinely sorry for stealing it, and you ask the owner of the bicycle to forgive you.”
“Yes. I would be sorry. This is true.”
“The judge knows that you are sorry, and he believes your story about your sick mother. He gives the bicycle back to the owner, and you are not punished – not sent to jail. Instead, the judge gives you a new red bicycle.”
“What? I do not deserve this gift. I have not been a model citizen. I have stolen a bicycle. Why would the judge do this for me?”
I reached across the table and opened Cha’s Bible to Romans 5:8, then read the verse to her, “‘But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’
“You see, Cha, God is the judge. When we sin, when we ignore God, we deserve justice. We deserve to be punished for our sins, and we often have to face consequences when we make foolish choices. That is justice.”
“But God is merciful. He doesn’t want to punish us. In fact, he sent his son, Jesus, to take the punishment for us.”
“We don’t deserve any of God’s goodness and grace to us, but he loves us so much that because of Jesus – he freely gives us eternal life in heaven, abundant life here on earth and so many blessings – it’s like having hundreds of red bicycles. That is grace.”
A giant tear slithered out of Cha’s right eye and meandered down her nose. She sniffed and reached for a Kleenex. “This is good,” she said. “I understand now these three words – justice, mercy and grace. God is love.”
Through the years, I have used the example of the bicycle several times. Although it is a simple story, the truth is that we deserve to be punished, but because of God’s grace and the sacrificial death of Jesus we don’t have to live with the fear of judgment. We don’t have to live in punishment jail. We can repent with a genuine sorrow and embrace God’s incredible mercy.
When we open our hearts to God and let him give to us what we don’t deserve, we experience the ultimate prize of the triple whammy – God’s grace.
The difficult part to understand is how freely he gives grace to us. But that is the depth of his love.
Read an earlier post by RJ here.