A few weekends ago, I made what some would call a reckless and uninformed decision to participate in a weekend retreat with four six-grade girls.
I actually love youth ministry and all its related quirks – someone ends up eating spam or sardines, the leaders wear exhaustion like a badge of honor, and it’s acceptable to shoot the students (with nerf guns).
This weekend was all of those things. We were silly enough to think we could make sixth-grade girls sit still for 45-minute stretches, delusional enough to try and make them talk about a single topic without interrupting each other, and crazy enough to set them loose in the candy aisle of a Walmart.
There was one aspect of our inevitable exhaustion that wasn’t as lighthearted: dealing with the antics of a few especially rebellious sixth-graders.
And I won’t lie to you: I got mad. I wish I could say that at every instance of defiance or unkindness, I rationally considered all the ways that insecurity and anxiety could be motivating their actions. I wish I could say that I responded to each prank or rude comment with perfect grace and peace. I didn’t yell (and I might have not even responded firmly enough), but inside I was stewing.
After one particularly frustrating moment, the thought that kept coming to mind was “I would never have done anything like this! Maybe to my parents occasionally, but never to other people! I was so well-behaved, especially in church!”
That was really the root of my indignation: I was never like them.
I wasn’t them.
I was polite and well-behaved and channeled all my teenage angst into faking profound answers to small group questions.
I had my fair share of dramatic camp or conference conversions, and I’ve often been the girl who’s asked to share her testimony to rooms of cross-legged kids. After one such conference, I left a thank-you note on the youth pastor’s desk and hugged his wife and cried, thanking her for her husband’s work.
I cannot tell you how well I could play the part of the good youth group kid.
All the way through middle and high school, I played the part with striking believability. I sang the songs with conviction, I knew the lines by heart, and I delivered a stunning performance of “profoundly spiritual.”
I was definitely not like these girls.
I’ve heard it said (and seen it to be true) that some of us are rebelling against God’s law and some of us are rebelling against His grace.
I was very rarely the first type, but I’ve spent my whole life living in the sticky-sweet disguise of the second.
I was so indignant, ranting in my head during the worship service about the fact that unlike one of these frustrating sixth-graders, I was never so rebellious!
Except I was. I rebelled against His grace like you would not believe. I sat in everything from hard wooden pews to metal folding chairs and heard the message of His grace preached over and over again and I’ve spent 20 years resisting it at every turn.
In one of my classes last semester, we talked about the story of Jesus healing the man at the pool in John 5. Here’s the story, in the NASB, 5:1-9:
Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep gate a pool, which is called in Hebrew Bethesda, having five porticoes. In these lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, and withered, waiting for the moving of the waters; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted. A man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there, and knew that he had already been a long time in that condition, He said to him, “Do you wish to get well?” The sick man answered Him, “Sir, I have no man to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, but while I am coming, another steps down before me.” Jesus said to him, “Get up, pick up your pallet and walk.” Immediately the man became well, and picked up his pallet and began to walk.
Our professor asked us why we thought that Jesus asked a man so clearly desperate for healing that he was waiting beside a pool of water thought to have healing properties, “Do you wish to get well?”
We talked about how difficult change is, even when it’s good. We talked about how people always have to respond to Jesus, that even though His grace is freely given.
But the thought that kept coming back to me was this: what would I have done and said if I had been this man, ill for thirty-eight years, waiting near a pool that was supposed to heal me, but never quite able to reach its waters?
If that had been me, I would’ve spent the last thirty-eight years working my way closer and closer to the water. I would have used every rock or branch near me to claw and scratch my way closer. I would’ve devised the right tactics, made detailed plans, put together an elaborate strategy to get myself there. I would’ve struck up a deal with nearby people, bargained my way into a closer spot, exhausted every possible option to achieve what I thought would heal me.
And so it’s not so hard to imagine that when Jesus walks up and asks me if I want to be well, I brush him aside –
“I’m almost there, Jesus! Can’t you see how hard I’ve worked? Look at the strategy I made, look at this path I’ve created!”
While I’d like to think that I would accept His offer, I probably wouldn’t want all my hard work to go to waste.
I think that’s really what makes me rebel against grace – I’ve worked so hard, and I don’t want it all to go to waste. I want my work, my sweat and tears, my striving to count. I want it tallied and accounted for and I want it to matter. Accepting His grace feels like accepting defeat. In a way, that’s really what it is: accepting the truth that I am incapable of healing myself. I’ll never reach that pool, and my vain and useless attempts at getting there with my own strength don’t look nearly as noble or righteous as I think they do.
So I hold up this other youth group kid and enjoy seeing all the places that my history looks so much nicer and neater. I like to think about how I stack up. But I only want points docked if the rebellion is against a certain thing – His law. If we’re counting rebellion against His grace, I’m in the same boat as my sixth-grader.
We’re both rebelling, and we are both are in desperate need of reconciliation with our God.