When I decided to watch Selma with my 8-year-old son, Noah, my intent was to spark discussion about racism and justice. I never imagined it would provide a strong lesson on grace for him – or for me.
After the first march across the Selma bridge, the police used tear gas and batons to terrorize the peaceful marchers. Noah turned to me, “Will people who are prejudiced go to heaven if they have accepted Jesus?”
After sitting with it for a minute, I began to talk to him about the fact that Jesus’ sacrifice was so complete that it covers every sin we will ever commit, until the end of our lives.
“Noah, you have sins that need to be forgiven every day, just like I do,” I said. “Just like we all do.”
“Like what?” he asked. “What sins do I have?”
I reminded him that he disobeys his dad and me sometimes, and that he talks in class when the teacher has asked him not to.
“But those are little sins,” he said.
He had a point. He’s not hurting anyone with those sins to the same extent of something like racism. Immediately I thought of an illustration we use in our ProGrace workshop. I told him Jesus said that if we hate someone, it’s the same in God’s eyes as if we have committed murder. His little face crumpled and tears streamed down his cheeks.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“I think that a lot,” he said. “When you or Dad send me to time out, I walk up the stairs thinking, ‘I hate you.’”
I had to hide my surprise at the confession of my normally affectionate son.
“Do you want to confess your sin to Jesus and ask for his forgiveness?” I said. “Ask him to help you not do that again?”
Noah closed his eyes and for the next minute or so I watched his face relax a bit and his tears subside. When he finally looked at me I asked, “Do you believe Jesus has completely forgiven you? Is that why you’ve stopped crying?”
“Yes,” he said. “I do.”
For Noah (who has the attention span of a typical 8-year old boy), the lesson was done. But I am still mulling it over, asking the Holy Spirit to let it impact me.
But those are little sins.
How often do I categorize my sins as little so I can feel better about myself, before God and before others? When I do, I reveal how little I understand several things:
- The lofty requirements of the Law.
- My utter inability to keep it.
- The magnitude of God’s grace through the sacrifice of Christ.
First of all, the Law sets an incredibly high standard. Then when Jesus came, he included sins of the heart and attitude. After telling the crowds that hatred is the same as murder and lust is the same as adultery, he concluded by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your Heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).
Is it possible for any of us to attain that perfection? Paul says, “there is no one righteous, not even one” (Romans 3:10) and “there is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22-23). Interestingly, Paul doesn’t differentiate here between big and little sins. He puts it all in the same category.
In our human systems we have to enforce levels of wrongdoing and punishment because some sins hurt people much more than others do. But God is holy; even what we deem small infractions fall short of his glory. Attaining God’s perfection is like trying to jump to the moon: an Olympic athlete may jump 3 times higher than I will, but neither one of us is ever going to make it there.
The sacrifice of Jesus is complete and lavish. He was perfect. He could pay for those of us who break God’s holy Law, every day. By his grace, he washed us clean from every sin. If we don’t accept this and continue instead to think of our sins as little, we feel okay judging others for their big sins. But as soon as we start to understand God’s lavish grace for ourselves, we level the playing field. We all stand in equal need of his grace.
Part of the reason we have been at a stalemate in the abortion issue for these past 40 years is that many Christians have considered abortion an unthinkable sin, one that we ourselves would never commit. But grace allows us to put ourselves in the shoes of a 20-year-old woman who is terrified that she’ll never be able to face her parents, finish college or deal with the stigma of being a single mom. Grace moves us to empathy as we’re honest about what we might be tempted to do in her situation. Grace motivates us to remove obstacles from her path, so she doesn’t see abortion as her only option. Grace opens the doors of our churches, showing women they can be part of a community that doesn’t distinguish between big and little sins.
Instead, we rely on the grace of God to transform us all.
by Angie Weszely, CEO and Co-Founder of ProGrace