It is difficult, albeit not impossible, to give what you do not possess already. I don’t mean this in the obvious sense, but in a deeper more psychological sense. For instance, if my son has no candy and he is asked to hand out candy at a parade, it is incredibly difficult for him to do such a thing if he is not to receive any of the candy himself. In his mind there is an injustice in the whole thing, “daddy why do I have to give out all of this candy, I don’t have candy, this is not fair.” Of course the typical “Christian” response to my son would involve telling him how much he does have, and how he shouldn’t be selfish and so on. Nonetheless a psychological barrier will still exist no matter how much explaining we attempt. To give what one does not receive themselves is a near impossibility.
We see this often when it comes to charitable causes. The person, who for their entire life, was forced to ‘pull themselves up by their own bootstraps’ often finds it incredibly difficult or even deplorable to offer a free handout to anyone. On the flip side, the person who has consciously benefitted from the charity of others to attain a decent station in life will typically find it much easier to return the favor back upon society. The person who has received a handout, and used it wisely, will typically have the audacity to believe that handouts work, while the people who have always refused the handout will believe that works of charity will only produce laziness and not develop character. Both people have legitimate arguments from experience. The point is that it is easier to give if you have received, and it is far more difficult to give if you perceive that you have not received.
When we bring this line of thinking inside the walls of the church we see a bit of a strange picture emerge. Pastors are constantly urging to people to be more forgiving, to be more outward, to be more of a transformational agent to the community and so on. We hear ad nauseum about everything we are to give, and we are promised blessing in return, but precious little is done to break down that psychological barrier that was outlined above. We say that if we are going to be the church we must do (insert pastor’s favorite act of mercy here) while that particular act of mercy is never actually enacted upon the hearers.
Here is how it plays out. It is relatively easy to get a group together to feed the homeless, to build a habitat house, or to do various mission work. People realize that they have food, so it is relatively easy to give food. People realize they have shelter so it is relatively easy to give shelter, people realize they have a clean environment to live in so they find it relatively easy to go clean up a neighborhood. However in the midst of all of this these same people, in most instances, will find it very difficult to offer real grace, real forgiveness, and true mercy to those who they encounter in the midst of their charitable service. It is not for a lack of desire that charitable people struggle with this. I am certain that most if not all Christians who do charitable work operate with the most upright of intentions. Nonetheless most of us have nothing more to give than the tangible service that we offer. In other words, when the rubber meets the road, and we are face to face with the destitute, we find it very difficult to offer them hope, we find it very difficult to hear of their situations and audibly absolve them of their sin. We find it very difficult to speak of grace in Christ. We default to offering an invitation to church (which may or may not be appropriate) or maybe a few platitudes of comfort that have little effect.
I contend that the reason we struggle at getting beyond physical charity into legitimately offering spiritual grace to people is that very same psychological barrier that keeps my son from wanting to hand out candy if he hasn’t received any himself. We are people who have spiritually pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, attended worship, got involved with service, and done the work under our own power and have had a drive to do good. The truth is that in most worship settings the church is never directly told the words ‘you are forgiven’. The church is rarely told, ‘you no longer stand under judgment.’ The church almost never hears ‘you are the light of the world’ ‘you are the salt of the earth’ no strings attached. Instead we are told, if you pray this prayer all will be forgiven, or you need to go be salt and light. In most preaching no grace is ever really offered, instead a way of purchasing grace is all that is offered. It is no wonder that Christians struggle to offer free forgiveness when wronged, because nobody is offering them free forgiveness from wrong without certain conditions attached. It’s no wonder that Christians are quick to offer everyone biblical advice, but slow to offer biblical grace. We have been inundated with ‘relevant’ messages that we can apply to our life, but are rarely given messages about what has already been applied to us freely (namely the life, death, and resurrection of Christ on our behalf.)
It’s really hard to hand out candy at the parade when nobody has handed you candy first. Yet if you frequently receive candy with joy, there is no psychological barrier in place to keep you from distributing candy with joy.
Every pastor must remember that it is a primary duty of theirs to distribute grace, offer absolution of sin, pronounce that their people are no longer under condemnation. If this is done weekly, and rightly, we will find that it is much easier for our people to distribute real grace in the conversations, to withhold judgment of others, and be merciful beyond simply providing for physical needs. If our preaching does not pronounce forgiveness, we ought not to expect our people to pronounce a forgiveness to the world.