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This is a nation of second chances. 

That’s what one commentator said as Tiger Woods was about to win the PGA Tour Championship this past weekend.  The image of him walking up the course with a crowd of people following and cheering him on as he wrapped up his first victory in four years—his first victory since his sex-addiction scandal broke—was a powerful testament to the fact that this is indeed a land of second chances. 

As I write this, Judge Kavanaugh is set to go before a special session of the Judiciary Committee to investigate alleged inappropriate and potentially criminal behavior during his years as a high school and college student.  Given the present tenor of the country, if the allegations stick, his opportunity to be a supreme court justice—which looked assured a few weeks ago—will be ruined for good, probably along with his career and reputation.  At least this is what the majority of Americans are calling for. 

So much for second chances.

Have you ever noticed that we Americans tend to only give second chances to the people we like and for transgressions we deem forgivable?  We haven’t given Rosanne Barr or Michael Richards (“Kramer” from Seinfeld) a second chance for their tirades.  I don’t see people lining up to say that we should give Charles Manson or Bill Cosby a second chance for their crimes.

Please understand me clearly.  I’m not in any way trying to defend them—I find what they did despicable.  I’m just pointing out how arbitrarily we dole out redemption in America: we say everyone deserves a second chance, but then don’t give everyone a second chance, especially those who aren’t famous, like the drug dealer or gang member on the evening news.

Please also understand that I’m not trying to make any kind of political statement either.  My politics are driven by my understanding of the Gospel and put me all over the place depending on the issue.  I’m neither right nor left, Republican nor Democrat.  I just try to apply my faith as best I can to the issue at hand.  And I see this lack of consistency consistently crossing party lines.  So please bear in mind, I’m not trying to be partisan in any way.

During the Monica Lewinsky scandal, many people defended Bill Clinton by saying that what he did was a “mistake”, and since nobody’s perfect, who are we to “throw stones”?  Everyone has some kind of skeleton buried in their closet.  So we should give him a second chance—after all, everyone deserves a second chance. 

Looking back, there’s little doubt that what Bill Clinton did was not only immoral—adultery—it was also illegal—based on the law, it constituted sexual harassment, something we can now clearly see as a result of the “Me Too” movement: The person in highest authority initiating sexual relations with a subordinate in the workplace.  In fact, the power disparity was as egregious as it gets: Clinton was the most powerful man in the world having a sexual relationship with a female intern nearly thirty years younger in the oval office. 

But people kept calling it a mistake.

As if it was just an accident; as if he had no control over what happened. 

As if adultery and sexual harassment weren’t that bad; as if they were no big deal. 

As if everybody’s closet is filled with similar skeletons; as if everyone engages in these kinds of behaviors.

Everyone makes mistakes, of course.  But not every “mistake” is of the same degree.  Is losing your temper and yelling at your spouse the same as lying about someone and ruining their reputation?  Is cheating on your taxes the same as rape? 

And is “mistake” really the right word?  Can you say that something like rape or premeditated murder is just a mistake?  Woops, I got angry and decided to kill a guy.  Sorry.  Were the KKK cross burnings just a mistake?  Is embezzling thousands of dollars over the course of many years just a mistake?  Is drinking and driving just a mistake?

When we do something intentionally, on purpose, it’s not a “mistake”. 

When we plan to do it, it’s not a “mistake”. 

A mistake is something you make on a math test.  A mistake is misspelling a word.  A mistake is something you do when you miss a turn.  A mistake is bumping into someone on the street when you’re not paying attention. 

Yet, how many public figures, when caught, beg forgiveness for making a “mistake”?

How many of us apologize for making a “mistake” when it was something we did deliberately?

During the Clinton scandal, his defenders frequently invoked a reference from a well-known incident in Jesus’ life.  The incident is the story of the Woman Caught in Adultery (John 8:1-11).  Jesus uses a dramatic line to (literally) disarm the religious leaders who, stones in hand, are eagerly waiting to condemn the adulterous woman to death: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”  One by one, they drop their stones and walk away.  What a convicting line!  Which one of us could do otherwise?  Which one of us is without sin?  

As Clinton’s defenders pointed out: Who are we to throw stones?

Jesus then says something that is usually forgotten—or conveniently ignored—but is just as dramatic and just as integral to the story.  Left alone with the woman, Jesus asks her: “Has no one condemned you?”  When she answers no, he says something that should rock us to the core.  

He tells her: “Neither do I.”

In other words, he’s presuming to be without sin!  By his own logic, only the one without sin has the right to stone her.  Everyone else has walked away because, being sinners themselves, they can’t condemn her.  They had to walk away. 

But he’s still standing there, in a position to condemn her—if he chooses to.  By saying “neither do I”, he distinguishes himself from everyone else—from every other human being—as the only one who can condemn her, as the only one who has no sin. 

More shocking, he freely acknowledges that what she did is worthy of condemnation.  By telling her that, as the one who is without sin, he is choosing not to condemn her, he is tacitly admitting that he would be fully justified in doing so—her sin is that serious!

And yet, he forgives her.  But it’s not because she just made a mistake—why would you need forgiveness for a mistake anyways?  It’s not because he thought adultery wasn’t that big a deal; or he thought his culture was being too legalistic about it; or because everybody makes mistakes. 

In Jesus’ day, there were three capital offenses: blasphemy, murder, and adultery.  The reason adultery was a capital offense was that it tore at the fabric of society.  It wasn’t just a private affair, none of our business, something that happens behind closed doors.  It affected everyone and could compromise the fragile nature of the family; which in turn, could destroy the social order.  Adultery was a heinous crime, not only against the parties involved, but also against society itself. 

Jesus is every bit as disgusted and offended by what this woman has done as anyone else in his culture would be.  (He would feel this way about the man who was involved with her too, but, in a patriarchal culture, it’s not surprising that he isn’t brought up on the same charges, even though the Law said he was just as liable.)  

He sees her actions as completely condemnable. 

Every bit as heinous as rape, murder, cross burning, and so forth.  He detests her sin with a passion.

But he forgives her anyway.  He loves her, a despicable sinner, with an even greater passion.

That’s what’s so amazing about grace.

That’s what’s so amazing about him.

Amazing, but also hard to take.  Giving people a second chance is easy if you find them likable and think they only made a mistake.  It’s virtually impossible when they are despicable and what they’ve done is heinous.  In my own state, there was a murder over ten years ago that made national news.  Two men committed a brutal home invasion where they raped and murdered a mother and two daughters in the presence of their father.  He somehow survived despite the fact that these two heartless “animals” tried to burn the house down, but has to live with this memory the rest of his life. 

Given our view of adultery, it may be hard to fathom, but in her day, the woman caught in adultery would be viewed with similar contempt.  Imagine Jesus forgiving these two “animals” and you get the picture: this is how people would feel about him forgiving her.

Amazing grace is a nice sentiment when we apply it to ourselves.  Or to the latest celebrity redemption story, like Tiger Woods.

But when applied to the most heinous of sinners, it’s too much to take.  Jesus and his grace are altogether too much for us.  Altogether beyond the way we naturally think.

Jesus made His grace available to anyone who turns back to him, who “repents.”  His grace isn’t restricted to nice, likable people who make mistakes once in a while because nobody’s perfect.  He is willing to give anyone, no matter what they’ve done or who they are, a second chance.  To redeem them. 

John Newton, who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace”, was involved in the slave trade.  He was as despicable as they come.  As he described himself, he was an absolute wretch.  I wonder, if he was alive today, would we give him a second chance?  I seriously doubt it.  

What transformed him and later inspired the song, is that Jesus, in the Gospels, did forgive wretches like him.  Because of this, he knew Jesus would forgive even someone like him.  What made God’s grace in Jesus so amazing to John Newton wasn’t that He was willing to forgive a basically good person who mistakenly got caught up in a bad lifestyle.  But that he was willing to forgive an absolute wretch—as sinister and vile and bad as they come.

That’s why, no matter what skeletons we might be in our closets, if we admit them, if we admit that, to one degree or another, we are all wretches, that we all stand in the same need of his grace, we can be sure he is willing to forgive us too.

Tiger Woods.  Judge Kavanaugh.  Bill Clinton.  Our standards of judgment and forgiveness are random, fickle, often hypocritical, based on popularity, and deeply flawed.

His are entirely perfect.

And that’s what’s so amazing about grace.  That’s what’s so amazing about Jesus.

His ways are clearly not our ways.  They are so far beyond.

About Me

E.J. Sweeney is a true skeptic. He needs to see to believe. Hard Evidence. Compelling Proof. Solid Logic. This is what he believes in. In college, he encountered questions that the superficial faith he was raised on couldn’t handle. So he began a quest for Truth, a quest for the answers to life’s ultimate questions.

EJ Sweeney

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