For months now my friends and I have been wading through a study on the Kings and Prophets. Almost every time we get together we end up asking the same question:
"What about this guy? Is he good or bad?"
It seems we have a deep seated desire to place everyone neatly into one of two camps. On one side are the good guys. They are the ones who follow God unswervingly, living lives that are worthy of their high calling. Then there are the bad guys. The pantomime villains who rebel violently against God and hunt down His people.
Again and again we have come up against a problem. No sooner have we made our judgement than the character in question behaves in a way that casts doubt on everything we believed him to be.
David, the poet King, conquers armies and urges the Israelites to follow God. Then, in the next breath, he sleeps with another man's wife and has the same man killed to cover up his own mistakes. Hardly behaviour fitting a pillar of the good guy camp.
Moses, the man who faced up to Pharaoh and led the people out of slavery, dividing the Red Sea with his staff, loses his temper and lashes out in a public display of rebellion. (Oh yes, he also killed an Egyptian and buried his body.) Good guy membership revoked?
So it goes on. Elijah, fresh from victory, lies under a tree and begs to die. King Asa, having turned the nation of Judah back to God and brought peace to the nation ends his life in a display of self-reliance that is a staggering contradiction of what has gone before.
Even the bad guys can't seem to do what is expected of them all the time.
If the good guys can be bad and the bad guys can be good is there any difference? Reading the stories, it strikes me that the test centres around their response to sin. They all make mistakes and they all fall but what happens next?
Confronted with his sin, David is broken. Psalm 51 is a stunning demonstration of a man who knows the heart of God and understands what it means to break His law. In contrast, confronted in a similar way, King Ahab sulks and refuses to eat. He is frustrated by the inconvenience of his sin but his path does not change.
It seems the best of us have evil lurking just under the surface and the worst of us are capable of surprising the world with moments of goodness. The question I have found myself asking is, "What is the state of my heart?" "How do I feel about my failures when they inevitably come?" "Does it bother me that my arrogance and hypocrisy brings dishonour to God?"
We have a God who not only sees our sin in all it's technicolour ugliness but, at great cost to Himself, chose to make a way for us to move past it. The seemingly small rebellions and the devastating "I can't believe you call yourself a Christian" sin. However, within the immeasurable freedom of this glorious truth there lies a hidden danger. Recently a little girl asked me a question that gets to the heart of our understanding of God's grace; "If God has forgiven all of our sin, surely that means we can just do what we want now?" The tone of her voice betrayed the unspoken hope that she was wrong. Even in her childish mind the logic of it left her cold. The truth is, if we understand what God has done for us, if we really grasp it in the depths of our being, the reality of our sin will break us. That is why Peter wept after he denied Jesus and it is why David was undone by the horror of his sin with Bathsheba.
The good news is that the breaking is just the beginning. For Peter, tears in the garden were followed by intimacy on the beach as Jesus reinstated him, giving him a new purpose and a new hope. Even after his sin and failure, David was known as a man after God's own heart. Despite our best intentions to pursue holiness we will fall spectacularly short. It may surprise us but it never surprises God. While there is no doubt that my life and behaviour are an indication of my walk with God and my desire to follow Him, I'm learning to pay more attention to what is going on in my heart. How do I respond when my failures are exposed? Do I react in frustration and anger, irritated by the inconvenience of repentance? Or, moved by a heart that has been captivated by grace, do I let the tears flow and allow God to do what He chooses with my brokenness?