by Sue McLain
Perhaps I’m splitting hairs, but recently I’ve come to the realization that subtle differences can make a large impact on the way we view something or someone. Besides, I’m in good company. Jesus has been known to say, “You have heard it said. But I tell you…” The Pharisees and Sadducees had their own very specific and unmovable understanding of the Law of Moses. (Similar, perhaps, to the political parties of today?) Along comes Jesus with a fresh understanding of the Law, based not on legalism but rather, on character: the Fathers character. Looking at something from a different point of view can radically alter our understanding of it. That’s what happened to me.
Several years ago during pre-service prayer I very clearly heard, “I am not the God of the second chance. I am the God of new beginnings.” It was one of those God moments where I knew that I knew that the Holy Spirit wanted to break through and make a point. It has stayed with me all these years as I’ve struggled to understand what that means and what the implications are in my relationship with Him.
I began by trying to understand the differences between a new beginning and a second chance. After all, aren’t they basically saying the same thing? Don’t both speak of a fresh start?
I found that chance, in its purest form, speaks of fate, the luck of the draw, the roll of the dice. Statistically, it’s 50/50. It’s “…the absence of any cause of events that can be predicted, understood, or controlled.” It is impersonal, detached. That does not sound like the Father. He is anything but impersonal or detached. The very fact that He is a person removes the ‘chance’ factor.
OK what else may chance imply? It can speak of opportunity. For example: a job offer from an old classmate you haven’t seen in years, an investment opportunity from a start-up company, a cancelled appointment giving you the time to catch up on some unfinished business. We are given opportunities every day, and they can be monumental or insignificant. They can be created by us or given to us. They can be purposeful or accidental. They can be relational or impersonal. It’s safe to say, “opportunities happen!” But what does second chance communicate?
A second chance is always given by another. There is history inherent in it. It carries weight or debt. An abusive boyfriend gives his girlfriend a ‘second chance’. The husband gives the alcoholic wife a ‘second chance’. The boss gives the chronically late employee a ‘second chance’. There is a sense of control, authority or dominance. “I give you.” You have the right to choose, yes, but it’s tainted, stained by the past. You did this but I’m going to give you a chance to be different this time. Different according to my rules, according to my expectations. Good or bad, there is baggage in the person giving the second chance and baggage in the one it is being given to.
God, on the other hand, says He as a God of new beginnings. He has said, “I will do a new thing”. According to the law of first mention, creation is foundational to the concept of the God being all about new beginnings. Out of chaos He created something entirely new. It was fresh, clean, and untarnished.
What does that mean for us personally? He rewrites our history, gives us a fresh start. Isn’t that the very definition of adoption? He gives us a new name, a new family? He makes us a new creation! What about forgiveness? He does not hold our sins against us. He chucks them into the sea. He is very intentional, very personal. Condemnation, debt and baggage are not in His vocabulary. He has nothing to do with fate or chance.
Some might say, “What about Jonah? Didn’t he get a second chance? ” My answer to that is ‘no’. God had a mission for Jonah. Jonah had personal issues with that mission. But God had a plan and Jonah was an integral part of it. God is not in a hurry. As Banning Liebscher says, “…the Lord will get me where He wants to get me, when He wants to get me there and how He wants to get me there”. Jonah’s call, the storm, the whale, the prophecy, all of it was part of God’s plan for Jonah and Ninevah. There was no ‘second chance’ involved because God completed His plan just as He intended.
Both second chances and new beginnings give us a do-over. Both are given from relationship. But, they start from completely different places. Second chances start from a place of failure. A new beginning, well, from a clean slate, just as if it never happened.
What if we could truly grasp the freedom and intentionality that comes from a God that gives us new beginnings? Past that is dead and gone, sin that is no longer held in debt against us. Who could we become? How would it change the way we view God? How would it change the way we view each other?
A Gift to Remember
Jared and Melissa were excited enough that they couldn’t sleep, not that they gave themselves much opportunity that evening. They had been up until the wee hours, John muttering and cursing through the “Some Assembly Required” toys, and Melissa wrapping gifts, turning every one into a work of art in its own right.
As they worked, they talked excitedly about the morning. They’d waited for – longed for – this day as long as they could remember, and they found they were more ready to anticipate the morning than they were to sleep.
Jay and Missy had fallen in love early, and married fresh out of high school, eager to start a family and share their love with a flock of children. They were stunned to discover that they were unable to conceive. Over the years, they’d spent a fortune, everything they had, on doctors and treatments. She’d conceived a couple of times, but something had always gone wrong, and every conception had ended in miscarriage.
Giving up on medicine, and now into their second decade of marriage without children, they had turned to the slow process of adoption, and while the wheels had turned excruciatingly slowly, they had turned, and last spring they’d gotten the call they had waited for all their lives.
Cautiously, they’d flown to yet another war-ravaged nation, and met with the adoption agency, who had introduced them to the four-year-old stranger would be their daughter, their only child and heir, as they could never afford this again. It was a storybook introduction. When they met, they were already in love, them with her, and she with them. They wept and laughed together.
Little Emily was all that they’d ever for in a daughter, and they were a family in love. Laughter reigned in the house, and joy was their daily bread. And tomorrow, tomorrow! Tomorrow was their first Christmas together, and Jay and Missy had gone all out, blown their budget badly, gathering and making gift after gift for their princess, their beautiful daughter.
Finally, the morning arrived, and in a cloud of screaming and laughing, they found themselves gathered around the Christmas tree, giggling, surrounded by a small mountain gifts. This was the day, this was the hour! This is what they’d been waiting for.
The laughter stopped suddenly, and Emmy soberly looked at Mom, looked at Dad, and then turned to the mountain of presents. Missy picked up the top package and handed it to the now-quiet girl, who took it tenderly and set it on the floor between her knees. Eyes sparkling, she solemnly examined the wrapping, tracing the ribbons, touching the label, “oohing” and “aahing” at each discovery of her parents’ careful wrapping. After the top was completely explored and appreciated, she turned the box over, discovering a reindeer in the paper’s pattern, and was delighted again.
Jay and Missy were less patient. “Open it, honey! See what’s inside!” But Emmy was in no hurry, now engaged in a conversation with the reindeer. “She doesn’t understand,” said Jay, and he reached into his daughter’s world, and tugged gently on the ribbon, which came off gracefully. The paper, held in place by the ribbon, now slipped back revealing a hint of the contents. “It’s a present, Emmy. Open it. Look at your gift!”
But Emmy quietly wrapped the paper back over the box, and holding it in place with her small hand, finished her conversation with the reindeer, and started a new one with the penguin next to it.
When that conversation had run its course, she set the box with its slightly disheveled wrapping aside and reached for another package, but her parents interrupted her. “No, finish opening this one first! I want you to see your present!” and peeled the paper back from the box, but either Emmy didn’t understand, or she wasn’t interested.
Eventually, the paper and the box were separated, as much by Missy’s efforts as Emmy’s, and Missy glanced eagerly from her beloved Emmy to the gift, now unwrapped before her, but Emmy was looking not at the box, but the paper that had once enclosed it. She picked up the paper, turned it over in her hands, appreciatively, and gently began to fold it. Jay got up, went to the kitchen to make coffee. Missy watched her daughter, tears forming in her eyes.
It was a long morning, but eventually, the mountain of wrapped gifts was transformed into a neat pile of carefully folded wrapping paper, a collection of ribbons and bows, some of which were now worn by the little girl, and a stack of neglected gifts. Emmy played quietly with the bows as she carried on a conversation with a fat man in a red suit from one of the papers. Her parents stood across the room, talking quietly. Jay comforted his wife gently.
I was sitting with the Lord recently, marveling over John’s casual comment, “I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day,” and its connection with the stunning experience with God that he was about to enter, when the story of Emily and her disappointed parents flooded my mind.
As the story unfolded in my mind, I realized that God was talking about his relationship with his own children, that we were Emmy, and I experienced something of the sadness that God was experiencing. “My children have so often treasured the wrappings on the gifts more than they’ve treasured the gifts that I’ve given them.”
That struck me as a pretty strong statement, but as we talked about it, I began to understand a little bit of how we do that.
Father has given us amazing and expensive gifts. We were separated from him by our sin, so he – in the person of Jesus – paid the price for that separation and removed the barriers between us so that we could be with him. As if that weren’t enough, he wrote us the most amazing love story: a book about his love with his children, so that we could understand and therefore embrace the passion with which he loves us.
I’ve become convinced that we have fallen to Emily’s failure. We’ve studied his Book his love story about us, as if it were an instruction manual. (Why would a God of Love write an instruction manual for dutiful study and careful obedience?) The Bible is the most amazing, most powerful book ever written: in it are the words of Life, but it is the Life that is our goal, not the words.
We could discuss other gifts, also given to build relationship, which our quirky little species finds reason to focus on: manifestations of his presence with us (like feathers or laughter or peace) or gifts and callings (like healing the sick, or pastoring a flock of people). These are glorious gifts from the best Daddy in the universe, but they are just wrappings on the real gift: we get Him! God himself is the real gift.
Father’s goal is that we’d move past the barriers that Jesus, on the Cross, tore down and threw aside, and we’d come sit down with him, be with him.
I suppose I must include the obligatory disclaimers lest I be accused of heresy: I treasure the Bible, the Word of God, as much as anyone I’ve ever met. I am immensely grateful for the Cross of Christ! “For it pleased the Father that in Him all the fullness should dwell, and by Him to reconcile all things to Himself, by Him, whether things on earth or things in heaven, having made peace through the blood of His cross.”
My point is not to devalue either the Word of God or the Cross of Christ. Rather, I would focus my attention on that which these point to, open the way to. The cross was conceived, all of creation was conceived, planned and carried out, because He, in his omniscience, was already in love with us! God had fallen in love with us, and He was determined to do everything He could do to get to us, to find me and wrap His arms around us.
The greatest gift we’ve been given is God himself! But the greatest gift that he has is us: you and me. Not what we do, not what we know, not even our character or our quirky personality. We are his treasure, his inheritance.
We are his goal: relationship with us, “having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will.”
It has also been said this way: “Long before he laid down earth's foundations, he had us in mind, had settled on us as the focus of his love, to be made whole and holy by his love. Long, long ago he decided to adopt us into his family through Jesus Christ. (What pleasure he took in planning this!) He wanted us to enter into the celebration of his lavish gift-giving by the hand of his beloved Son.”
The goal is relationship. Not just relationship, family relationship: he has adopted us into his family as his own children, his heirs, much-loved. He has delegated that management of the family business (a little thing called Earth) to us.
It would be a mistake to try to run the family business without input from our Father, the founder. We must sit with him, understand his heart for the business, recognize the resources that he’s placed at our disposal for the work. Some of that understanding can come from the book he wrote, of course, and perhaps the most powerful engine in the shop is the blood of his Only Begotten Son on the Cross.
But the goal, the end of the matter, the reason all else exists, is relationship: that we would inherit him, and he would inherit us.
That’s the real gift, inside whatever wrappings, whatever else he gives us.