The first time Jenny came to church, she wore her neediness like an only dress. You could see where it had been mended over and over again along the same creases, and the places in the hem where pride had been stuffed in to hide the holes.
For five minutes, I loved her with a godly love. I cared about her burdens, and I carried them. I took her into my home and sat her on my couch and thought to myself that it didn’t matter what kind of broken she was, I could love her back together again. It was all very good and terribly Christian.
I’d send her home with a casserole or a hand-me-down for her daughter and all the while, I thought I was sewing her up better than any seamstress she had ever known before.
Then the day came when all the stitches ripped out and the fabric I had tried to save disintegrated in my hands. It cut me wide open in a way I didn’t know fabric could and I watched all that neediness dissolve into nakedness and all that nakedness reveal a horrible disfigurement that I was vain to think I could cover up with a casserole.
It smacked me hard and I stumbled back. I loved her…how could she not love me?
“I am not your project!” she had yelled on her way out the door with nothing on.
“Good,” I thought. “I don’t need a project.” But I said, “Of course not. You’re my friend.”
“Really? We’re peers?”
I paused to think of something sufficiently pious to say, but in that split-second, she opened her mouth and vomited back every good thing I had ever done. Every bit of my love had been chewed up and churned over until it was unrecognizable. She spewed the bitter, sour contents of her wrath all over me until it was all out, every single bit of it, and she had nothing left to say.
I stood on my porch dripping in bile and watched her go.
Of course I will forgive her, I thought in the afterglow of my piety. Even as the words came into my head, it was done. She was forgiven. Love keeps no record of wrongs, I reminded myself.
I cleaned myself up as best I could, but my heart ached. I grieved for her, for this person God had brought into my life to love. Only, she could not receive love. I had poured it into her, but it did not sink in. It only sat there and putrefied.
I thought back over all the times I had listened, all the times I had dropped everything and rushed to her rescue, all the nights my husband had to feed the kids because I was feeding hers. How quickly the list of rights began to mount because I had kept track of them all and I really didn’t think I deserved to be treated the way she had.
I was sure of it.
And oh, I didn’t love her very much right then.
Because just as much as love can’t keep a record of wrongs, it can’t keep a record of rights either. It cannot be good and godly and gospel while running a tab.
It is the same in ministry as it is in marriage or family or any time you begin to think someone owes you something for your kindness, anytime you begin to feel that someone should behave better because you behaved the way you ought.
Secretly, in the recesses of my heart, I had been keeping accounts. According to my ledger, she owed me the change I expected to see in her life. What should have been a work of the Spirit had become a work of my flesh. I had the receipts to prove it.
Only it didn’t work. That kind of love didn’t bind us together. It wedged a debt between us that became harder and harder to reconcile.
I piled works all around where grace should have been because it was easier. It was easier to mend her dress than to dwell with her in her nakedness. She was broken. She was offensive.
She needed me to cover a bit of that up.
So I thought.
Only, she didn’t need me. She needed Christ in me. It’s a fine distinction. One makes casseroles and expects a transformation in return.
The other is the transformation.
All my right deeds and all my right words could not do that for her. Only Jesus could do that. The One who redeems rebels as sons and harlots as brides—that’s what she needed to see in me. He does it over and over again and tears up the receipt every time.
But I robbed the cross when I wrote up her debt, as if she owed me anything for the goodness I gave out of the grace I had been given.
Every time I scribbled my good little deeds into the margins of my Bible, I mared the gospel. As if I could add anything to the gospel with that kind of love, as if I could earn my way any closer to Christ than through the work He did on the cross.
As if I could secure anyone to Him by indebting them with my self-righteous works.
The only place for my record of rights is at the foot of the cross, where all my doings are wrapped up in His “Done” and the only thing I know is Jesus Christ and Him crucified.
It is the only record of rights that is truly love, and the only record of rights that will ever be enough.