I waited tables at a Red Lobster one summer when I was in college. This was back in the 1980s when the restaurant offered an all-you-can-eat popcorn shrimp dinner on Tuesdays. One Tuesday evening a man sat down in my section and placed four five-dollar bills on the edge of the table. He said to me, “I want the all-you-can-eat popcorn shrimp with double fries and an iced tea. This twenty dollars is your tip. Every time I have to ask for more shrimp or more tea, I’m putting one of these five-dollar bills back in my pocket.”
I was both shocked and thrilled by this man’s great generosity and my great opportunity. I thought, “This doesn’t happen in real life! This only happens in the movies! This guy must have won the lottery or something!”
Over the next hour or so, I made sure this man’s glass was never below half-full and that he never had to wait in between bits of popcorn shrimp. I got that twenty dollars. And I felt like I earned it. We had an arrangement. I met my end of the bargain and he met his.
Grace is not like that at all. Mercy is not an arrangement that obligates two parties. And that’s what makes it so hard to receive.
God’s mercy doesn’t fit our paradigm. It’s not how we operate. We function according to merit. Our world and all its systems are based on merit. We work for what we get and we mostly get what we deserve. In school, we get good grades or bad grades and, most of the time, it reflects what we’ve put in. We get promotions and pay raises for the work we do. If we make an investment or render a service, we expect to get paid.
To receive mercy is to accept that you are powerless. It’s to place yourself in debt. It’s to understand that you are incapable of taking care of yourself or of saving yourself. It’s to admit that you are broken, you’re helpless, you’re unable and weak. And we are not very good at that at all.
It might seem like a little thing, but we have changed the word in the ancient hymn, “Alas, and Did My Savior Bleed?” I’m not sure when it happened, but the line in the newer hymnals reads, “Would he devote that sacred head for such a one as I?” Why?
Because I’m not a worm! I’m not unworthy! I’m not weak or incapable or hopeless!
That’s what makes it so hard to receive mercy. But if you can humble yourself to receive the mercy of God, if you can see your hands as empty and yourself as having nothing to offer, it’ll change everything.
That same summer at Red Lobster, a young couple sat down in my section on a Friday night. The place was packed, I was running like crazy between my four tables, and I messed things up with this couple very early in our relationship. I got their salad dressings wrong and the guy had to flag me down for some more tea. They had to wait forever for their food. I was so busy with my other tables, I let their dinner sit in the pickup window too long. And when I delivered their plates, I could tell I was not going to get a tip.
So, I quit on them.
I dropped off the check and didn’t talk to them again. It was already decided, I didn’t have a chance. So, I didn’t refill their drinks, I didn’t check back with them, I completely ignored them the rest of the meal, and I was relieved when they finally got up and left. And they left me a twenty-dollar tip.
It felt different than the way it did with the popcorn shrimp guy. It changed me. I didn’t deserve this tip, I didn’t do anything to earn it. I had no idea why they did that for me. It didn’t make sense. It didn’t fit the framework. It was sheer mercy. And it transformed me. For the rest of that summer, I saw people differently. I treated people differently. I saw myself and my responsibilities as a waiter differently. Mercy will do that.
God’s mercy is a free gift. It’s free for you with all your baggage and all your mess. It’s free for you and all your powerlessness and helplessness. That’s what makes it so transforming. You can’t earn it. Salvation is an entirely unmerited gift, so it blesses you with the freedom and the power to change. The problem comes when we try to earn it, when we want to feel like we’ve done enough. We try to get ourselves over the minimum number of good deeds required by God to be worth of his love and grace, but it doesn’t work that way.
Against all odds and against all circumstances, God in Christ takes care of all your needs. In shocking and thrilling fashion, Jesus becomes your sin and carries it to the cross. We’ve got so much guilt, we’ve got so much shame. All of us. We’ve got regrets. And our sin, my goodness — none of us has a chance. Except for the sheer mercy of Jesus. At the cross, Jesus settles all your business, he pays all your debts, he heals your disease, and he finishes your work. Just humble yourself to receive it.
Trust him with everything. Give him your doubts. Give him your fears. Admit all that up front: “Lord, I’m a mess!” It’s OK. Our God is big enough and strong enough to handle whatever you can throw at him. And he will receive you and accept you, not for anything you’re done or might probably do in the future, but because of what Jesus has done and promises to do for you forever.