Sheer Mercy

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.




  1. Howard Holmes

    Those are good Red Lobster stories and make for a good post. The analogy works but breaks down in the end in an unacknowledged way. You did not deserve the tip and you do not deserve God’s gift. So far so good. But at Red Lobster you did not do any humbling or trusting or believing. The gift was bang, out of the blue, with nothing from you. It was great. it was instructive. It was humbling . Would that God’s mercy was really like that. However, no matter how you try to spin it, God’s gift requires something from you.

    • Allan

      You’re right in that all such analogies break down at some point. But I was hoping to communicate a little more with the lines about my own transformation as a result of this couple’s unmerited kindness. It changed the way I viewed people, it changed the way I viewed my own responsibilities as a waiter. It affected me and changed my outlook and my behavior. I think it works similarly with our Father. His mercy should affect a change in our hearts and minds so that we treat ourselves and others differently and we prioritize our relationship with him.

      Also, at Red Lobster, it did require that I pick up the twenty dollars and receive it as the gift it was. I couldn’t receive it if I left it on the table. And the couple wasn’t going to force me to take it, they weren’t going to put me in a headlock and cram it into my pockets. Similarly, with our God, it is required that we actually receive his grace. He won’t force it on us.

  2. Howard Holmes

    Your reply was in two paragraphs. I agree fully with the first. I originally got the point of your story and found it very easy to empathize with the effect of that tip upon yourself. I found the story appealing and relevant and believable. I also agree with the application to a similar effect of receiving God’s mercy.

    The second paragraph of your reply does not meet the same standards. Back to Red Lobster. To make the analogy work everyone is a waiter. Everyone has a bad day, is slackish in their duties, is uncaring. Everyone has a $20 tip laid on the table. The conundrum is that most don’t pick it up. Do they not see it? That makes no sense. Do they not need an extra twenty? That makes no sense. There is no need for any headlocks. If they know it is there, they are taking it.

    I have been reading your blog for years. You have routinely and, at times, eloquently expounded on the grace of God. I’m merely asking for you to seriously address why it is that most of us don’t pick it up the twenty bucks.

  3. Allan

    While Christianity is still the largest of the world religions and there are plenty of people picking up the $20 bill, your question is valid and it’s one with which I wrestle quite often. My initial, gut-level response is to blame Christians and the Church. Or…

    Maybe it doesn’t look like a $20 bill. Maybe God’s free grace and forgiveness and love looks like something else to a lot of folks who see it. Maybe it looks counterfeit. Maybe they don’t recognize it. Maybe they’re not looking for it and so they never see it, they blow right past it.

    Maybe they feel like there are strings attached. If a travel company offers me a free trip to Vegas, I don’t take it. Not because a free trip to Vegas wouldn’t be wonderful, but because I know I’m going to pay for it in other ways. I’m going to have to listen to a high-pressure sales pitch, I’m going to be obligated by some fine print to attend a two-hour seminar — there’s no such thing as a free lunch. It’s bait and switch, it’s too good to be true. Most of us Westerners are conditioned to think this way.

    Maybe they don’t feel like they deserve it. If the couple who gave me the $20 were still in the restaurant when I found it, I probably would have tried to return it. I would have pushed back. I’ve met plenty of men and women who feel like they are too far gone, too sinful, too bad for God to love them, for God to forgive them. They can’t begin to imagine there’s any possible way for them to be changed. So they refuse the offer.

    Maybe the beauty of God’s grace is overshadowed by the scandal of it. We want to be in control. We don’t want to take anyone’s free gift. We don’t want to admit we need it. We don’t want anybody to think we need help. People turn down charity all the time as a matter of pride.

    Or maybe people have a distorted view of God and his salvation because of terrible experiences with fallen Christians and sinful preachers and bad churches. The Church has done a disservice to the Gospel by our complicity with the sinful structures and systems of the world. So the God and the Gospel that people are rejecting aren’t the God and Gospel of Scripture, it’s something else entirely. They’ve been told or shown that accepting a free $20 bill is a curse, not a blessing, and they believe it. They’ve heard stories, they’ve had experiences, and they’re convinced it’s bad. I know that’s not correct, I know that’s wrong, I know it doesn’t make sense. But they can’t be persuaded.

    Again, it’s a good question and my attempts here to answer it may not satisfy. Overall, my tendency is to blame Christians and the Church. When God was walking around on this earth in the flesh-and-blood of Jesus, the people who needed salvation were drawn to him. They couldn’t get enough of him. Now that we’re the hands-and-feet of Jesus, now that we’re the Body of Christ, it doesn’t seem to work the same way.

  4. Howard Holmes

    This was an impressively elegant response. I enjoyed it.

    On close analysis there are nine maybes. At first it seems like a lot reasons. On closer look eight are clearly a matter of just saying in different ways that people do not believe it is true. The other suggests it is because people do not think they can change. This also boils down to not believing it is true because the claim is that grace can change us. So really all the maybes suggest the $20″s do not get picked up because we don’t know they are there.

    Anecdotally , I can attest that this is true in my case. If I believed the 20 was real I would pick it up without hesitation.

    I found it interesting that you take the final blame on Christians and the church. This is a noble move. I would say your shoulders are not broad enough to carry that weight. You would not torment anyone for an eternity for failing to be perfect. I’ve never known a Christian or anyone else who would do that. I absolve you from that responsibility. There is nothing more you can do to change the fact that most of us are ignorant of your claims.

    The fault lies in the grace you so often laud. It is not nearly broad enough. Grace is sufficient to sustain an Allan who was born and raised in the church. It fails miserably at being sufficient for billions of others who were not. If we need more grace, we need more grace. It took an impressive amount of grace to change you in the Red Lobster story. If the diner had required anything of you such as “tell me you are sorry, and I will give you $20” it would not have worked. It worked because there was nothing, NOTHING, you were or did to deserve it. This is the reason you mentioned above that if the diner was there you would have tried to refuse because you, by doing that, would be seeking to be deserving, you would be turning grace into something else.

    If God saved all the world, that would be grace. This is the only thing that makes sense if we truly that no one is more worthy than another. To believe in anything less than universal salvation is to believe in something less than grace.

  5. Allan

    Howard, I think you have betrayed your misunderstanding of grace. Or our (Christians and the Church) miscommunicating the truth about grace. Or both.

    God HAS saved the whole world. God DOES save the whole world. Grace is free, no strings attached, unconditional love and forgiveness and salvation to all who receive it. God doesn’t ask for good behavior or cleaned-up messes or righteous deeds before he loves and forgives and saves. His initiative to lavish his love and grace on you and everybody you know always comes first. But it’s not forced on anybody. You’ve got to swallow your pride and receive it.

    When it is received humbly and gratefully, in the full knowledge that it is not deserved in any way, as the amazingly merciful and loving gift that it is, it will change a person. But it won’t be forced on you or anybody else against your will.

    As C.S. Lewis said, at some point God will say to you, “Not my will, but yours be done.”

  6. Howard Holmes

    I see we have wandered off course again. Probably my fault. Should I just give up?

    The original issue is “why are some people saved and others not?”

    The assertion “God grace saves all” is adequate for the question “why are people saved.” The assertion “All have sinned” answers the question “why do people go to hell?”

    Neither of the questions in the previous paragraph are interesting. The interesting question is “why are not all saved or all lost?” Neither grace nor sin provides any clue as to the answer of that question.

    Your nine maybes suggested the answer is a matter of variation as to knowledge. I also totally agree with this. It seems like we can start there and agree that the reason not all are saved or all are lost is that knowledge varies. Not only has our discussion seemed to confirm that we agree with this, it is also very intuitive. You were raised as a Christian. Omar was raised as an muslim. It seems very easy for me to see that your salvation is much more probable than Omar’s. I suspect we could do a scientific study of 20 Allans and 20 Omars, and we would find that something like 15 of the Allans died as Christians and maybe one of the Omars. (I’m not doing the study, but would these results surprise you?)

    Let me just stop there. Have I said anything with which you disagree?

  7. Allan

    I would disagree with your assertion that “sin” offers no clues to the question at hand as to why some are saved and others not. The sins of rebellion, pride, and selfishness are all reasons some people choose to reject God’s gift. That’s not the whole answer, but it’s a clue.

    I’ll give you varying degrees of knowledge as a factor. I’ll even allow that it’s a significant factor. But it’s not the only one.

    I’m assuming now that you’ll agree to the above, but focus the discussion on the knowledge aspect with the question “How can a loving and gracious God refuse to save someone who doesn’t know?” Well, If I understand the Father at all, and I believe we see him pretty well in his Son, he is all loving and gracious and kind and he will stop at nothing to save his children. All of them. The only ones who are not saved are those who willfully and repeatedly reject his gift.

    Maybe I’m assuming too much about where this is headed. Forgive me. And, please, continue…

  8. Howard Holmes

    In order to willfully reject the gift would not one have to know about the gift….know includes necessarily believing in its availability? You have already conceded the importance of knowledge. I am sure that most of the 20 Omar’s I mentioned never knew enough about Christianity to willfully reject it assuming they knew as much about Christianity as I know about Islam.

    I used to watch “Let’s Make a Deal’ when I was little. A contestant might choose door number 2 and get a billy goat, whereas if she had chosen door number three she could have had the Chevrolet Impala. Did she willfully reject the Impala? Was she ever in a position to willfully reject the Impala?

    You said there are other reason for the variation in the Omar’s and the Allan’s. Did you give me other reason? If so, I missed it, unless you are just talking about something like “willfulness” which per the above does not work. To have knowledge of salvation and reject it is crazy and a sign of insanity, not willfulness. I cannot imagine the average human choosing, on purpose against his best interest.

    What I am suggesting and what you seem to keep agreeing with is that knowledge explains why some are saved and others lost. If something else explains this as well, what is it?

  9. Allan

    It’s not crazy or insane to willfully reject something that’s in your best interest. Cigarette smokers do it several times a day. I do it a couple of times a week at Whataburger.

  10. Howard Holmes

    In the post before last you said, “How can a loving and gracious God refuse to save someone who doesn’t know?”….. The only ones who are not saved are those who willfully and repeatedly reject his gift.”

    I fail to understand your point here. How can someone reject a gift they do not know about? Please try to explain the thought process of this happening.

  11. Allan

    I’m implying that God does not condemn anyone; those who are not saved, in the end, have condemned themselves. Of course, one cannot reject a gift he does not know about. At the same time, we are all capable of refusing what we know is good for us.

  12. Howard Holmes

    “….those who are not saved, in the end, have condemned themselves.”

    You still do not address how they condemn themselves. For the most part, the unsaved are ignorant of the gift so they are not rejecting the gift (as you agree in the previous post). If they are not rejecting the gift, then how is it that they condemn themselves?

  13. Allan

    They don’t.
    I’ve agreed that one cannot reject a gift about which they are ignorant. I’ve not said the ignorant are unsaved / condemned.
    You have claimed to be ignorant. You and I might disagree on who’s ignorant and who’s willfully refusing the gift.

  14. Howard Holmes

    I would accept the gift in a minute if I thought it was real. You seem to be suggesting otherwise. Why would I not?

  15. Allan

    I’m unable to understand why you will not accept the gift of God’s mercy. It baffles me. But I know you’re not ignorant.

  16. Howard Holmes

    If something exists, and a person is not aware that it exists then that person is ignorant of its existence regardless of their familiarity with the issue. Imagine someone who is the world’s leading expert on the Loch Ness monster. Let’s say he has studied it for years, traveled numerous times to the location, written journal articles and a best selling book on the subject. Let’s say, also, his conclusion is that it is a hoax. If it is true that the monster exists this person is ignorant of that fact.

    If it is true that God’s gift is available to me, I am ignorant of that fact. This is also true of a majority of the world nearly eight billion people. I see no reason other than ignorance that would cause them to not receive the gift. If they knew of the gift they would know it was the greatest treasure a person could possess. Can I see someone turning down winning the lottery? Unlikely. We can put the people in a shoebox who would turn down the lottery winnings. Ignorance is the only reasonable explanation for not receiving God’s gift. I know this is true in my case. If you disagree it is in your court to provide a credible alternative explanation.

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