By Charles C. Grimm
It can be difficult for English teachers to enjoy worship. Years and years of writing and grading English papers transform proofreading from a skill to a reflex. Any given Sunday, I will be wondering why nobody else seems bothered that the slide says it’s instead of its, and why there is an apostrophe in ev’ry when it is sung as two syllables. When others raise their hands to sing to the Lord, my wife is patting me on the arm to tell me that the mixed metaphor I noticed does not really matter. Despite this peculiar difficulty of mine, I believe that the redeemed life requires believers to discover how their passions point back to the Lord who created them all.
“It’s on the syllabus.” Every professor loves to hate these four words. We plan our semester to match the course goals, we bring our wording into alignment with college and departmental guidelines, and we normally spend time on the first day either reviewing the syllabus with students or warning of a quiz the next class period to make sure they know it backward and forward. Some professors even treat the syllabus like a contract. I am not a fan of that approach, but I believe that it illustrates how many of us as believers see the Word of God: a carefully planned document that lists what we are supposed to learn and clearly defined punishments for any mistakes.
I often fall prey to this view of the Bible, despite the subversive power of grace. In my life as an English teacher, each semester, each course, each due date, each class meeting I try to look for chances to show grace to others. My carefully crafted syllabus even mentions grace by name in the classroom conduct section: students are expected to extend grace to each other by listening and providing thoughtful, useful feedback to one another.
But what happens when you have a student who misses multiple classes? You wait for the student to come back, and you offer them advice on how to make up what they have missed. What happens when this student opens up to you about a personal struggle? You refer the student to the help they need, and you may even explain to them your own struggles and how you worked through them. You walk away happy that you might have changed a life, but then they blow off your advice. And guess what? Next semester, maybe even the next class in a few hours, you run the risk of doing it all over again.
The Call to Grace
I am not trying to raise pity for teachers, although I hope everyone reading this prays for each teacher in their life. Instead, I want to explain how I have to struggle with grace in my day-to-day life to encourage you to think about where grace fits into your daily life. I hate being hurt. I hate putting my trust in anyone and seeing them abuse it, especially when they choose a life-ruining habit over self-improvement. As an educator, it pains my very soul knowing that they chose ignorance over knowledge.
But here is the thing about grace: you open yourself up for hurt. I said earlier that one reason I think we misunderstand grace is that we do not see it often enough. Perhaps that is why Jesus used the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18. This simple story tells of a servant whose master forgave him a large debt rather than throw him in prison, as was the master’s right under the law. The servant whom the master forgave then found a fellow servant who owed him a small debt and had him imprisoned to pay for the debt. When the other servants told the master, he was outraged and threw the servant into prison because of his refusal to show the same mercy his master had shown him.
I am always struck by the master’s initial response. The servant begged for more time to pay. Justice would be to jail him. Mercy would be to allow him a few more weeks or months. Grace, however, gave the man a new life devoid of debt: “The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go” (Matthew 18:27).
It would be easy to leave the parable there, with a forgiven servant free of all charges, but Jesus’ parables are never easy, however simple they may appear. Instead, to answer Peter’s initial question about how often to forgive someone who sins against us, Jesus told this story of a forgiven servant whose forgiven debt came back with a vengeance when the servant proved unworthy of the grace given to him. The message at the end, plainly spoken for all of us to open our ears and hear, is: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:35).
A Christian Profession
Think for a moment about the implications here: for each of us who call on the name of Jesus for salvation, this means we are to forgive. And forgive. And forgive. And forgive. To keep giving the benefit of the doubt to people who have proven themselves unworthy. To leave justice and mercy to God and be stewards instead of his grace that he gives us daily when we sin against him. What does this mean for you?
For me as a teacher, it means that each time a student hands in a late assignment or expresses confusion about an assignment because they skipped class when it was introduced or asks a question that is clearly answered in the syllabus, I have to stop and think: how can my response reflect to my students, my colleagues, and my superiors the type of grace that God gives me, a known sinner who will eventually sin again? Will my fellow servants of Christ report to him that I have not shown the same grace on which I depend for my daily existence, much less my salvation from the death I deserve through sin?
I think that when we start to view our jobs through the lens of the forgiven servant, our purpose becomes much clearer. It means that we must trust in God’s active grace that saves us from the justice of his Scriptures just like I want my students to trust in my providence as a teacher rather than simply fear the rule of the syllabus. It means that we may not experience dramatic calls in a vision to leave our homes for the remotest parts of the world, but we are called to live a life of mission. We are called to live out grace before our fellow servants in such a way that we never cause them to cry out to the master against us. We are called on to be open to being disappointed or hurt if it means that God gets the glory through our ability to show to others the dynamic grace he continues to show us.
Charles C. Grimm, in Woodstock, Georgia, is a graduate teaching assistant finishing his PhD in English.