I sat yesterday afternoon for an hour-and-a-half in a 12 x 16 foot second-floor apartment in one of Bangor’s rougher neighborhoods. The gentleman I was visiting with spent the whole time pouring his heart out to me. Though he was released from prison a short time ago after spending five years behind bars, he is still a prisoner. He is absolutely enslaved by paralyzing addictions. He is sold-out to sin.
These addictions have haunted him for most of his life. They are what caused his incarceration. Ever since he was a child, his debased orientation has been an albatross around his neck. He cannot break free.
And so, for 90 minutes, he shared the sad story with me. Part of the time he expressed his utter despondency, frustrated over his failures time and again when it comes to his addictions. He questioned his sincerity when it came to his faith. He has had moments of surrender to Christ, only to fall a few days later. He voiced his distress over his work situation; finding a job with a criminal record is very challenging.
Yet there was also a tension in his demeanor between his frustration over his utter helplessness and desperation to break free, and yet this foreboding feeling that he was uniquely dealt a bad hand in life and that he would always be who he’s always been.
I sat and listened, of course, overwhelmed by feelings of complete helplessness. It’s one of the most humbling and challenging parts of being a pastor: hearing the cries of a person and realizing that you have no control whatsoever over their actions, decisions, or fate.
When the 90 minutes drew to a close, I shared a few thoughts with him, expressing my sorrow over his situation and encouraging him with the good news of God’s love, forgiveness, and grace. I left his apartment after resolving to continue on the journey with him.
But as I left, a thought kept coming back to my mind. It was a quote from Ellen White that I had read many times – and it kept ringing in my ears as I drove home. I couldn’t remember the exact quote, but I knew it said something to the effect that God delights to use us as “experiments” of His grace.
This morning, as I was having my devotional time, I looked up the quote. I was delighted to discover that there there was not simply one quote that speaks of this idea, but there are three basic quotes that bring out this idea, each one adding to the overall beauty of the thought.
Notice what she says:
The Lord Jesus is making experiments on human hearts through the exhibition of His mercy and abundant grace. He is effecting transformations so amazing that Satan, with all his triumphant boasting, with all his confederacy of evil united against God and the law of His government, stands viewing them as a fortress impregnable to his sophistries and delusions. They are to him an incomprehensible mystery (The Faith I Live By, p. 143).
You talk about a mind-boggling thought! This is what God’s grace is capable of – and it is what He’s up to. You think a life-long, sold-out addict is beyond help? Think again! She says that God is “effecting transformations so amazing” that Satan views such an individual as an “impregnable fortress.” No temptation can penetrate this “incomprehensibly mysterious” sinner, who’s been claimed and possessed by the grace of Christ.
But she says more on this subject:
Enfeebled and defective, needing constantly to be warned and counseled, the church is nevertheless the object of Christ’s supreme regard. He is making experiments of grace on human hearts and is effecting such transformations of character that angels are amazed and express their joy in songs of praise. They rejoice to think that sinful, erring human beings can be transformed (Testimonies, vol. 7, p. 16).
Sharing much the same idea, Ellen White takes the amazement a different direction, talking about how angels almost cannot believe what they’re seeing (you think that we, as humans, feel helpless when it comes to others’ problems; what about angels)! And yet, they stand amazed, rejoicing over the “experiment of grace” that God is carrying out.
Finally, there is this classic:
The church of Christ, enfeebled and defective as she may appear, is the one object on earth on which He bestows in a special sense His love and regard. The church is the theater of His grace, in which He delights to make experiments of mercy on human hearts (Review and Herald, December 4, 1900).
What a thought! It’s the best “movie” one could ever watch; the greatest “show” a theater could ever feature. It’s God’s grace and mercy being shed upon human hearts in the most awesome experiment anyone has ever conducted.
So I left my friend’s apartment convinced more than ever before that God is inviting me to join up with His experiment of grace on this man’s heart and stand in amazement as I see Him work. It seems nearly hopeless, but I am the “undershepherd” of a God who has earned His living transforming sinful, helpless, addicted people into the amazing examples of what His grace can do.
And I know this, partly, because I am one of those sinful, addicted people who is slowly being transformed into the image of Christ.
(Postscript: I was fairly open about the details of this gentleman’s situation – a practice I try not to carry out very often. I was only somewhat open because this man’s past and struggles are fairly well-known.)