Singapore, Day 4

The boy walked away with his heart of stone. Rebellious, uncaring, self-absorbed. He took off down the road nursing his adolescent grievances and his wounded pride. He wanted to do things his way … make his own decisions … find his own path. He had no patience for the advice of a father, no willingness to respect a father’s wisdom. He slung his belongings over his shoulder and walked away from home without a second thought … without a backward glance.

He didn’t see his father watching him go. He didn’t see his father wondering what it would take to soften the heart of his son….

The boy limped back home with a broken heart. Broken dreams; disappointment; guilt; shame; scars. He’d wandered far from his father, but never found a home. He’d tried things his way, but that had ended in disaster and suffering.

Everything was gone: his money, his pride, his innocence. If you’d walked beside the boy for a few moments on that road towards home, you would have heard him mutter, “Father, I’m not worthy to be called your “son” … a servant, perhaps … yes, make me a hired servant so I can eat” …

Just as the father watched him leave, so the father watched his son return. He could see the boy limping in the distance. He knew what the limp meant. And he knew he had a decision to make: what’s a father to do with a prodigal son? How does a father receive a boy so broken? And what—oh, what—could change a heart of stone?

A Question of the Heart

If you listen closely to the story of Scripture—the story of the Old Testament and Israel; the story of the New Testament and the church; the story of Jesus and his ministry—you can hear a question asked repeatedly, a question asked a hundred different ways, a question with only one good answer.

What can change a human heart? What can turn the heart towards home? What can heal a heart and transform a heart and make a heart love again?

It was God’s question really. The one he asked about all the prodigal sons and daughters since Adam and Eve. The one he asked about Israel and the Gentiles and all the nations of the world
Jesus came to answer that question. And the answer he gave—over and over again—wasn’t complicated or involved. It didn’t require a Masters in theology to understand. Often, Jesus gave the answer in one word:

Grace. Undeserved, surprising, inexplicable grace. Extravagant acts of mercy. Unreasonable, immoderate feats of self-giving love.

Only grace can change a heart. Only grace has the power to transform. All you can do is show grace and then let grace do its work.

Have you discovered that yet?

God in Pursuit of the Heart

I don’t know whether you believe God can learn. But as you look back over his history of dealing with humanity, it sure looks like he’s learning how to work with our broken hearts.

As the story of Scripture opens, God appears to assume that he can count on our hearts.

“Look. The whole garden is yours. Enjoy! I made all this for you. I give it to you. Live gratefully. Only, don’t eat of this one tree … just this one tree.”

But from the beginning, it seems, the heart of man was bent. From the start, our hearts have been on the run from the one who loved us best. And so we reached for the forbidden fruit. For the sake of the one tree, we abandoned the garden.

So God tries to hand-pick a few in hopes that they would give their hearts willingly.

Noah. Abraham. Moses. David. “I will make a covenant with you. Love me and I will be your God.” After Eden, God realizes that most won’t give their hearts to him willingly. But surely a chosen few would, if personally invited.

This, too, proved wishful thinking, however. Noah preferred his wine. Abraham compromised his walk (and his wife) to protect his life. Moses lost it with rod and rock. David chose Bathsheba over obedience.

Then God embarks on a grand scheme of moral education.

“Maybe they don’t understand. If they know more, they will love me more.” So God descends to Sinai and gives his people the Law—lengthy, detailed, specific instructions about living. Sadly, the Law became another failed experiment in human rehabilitation. Most ignored it. Even those who wanted to obey God’s directives couldn’t do it.

Hearts can’t be won that way. Commands won’t woo broken sons back home.

Finally, God warns and threatens and punishes.

If not the carrot, the stick! He sends invading armies to wicked Israel. He destroys crops and makes wives infertile. He allows his people to stagger under the weight of poverty and ignorance. But they just keep turning away. Our hearts have a will of their own.

Time won’t change the heart. Oh, people may mature a little. They will mellow or harden with the drip of the years. But time won’t make a fool listen or turn greed into contentment or teach compassion to a cruel man.

Education won’t change the heart. We imagine that if people learn enough, if only they have the right information, they can live better lives … that knowing better means being better. But it doesn’t work that way. It never has.

Threats won’t do it … or consequences … or fear. Such things might provoke surface changes … temporary changes. But nothing that lasts … nothing that transforms.

Only Grace

So God tries something new. Rather, God decides to focus on something very old.

The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. (Ex 34:6-7)
God goes back to the core of his character. He reaches into himself and brings out a heaping-helping of grace, forgiveness, second chances, underserved and unmerited favor. He returns to basics and decides to treat broken hearts with the balm of his mercy.

Grace, of course, is spread all through the record of Scripture. It’s there in the Garden and there in the Law and there in the times of the Judges and Prophets and Kings. It’s heaped on individuals and lavished on Israel and extended to Gentiles.

But nowhere is God’s grace on display quite as obviously as when God sends his Son, his one and only Son. The Son who was full of grace and truth. The Son who came chasing our hearts with his Father’s mercy.

When Jesus talked with us, he told stories of an unexpectedly gracious God. A God who welcomes back Prodigal Sons and puts rings on their fingers. A God who forgives all debts. A God who shows mercy even to tax collectors … especially tax collectors!

When Jesus died for us, he showed the full extent of his Father’s grace. “This is how far grace extends. This is the measure of the Father’s love.” The righteous for the unrighteous … the innocent for the guilty … God’s most immoderate act of mercy.

But when Jesus lived among us, he demonstrated the grace of his Father on a daily basis. Look how he treated the people he encountered along the way. Look at the grace he poured out to broken beggars and penitent tax collectors and much-married women who met him at wells. Jesus showered grace on everyone he met … baptized them in it … bathed them with it … flooded their broken lives with it.

An Example from the Gospels

Do you remember the woman brought to Jesus, caught in the act of adultery?

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir,” she said.

“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.” (John 8:3-11)
We don’t know anything about this woman’s story. Was this her first moral lapse or had adultery become her habit? What pain put her in this position to begin with? Abuse? Poverty? Rejection? Disappointment? How hard did her heart have to grow to commit this sin?

She knew adultery was wrong. She’d been to Synagogue … she’d heard the Ten Commandments. And now here she was, her sin revealed to the world, her life in tatters and hanging by a thread. Embarrassed, ashamed, afraid, angry. Those emotions do little to soften a hard heart. Those emotions tend to make hearts harder.

Jesus doodles in the earth, thinking. But the question on his mind is not the one we usually imagine. Is Jesus running through a list of snappy answers to the Pharisees’ leading question? Is he thinking how he could extricate this poor woman from their self-righteous grasp?

No. What Jesus wonders is, “How can I win this woman back to her Father? How can I bring this lost heart home?”

Contrary to common sense (and our too-usual practice), Jesus knew that what this woman needed was not a stern lecture on the evils of adultery and the wickedness of sin. She didn’t require a reminder of the Ten Commandments (and, in particular, the seventh!). Above all, what this woman needed was not a good stoning. Jesus understood: Stoning has never changed anyone’s heart.

So, instead, Jesus offers this broken woman a piece of his Father. He offers her grace. “Where are your accusers? Does no one condemn you? I don’t condemn you either. Here … have a second chance. Let me show you some unexpected mercy. Allow me to give you something that might help.”

Not a single person at the Temple that morning was worthy to pass judgment and cast the first stone—save for Jesus himself. But Jesus wasn’t going to throw rocks at this woman. He threw forgiveness instead.

No Guarantees

Just as we don’t know the story of this woman before Jesus entered the scene, neither do we know what happened to her afterwards. We are not privy to the rest of the story.

Tradition tells us this woman-caught-in-adultery may have been Mary Magdalene, that this was her first meeting with Jesus, that Jesus’ mercy began to make a transforming difference in Mary Magdalene’s life from this very encounter.

We just don’t know.

But if we are honest, we have to acknowledge that Jesus’ grace to the adulteress may not have made any difference at all. She may have skipped from the temple courts right back into the arms of her lover. She may have experienced a brief period of repentance only to return to her old ways soon enough.

Jesus didn’t know whether grace would make a difference in this woman’s life. What he did know was that only grace could make a difference in this woman’s life. Perhaps grace would not be enough to change the adulteress. But only grace had a chance of changing her.

Bringing Hearts Home

Two things:

Our hearts have been running from God for a long time. If we want our hearts to come home, it will only happen when we recognize, embrace, and celebrate the grace that God has extended to us. Healed hearts, transformed hearts, will not result from trying harder, acting better, getting it “righter.” They are not the product of greater discipline or moral bootstrapping or better interpretation. They won’t come from deeper study or self-flagellation.

If our hearts are to return to the Father, it will be because—having experienced the surprising, unmerited, soul-salving grace of God—we respond with gratitude and open ourselves to the transforming power that results.

Grace is how our hearts heal. Only grace has the power to bring our hearts home.

But just as grace is the only power great enough to reconcile us to God, so grace is the only power great enough to reconcile us to each other.

Someone’s heart is on the run from you. Perhaps there is a broken friendship from your past—wounded feelings and betrayed trust and simmering resentments. It may be a spouse, a child, a parent whose heart has traveled far from you and refuses to come home. The void might seem un-spannable. You may not see how the rift could possibly be healed.

Don’t give up. No relationship—however estranged—is beyond reconciliation. But whenever reconciliation occurs, you can count on this: it requires an outpouring of grace. Other elements might be involved: repentance, confession, and time, for instance. But grace is the only essential element of reconciliation. Hearts won’t heal without it.

You’ve tried other remedies. You’ve hoped time would heal all wounds. You’ve wondered whether sage advice, savvy counsel, a good book might mend the injury. Perhaps you’ve attempted a bribe or two over the years … some token peace-offering. You may even have thought a little brow-beating might work.

But the only thing capable of capturing a run-away heart is grace. A dose of forgiveness. A measure of mercy. An unanticipated vulnerability. A willingness to try again. Only grace can heal our hearts.
The challenge we face with estrangement is finding the courage to apply grace … and offering to others a grace that is greater than their pain.

I don’t know what that grace might look like for you. For one wayward son, though, it meant a Father running and embracing and celebrating. Come to think of it, a little running, embracing, and celebrating might be a good place for all of us to begin.


© 2012 by Tim Woodroof. Reproduction of this material requires permission from the author.