But what exactly is unmerited favor? Having favor with another person means to have a relationship where there is peace and harmony and no walls keeping you at a distance. You are welcome into the heart of the other person. If that favor is unmerited then there are no performance rules that you have to keep to fully experience that favor. Unmerited favor is a gift from one person to another. This is what separates Christianity from all other religions--unmerited favor.
Lies, Lies, Lies
I suggest that Satan is real and that there is a good reason why Jesus called him the father of lies. The world is full of lies that are intended to destroy, hinder, suppress, or mock good relationships between people and between a person and God. One of those lies is about unmerited favor. I would like to test to see if you ever buy that lie as I sometimes do.
The Blessing of Living in a Culture of Pure Merit
The culture where I live is a wonderful place to see the nuances of what it means to be a Christian. The nuances of the lies are more visible too. In my area of Utah about 90% of the Anglos identify as Mormons and say that they are Christians. They strongly emphasize being kind and generous to neighbors, helping the poor, forgiving those who wrong them, and seeking to be humble. But something is missing in my Mormon culture: unmerited favor. Mormonism teaches that all favor is merited--that is what life is about. They call life on earth a time of probation. Probation is always about merit. When I witness to Mormons I explain that God loved the world and sent his son to die on the cross to offer a relationship with him of unmerited favor. When they get the meaning of my words, they are surprised and disagree saying things like: "There is no free lunch," "You have to be accountable for your actions," "We are here on earth to learn to do what is right," or "Why do anything good then." One old man put it best: "You do the crime, you do the time." Mormons do use the word grace frequently but mean by it God's kind second chance and help to do what is right. They say that doing the right thing is necessary to avoid the consequences. They often volunteer that their hope includes another chance in the next life to stop sinning. This is pure merited favor. It is a heavy burden. The lie is that if God or I speak kindly, give more chances, but also require merit, then it is grace. The lie about relationships happens when merit is mixed into the equation or when unmerited favor is left out.
The Fruit of Merit Thinking
How the merit system plays out in my culture is where the lie hits home. See if you can relate to any of following. It may be a bit uncomfortable. Since I am not a Mormon and because of my approach in witnessing, Mormons seem to easily tell me their problems. I have had many hundred Mormons tell me one by one what they don't like about other Mormons, or about how they have been hurt by other Mormons (family, friends, neighbors, or people from church). I listen, waiting for a door for the gospel, which nearly always appears. Often the door is almost too big to miss. They never tell me that the problem with the other Mormons is that they are too forgiving, too loving, too kind, too generous, or too humble. What they tell me is that the other person has not merited forgiveness, or friendship, or a smile, or a kind word. The list goes on. Parents tell me of how their children are so frustrating or disappointing. Teenagers and university students tell me how they hate their parents attempts to manipulate their behavior. What is really common is for them to tell me that what really bothers them is pride and judgmentalism of "all the other Mormons." How do they know all the other Mormons? It is common to hear things like, "When that person apologizes or really changes then I will forgive him." "He doesn't deserve my forgiveness." "There is no hope for that person for what she did." "At least I am not as bad as that person." "He is such a disappointment." Do you hear the constant chant of: merit, merit, merit and the brokenness of the relationships caused by keeping score of merit?
Unmerited Favor and You
You and every other Christian you know has a relationship with God of unmerited favor that is free from the pressure of merit. Do you agree? If it is not true then we all are in big trouble. Now let's evaluate. When another Christian wrong's you how do you respond? Do you delight that God is not keeping score for that person because of Jesus? Do you draw near that person to comfort her in her failure as she might have forgotten how much God loves her and have moved into the lie of self-condemnation? Do you freely accept the blame that you don't deserve, as Jesus did, and remind the person of how glad you are to be together with her in God's unmerited favor? When your spouse sins against you are you glad to be married to that person and have the privilege of working together through that difficulty? Or do you feel disappointed with the failures of others, especially if against you? Is it hard for you to forgive others because you aren't sure that they are sorry or wanting to change? When people repeatedly fail, neglect or hurt you do feel frustrated, disappointed, or angry? When others hurt you do you tend to feel cold and distance yourself from them? Do you get frustrated or disappointed with your children? Are you afraid that your children will make you look bad in public? Are you afraid to be seen around the wrong kind of people? Are you glad to get away from pushy or complaining Christians? Do you worry about what people think of you at church? Do you tip at restaurants based on how good the service is? Are you quick to complain about bad service or the failures of others? Do you get angry, frustrated, disappointed, or depressed about your own failures? All the actions above are symptoms of a choice you made in the moment. If you have unmerited favor and zero merit in the equation with another person, then you can't possibly feel disappointed, frustrated, angry, cold, unforgiving, bitter, distant, or worried over the failures of others. It is impossible. You can lie to yourself and tell yourself that I am wrong, but if you aren't keeping score with that person, then there is no bad score to keep and thus no bad score to worry about. Do you get it? By the way, the only good score is perfection. By that I am a failure. How about you? I am so glad that my score is Jesus.
God is the Only Good Scorekeeper
The reason you feel horrible about the other person's sin against you is because you have usurped God job as scorekeeper. No person has a right to be the scorekeeper of others. Our job is to always notice how God is keeping score. God is always delighting in that Christian who hurt you. If you have unmerited favor in the equation, and no merit, then Jesus' death is always in view in the equation and you will always be looking over God's shoulder at His scorecard and will not only be at peace with what you see but you will share in God's delight--even while you are being sinned against. We all are together on that same scorecard as dearly loved and free from merit-measuring by the merit of Christ on the cross. When a person sins against you and you are looking at God's scorecard, then you will rejoice in the blood of Christ that has freed that person from all condemnation. In all honesty, all your misery about relationships is cause by you complaining to God about the way he keeps score. It is true for me, too. I have a low tolerance for misery and seek to always keep my eye on God's scorecard no matter what happens in life.
The Big Lie
The big lie is that unmerited favor is the door into a good relationship with God but that after that at least some merit is required to maintain the relationship--or to keep God happy, to put it more crudely. If God is ever disappointed with you as a Christian then He still has a merit relationship with you as a person. Of course your bad behavior is evil, and of course God notices it. But you are not your behavior. This is a careful distinction to make in order to thrive in relationships and to avoid ruining them. I am glad that all Christians are always in our identity even when we forget it, even when we are asleep, and even if we get dementia in old age. Do you see yourself in your identity of having a relationship of pure unmerited favor with God? Do you see your behavior as separate from your identity? Bad behavior simply results from looking away from God's scorecard. Practice thinking this way about yourself and then begin thinking it about all the Christians you know--especially the most obnoxious ones--and you may be surprised at how much you enjoy other Christians even while they are sinning against you.