Grace and forgiveness for the chief of sinners—and the rest of us

My mind often races around like a fly, landing here and there from time to time, but circling around unpredictably and at random. That’s weird, but I guess it’s normal enough. I’ve heard and read about enough other people who testify that their mind does the same thing.

Once in a while, something I think about or see or hear or read triggers a memory of something I did or said some time in the past—even as long ago as grade school. And whether it is that long ago or much more recent, likely as not, I remember doing or saying something stupid, and I feel great shame at the memory. That’s weird, too, but apparently not unusual.

There’s a comic strip called Drabble. Norman Drabble, apparently a college student, is one of the dimmest bulbs in the whole comics universe. Years ago, for over a week, he had similar flashbacks, memories of even dumber stuff than what he’s usually shown doing. He called them Drabble-ations.

And I thought to myself, that’s what I keep getting—Drabble-ations! The creator of that strip must have thought that all kinds of people would identify with poor Norman even as they laughed at his goofiness.

It appears that Paul kept having flashbacks. Maybe he, too, kept coming up with memories of dorky things he did as a kid, or jokes that didn’t come out quite right. But he could also look back on a former life zealously devoted to persecuting the very church he had since risked so much to build up.

What went through his mind? In our scripture, he calls himself the worst of sinners. I have always wondered about that. Even among his contemporaries, people he knew about or perhaps even knew personally, was he really the worst? Was he a worse sinner than Judas? A worse sinner than Caiaphas? In his own mind, yes, he was.

One of our historic prayers of confession says that “we bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time have committed against Thy divine majesty. The remembrance of them is grievous unto us.”

As I prepared this meditation, I saw something striking in the scripture that I had not noticed before: Late in his life, when Paul looked back on the self-righteous violence of his young adulthood, he did not see his shame. He saw God’s grace. He called himself the worst of sinners, but God’s grace was greater than his sin.

Paul acted in ignorance. At the time he was blaspheming Christ and committing violence against the church, he thought he was helping God out. Paul was trying to earn God’s favor with his zeal, but in fact, he was actively persecuting the Son of God.

It was never God who reminded him of the enormity of his sin. That was the devil. God gave grace, and along with grace, he gave faith and love. What Paul was trying to earn through his works, God gave freely. What Paul didn’t recognize that he could never be good enough to earn, God gave freely.

The grace of God blotted out Paul’s sin, and not only in the sense of forgiving him so that he could inherit the kingdom of God. Here’s how grace is greater than sin: when Paul looked back on his sin, he did not see his shame so much as he saw the vastness of God’s mercy and grace.

Paul’s point in writing to Timothy is that if God could save a wretch like Paul with his mercy and grace, he could save anyone. That is a wonderful thing to be sure. Grace gives us the chance to take the memory of past sins not as an opportunity to feel shame once again, but as an opportunity to praise God for his saving grace.

I suspect that if the devil cannot have fun by stirring up Drabble-ations, he’ll stop. That will give us all the more reason to praise God’s grace.

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