Circumcision, the surgical ritual that marks you as a Jew, is great if you live in accord with God's law. But if you don't, it's worse than not being circumcised. The reverse is also true: The uncircumcised who keep God's ways are as good as the circumcised— in fact, better. Better to keep God's law uncircumcised than break it circumcised. Don't you see: It's not the cut of a knife that makes a Jew. You become a Jew by who you are. It's the mark of God on your heart, not of a knife on your skin, that makes a Jew. And recognition comes from God, not legalistic critics.
So what difference does it make who's a Jew and who isn't, who has been trained in God's ways and who hasn't? As it turns out, it makes a lot of difference—but not the difference so many have assumed.
First, there's the matter of being put in charge of writing down and caring for God's revelation, these Holy Scriptures. So, what if, in the course of doing that, some of those Jews abandoned their post? God didn't abandon them. Do you think their faithlessness cancels out his faithfulness? Not on your life! Depend on it: God keeps his word even when the whole world is lying through its teeth. Scripture says the same:
Your words stand fast and true;
Rejection doesn't faze you.
But if our wrongdoing only underlines and confirms God's rightdoing, shouldn't we be commended for helping out? Since our bad words don't even make a dent in his good words, isn't it wrong of God to back us to the wall and hold us to our word? These questions come up. The answer to such questions is no, a most emphatic No! How else would things ever get straightened out if God didn't do the straightening?
It's simply perverse to say, "If my lies serve to show off God's truth all the more gloriously, why blame me? I'm doing God a favor." Some people are actually trying to put such words in our mouths, claiming that we go around saying, "The more evil we do, the more good God does, so let's just do it!" That's pure slander, as I'm sure you'll agree.
So where does that put us? Do we Jews get a better break than the others? Not really. Basically, all of us, whether insiders or outsiders, start out in identical conditions, which is to say that we all start out as sinners. Scripture leaves no doubt about it:
There's nobody living right, not even one,
nobody who knows the score, nobody alert for God.
They've all taken the wrong turn;
they've all wandered down blind alleys.
No one's living right;
I can't find a single one.
Their throats are gaping graves,
their tongues slick as mud slides.
Every word they speak is tinged with poison.
They open their mouths and pollute the air.
They race for the honor of sinner-of-the-year,
litter the land with heartbreak and ruin,
Don't know the first thing about living with others.
They never give God the time of day.
This is one of those passages that so many like to throw around to cast shame on all those they don’t like. But, the thing is, when we rightly understand it, we come to find out it’s not about us as much as it is about God.
This passage is ultimately about the faithfulness of God. When God’s people fall short it doesn’t negate the reality that God is faithful. It confirms his faithfulness as he continues to extend grace and mercy. Some understood (and still understand) this to mean that Paul wanted folks to simply go about doing wrong so that God could overwhelm them with grace. Remember, yesterday we talked about how God’s kindness leads to radical life change. In the midst of our sin-sickness we recognize grace and kindness and change. The point of God’s overwhelming faithfulness is to bring us to the place where we recognize that faithfulness and begin to live differently.
I think what Paul is doing here is also pointing out the reality that we are in need of God’s faithfulness because we will inevitably fall short. There will be times in our lives when we don’t live the way we want to live. There will be times in our lives when we aren’t faithful to the God of grace. Yet, he will remain as such. When we see his faithful love extended to us in the midst of our sin-sickness it draws us in and we change. We realize that though we may experience guilt, there is no shame before God.
What is the difference between guilt and shame? When we feel guilty it’s because we have done something wrong. When we feel shame it’s because we are that wrong thing. It’s the difference between saying, “I lied,” and “I am a liar.” The former is guilt, the latter is shame. Guilt leads into change and relationship. Shame leads us into isolation and stagnancy. When Amy and I were raising our kids we were very intentional about saying, “You did this bad thing,” as opposed to saying, “You are bad.”
When we come face to face with the faithful, kind, gracious God we will often experience guilt. If we experience shame, it’s because we have yet to understand his faithfulness, grace, mercy, and love.
We can trust that God keeps all the promises. We can rest in the reality that grace and mercy are new every day.