Last year I had the privilege of coaching a girl’s volleyball team for a local high school. Like most coaches, I love my team but sometimes struggle with the various personalities and abilities represented. Some of the nicer girls can’t hit a ball to save their life. A few of the attitude problems seem to also be my better players. Obviously there are those who maintain a great balance between ability and pleasantness. As a coach, you are wired to win. However, you also attempt to teach sportsmanship and emphasize the importance of positive attitudes and teamwork, regardless of score.
One night during a frustrating match, I had an attitudinal “coup d’etat.” One player refused to give me eye contact when speaking to her, blatant disrespect. Another player rolled her eyes when given instructions. Another athlete responded to me “curtly,” obviously frustrated by her lack of performance. Another one sat sullen on the bench after realizing she wasn’t going to play that much. The reason she was on the bench? Her sullen attitude. The girl who could barely do anything on the court immediately found herself in the game. The “gifted” girls sat on the bench stunned by this move.
How do you handle such behaviors? How do you know when someone deserves the law or whether they need to be shown some grace? If you are too soft, the team won’t respect you. If you are too hard on them, you could crush their spirits. What if you yell at the girl who needed a pat on the back? What if you pat on the back the one who is stabbing yours? These questions don’t just plague coaches, but parents, teachers, employers, etc. How do you know when to be lenient or just “throw the book” at them? Believe it or not, there is a 2,000 year old principle that gives us insight on this question.
It’s best illustrated in the lives of two different people, each possessing two different hearts. One is a man, the other a woman. One looks great on the outside, seems to have everything we all want in life. The other can’t look any worse, at the lowest point in life, on the verge of being executed. One struts in pride. The other is drenched in humility. Both represent mankind. We are either like the man or we are like the woman. Which one represents you?
Meet the woman (John 8:1-11): It’s bad enough to be having sex with someone you shouldn’t be. It’s even worse when you are caught in the very act and drug into the public square about it. That’s where we meet this woman. Clothes barely on. Hair all messed up. Tears streaming down her face. Sitting alone, in the open square with judgment and shame all around her. Her sins are listed on a billboard on Main Street. Her dirtiest secret is now front page news. In her case, her sins are not only immoral but illegal. According to Jewish law, sleeping with someone you shouldn’t be was punishable by death – death by stoning. With rocks in their hands, the men surrounding her were more than happy to execute.
They bring her to Jesus, clearly setting a trap for Him. She is the bait. They want His opinion on how to handle such a sinner. It is obvious by her crime that she deserves the law. If He agrees, she will be dead in about 45 seconds. If He says to show grace, He will be violating Jewish law – the very Law handed to the Jews by His Father and the very law He has claimed to fulfill.
Meet the man (Mark 10:17-27): Rich, young, powerful. Isn’t that what we all want? Who doesn’t want to be rich? Who doesn’t want to be young (again)? Who doesn’t want to be in charge? Yet, in spite of being in possession of all three of those desired traits, this man still knew he was missing something. And oddly, he knew that a poor, homeless, carpenter from Nazareth had his answer.
“Good Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to get eternal life?” (In other words, how do I get to heaven?)
The question is cloaked in pride. By outward appearances, he looked good and he wanted to look even better. The common view in 1st century Jerusalem was that the rich were blessed by God. Naturally, this guy would be in Heaven. His life is too blessed (materially) not to be. 21 centuries later, our views have barely changed.
When the rich, young ruler asked Jesus his now famous question, he was not expecting Jesus’ answer. Of course, that is typical God. He never answers our questions the way He’s supposed to. He spent His entire life on earth turning our logic on its head. His faith often baffles our reason. Every word He uttered was contradictory to His culture. As the prophet Isaiah reminds us, “His ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts.” (55:10) This is clearly the case here. The man had earned salvation. If anyone was getting to Heaven because of their good deeds, this man was it. At least, that’s what he thought before Jesus opened His mouth.
It’s a fair question and one we still ask today. In other words, what spiritual coins do I have to put into the cosmic vending machine to get the spiritual goods? Live a good life? Be more good than bad? Don’t kill people? Don’t rob banks? Don’t commit adultery? Just obey the 10 commandments, right? As long as I follow those rules, I’m in?
In the case of the woman, her deeds clearly earned her a spot in hell. I mean, next to murder, adultery is #2 on the sin list. In the case of the man, his deeds clearly earned him a spot in heaven. He is a pillar of the community. And they both stand in front of a Holy Christ – certain to confirm what their hearts already told them. Their deeds are recorded. A human court would agree. The divine courtroom awaits the Judge’s verdict.
Notice how Jesus addresses each one individually. Notice how each one receives something completely unexpected. Why? Why would He give the law to one and grace to the other? Why not give the law to both or grace to both? The answer is found in the heart of each person. Herein lies the 2,000 year old principle:
Law to the proud. Grace to the humble.
Jesus takes the man to the only place you can take a proud heart. Directly to the Law. To him He says, “You know the commandments, ‘Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”
The man, in his pride, was quick to say he obeyed them all. Pride often does that – blinds us from our faults. It obscures our inadequacies. Makes us think we are better than we are. It prevents us from seeing ourselves as God sees us. We obey the verses we want to obey and think we are fine. We keep the law physically and assume we’ve kept the law morally.
It’s true, he had never killed anyone. He probably didn’t sleep with anyone’s wife. He had no reason to steal. He most likely visited his parents weekly. Man always focuses on behavior. God always looks at the heart. And when a heart is filled with pride, the only thing that can break it is the law.
By contrast, the woman knew she was sinful. If her deeds didn’t remind her daily, her reputation did. And she was caught in the very act of adultery – sex with someone else’s husband. There is no hiding such exposure. There was no where for her to go. Caught and in custody, she had no reason to assume that she would ever be free. If the stones didn’t kill her, shame certainly would. Humiliated beyond repair. Humbled beyond hope. Only a miracle would save her now and that, she would learn, is all she needed.
So, on a volleyball court in Columbia, SC – as I watched my team of 12 struggle during one of our games, my mind flashed back to this 2,000 year old principle. How do I address these girls? How do I know who needs to be benched? How do I know who should be on the court? And it hit me. Their heart. “Let their heart guide you.” And so it did.
The rich young rulers were benched. The girls who were humble and respectful finally saw playing time. Ability, talent & performance, for this moment, were secondary to what was really needed – heart. Hubris may win a few more games, but heart makes a better team. Ask any coach.
So, next time you are at home and dealing with children… or at work and dealing with employees… or on the court and dealing with players… look at the heart. Think about the principle.
2,000 years may have gone by but the human heart is still the same. Some of us are Pharisees and some of us are prostitutes. Some need the law to change. Others need some grace. And though our habits do matter to God, He’s really interested in our hearts. And He’ll bench you all day long if it will help make your heart more like His.
Law to the proud. Grace to the humble.
What’s in your heart?