Two men live radically different lives. One is morally good, reasonably honest, seeks to help those around him—an all-round nice guy. The other is a rogue: utterly depraved, vilely immoral, with a string of convictions, and a litany of broken people and promises trailing behind him.
On his death-bed the second man asks God for forgiveness. The first sees no great need. According to Jesus, one man gets Heaven, the other Hell. The repentant degenerate finds forgiveness; the other man finds judgment.
It doesn’t seem fair. How can God be a God of justice if that’s the case?
How you frame the story defines how right the answer feels. Ask any parent or teacher. How often have you asked a child what happened, and you hear a story that makes you think that they have been unbearably hard done by, yet when you take a step back and see the event without spin, in its wider context, it all makes sense. We are exceedingly skilled at telling a story in a way that highlights our best endeavours—yet is often only half the story.
Let me frame the story of the two men differently. Two men are both given their lives by God. One man lives his life with himself at the centre in an incredibly wicked way—ignoring, defying and disobeying God all his days.
The other man lives his life with himself at the centre in a vastly different way. He serves the things which please him—work, reputation, family, money.
Both men dethrone God in vastly different ways, but both have the temerity to sit on his throne themselves.
At the end, one man acknowledges the awful mistake he has made, and gives God his rightful place in his life. The other man never bothers his head. Which man should God forgive?
We have a propensity for framing the story in the way that shows us up best. What we are doing here is saying “Look I’ve kept commandments 5-10”, hoping God won’t notice that we blithely ignored commandments 1-4.
Or to put it another way, Jesus did say that “love your neighbour as yourself” was one of the greatest commandments. But he said it was the second greatest—after “love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength”.
So we need to start asking the right question: not “How good have I been?” but “Is God at the centre of my life?”
Our great problem is that we are inherently rebels—we either rebel politely or obnoxiously, but we rebel nonetheless. We de-god him and deify ourselves.
Yet the incredible thing is, the God whom we seek to dethrone, got up off his throne, came down here, put on a crown of thorns and went to the cross so that we could be forgiven for our cosmic treason. He offers to pay for my rebellion—and people want to accuse him of not being fair!
Fairness is the last thing we want—mercy from the King is what we need.