This one comes to us from Troy Elliott.

When it comes to monkeys, I have been warned.

Back in graduate school, many many years ago, I landed a great gig staffing a university’s music library. The library was housed not within the confines of the university’s main library but within a dank basement of the music school’s building, so it didn’t get many visitors. And for whatever reason, the university believed it was important to have not only a grad student but a full time employee at the helm of this ghost-ship library. Consequently, I spent many hours listening to the Official Music Librarian tell me about his life. That’s where monkeys come in.

One day, apropos of nothing, the Official Librarian says to me, “No matter what people tell you, never get a monkey as a pet.” To be clear, nobody had ever advised me to get a monkey, nor had I been openly or even privately contemplating monkey ownership. Still, this struck me as sound advice, and I was interested in what led him to his conclusion. Then he went on to tell me his travails with a spider monkey that, long story short, seriously impacted his life in many ways—relationships, finances, etc. The details were not pretty. I blame the monkey.

Fast forward ten years later. I’m living in another part of the state, married with two little kids. A bunch of families are hanging out, and one of the dads starts a story. The story is also about a monkey. The dad says that when he was eight years old, he wanted a dog. Just a dog. Instead, his father, a traveling salesman perhaps feeling the guilt of being on the road so much, overcompensated by giving my friend a monkey. It did not go well. “I was eight years old, and all of a sudden, it was like I had to care for a two-year-old,” he says. I’ll spare you the details of how it all ended, but it wasn’t good.

So here I am a few decades later, and I can rest on the assurance that, whatever mistakes I may have made in my life—the ways I screwed up my kids, the damage I’ve done to people I’ve loved, my self-destructive selfishness, my pettiness—I have not owned a monkey and believe I never will. Sometimes I think it’s because I’ve been duly warned of the pitfalls of monkey-owning, but if I’m being really honest with myself, I know it’s mostly because I never really wanted a monkey in the first place.

This has made me wonder about the Law, I mean the big-L kind, and my reaction when I find myself fleetingly complying with some teensy part of it. For example, I’ll feel absolutely triumphant when I realize that I’ve gone several consecutive minutes without using the Lord’s name in vain, then I’ll remember that I’ve been watching Russian dashcam videos for the past hour in a semiconscious, preverbal state. I’m not exactly sure that qualifies as compliance.

And in a flip-side kind of way, the same is true for some of those little-l laws that plague us daily. I have managed to rise above so many of them! For example: I drive a crappy car, I’m fat, I haven’t watched all of Breaking Bad, and I’ve never understood all the fuss over Radiohead. So I’m awesome and free, right?

Well no. I am well-aware of the wisdom inherent in God’s law—all of it, not just the parts I’m occasionally fleetingly accidentally good at—and I’m equally acutely aware that I’m not supposed to be wearing cargo shorts and listening to Electric Light Orchestra in a non-ironic way. I violate God’s law and I feel convicted. I violate those little-l laws and I feel enlightened. But I fear what may be the truth of the matter—that whether I’m living temporarily semi-righteously or whether I’m congratulating myself on throwing off the yoke of DirecTV, all I’m really doing is whatever I was going to do anyway. It’s just me doing me, adrift on my own ocean of self. No amount of admonishment seems to have any effect.

Last week at church, I started thinking about the origins of our confession of sin, the one we pray every week, all year. How did this get in there, I wondered. I’m no theologian or historian, but I have to think that at some point, somebody must’ve said, “You know what? Let’s go ahead and put this confession thing in there, because we’ll never have to worry about it not being applicable.” They were that sure about human nature.

Thank God.

I cling to that confession because, at the end of the day (of every day), despite the admonishments, the warnings, the exhortations about the severe and dire consequences of our shortcomings, we do what we do. And we slavishly bow to whatever little-l laws we follow while poo-pooing the others that we convince ourselves we’ve transcended. And it gets worse: our adherence to those crappy, stupid human laws has an insidious way of dulling our perception of the really important stuff—the “love God, love your neighbor” law we can never, ever meet.

So no, I have never owned a monkey. But it wasn’t because I followed the advice of regretful monkey owners. I never owned a monkey because my self-interests didn’t include that possibility. There but for etc.? You tell me.

That’s why grace truly is amazing. We listen to advice, we read the Word, we pontificate and point out where others fall short, and yet, we pretty much do whatever we want to do, and hope that most of it falls within the bounds of pretty ok or something we can live with or at least something we can rationalize later. And yet…and yet…we are loved. Not only loved, but embraced, taken in, marked as God’s own.

Every day, we fail. And ok, yes, sometimes we manage to reflect God’s grace, but it’s almost by accident, like the way sunlight might sparkle on a freshly-produced dog turd. But mostly we fail. And just as surely as we fail, every day we’re loved despite—maybe because of—those failures. A world without that love is not just sad. It’s unimaginable.

Also, seriously: don’t get a monkey.