Culturally we spend a lot of time talking about a kind of “pay it forward” do gooderism. You know, you pay for a random stranger’s Mocha Frappuccino at Starbucks and then they pay for somebody’s Lemonade Coolerista (just kidding, they haven’t started making those yet). Perfect strangers in perfect harmony, as the thinking goes. Or maybe you are familiar with the pebble theory. We drop a pebble of kindness into water and the ripple effect is such that even more encouraging acts come from this one moment of positivity.

I love this way of seeing humanity. But it lives in denial of the way our hearts actually work. We may find ourselves floating on a cloud of Nice Person endorphins after we help the old lady walk across the street. But what if the old lady is just headed over to the senior center to cuss out her Mahjong group? It happens.

usefulAnd besides, patting ourselves on the back for being “a nice person” may not be what Jesus had in mind when he told us, “Here O Israel the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all you heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” Sometimes I think all of this “Calmer/Nicer than you are, dude” stuff is getting in the way of what the Christian life demands. There is an ocean of difference between being a nice person who spreads good vibes and actually practicing love. And that body of baptismal water is thick with sin and self-reflection.

Lately, I have been unable to get the book, The Useful Sinner, out of my head. Writer J. David Hawkins tells the story of his extramarital affair and the Grace of God that saved his life (and his marriage). Mockingbird has already done a great job of covering the text from several different vantage points. What occurred to me while reading it is that while we want to think we are all cosmically connected through our Pay it Forward Pebble in a Pond gospel, I actually think we are all connected through the pain we cause. Hawkins offers a precise account of what this looks like as he describes the aftermath of an extramarital affair:

“My sin, like a rock thrown into glassy water, had fallen quickly out of sight, but the disturbance generated by its passage would spread outward in ever expanding circles of misery often separated by several years.”

In seminary I remember overhearing a discussion about the evils of bananas. Yes, you read that right. Bananas are terrible for the planet. This dutiful Seminary Banana Safety Monitor informed a table full of soon to be pastors that bananas use enormous amounts of fossil fuels getting hauled long distances and that the people who harvest them are terribly paid, if they are paid at all. Sin: It’s what’s for breakfast.

What surprised me was that instead of everyone chiming in about how they had already given up bananas for life (#GUB4L for short), one of my fellow classmates yelped, “Really!? BANANAS! Those are bad TOO?”

Even in seminary, human beings are desperate to find a way to outrun the effects of sin. Only, it is not something we can outrun, because we manage to take our broken down souls with us wherever we go. That’s the terrible thing about sin. The effects of it hang around long after the event has taken place.

The news cycle always provides loads of “sin fallout”. While forgiven by those he hurt most, Dylann Roof walked into a church and murdered 9 Christians in cold blood. His sin will create rings of pain and hurt for generations. My newsfeed is regularly full of celebrities who have done or said something awful. And the after effects of their grievances will serve as cultural touchstones for years (Paula Dean meet your new friend George Takei). This is not just “out there”, as recent events have reminded us. People everywhere cause enormous hurt through their sin. And still God offers rings of grace and mercy time and time again.

When J. David Hawkins told his wife that he had been having an affair for over a year she did not offer him a moral platitude. And she did not yell at him to leave their house. Instead, she threw a pebble of forgiveness out onto the water. The ripples of her action salvaged their marriage:

“After a brief interrogation, Louisa said she did not want me to leave. She asked me to kneel and pray with her. I do not remember the words she spoke. I only recall a clear sensation that a long fall into blackness had been arrested. Louisa’s faith has always been deep. It would, however, be a serious mistake to picture her as meek or mild. She is bold and outspoken and while her reaction to my damning admission was probably not out of character, it was not what I expected. It was my first taste of grace.”

Being nice is easy. I can be nice to people I don’t even like. Maybe we don’t need more kindness pebbles thrown into spiritual pool of life. Maybe we need buckets of grace so big that when they land on the water, everything else gets drowned out.

Imagine what it must be like to pray with your spouse who has just admitted to having sex with someone else. The pain of such a betrayal would garner anger and (maybe this is just me) a need to burn all his clothes in the front yard. Grace doesn’t come naturally to human beings. We have to depend on our Maker to give us rings of mercy and forgiveness. And maybe, when we begin to understand just how undeserved God’s love is in the face of our sin and pain, maybe we will be able to pay that kind of bold love forward.