The previous week was definitely a Smashing Pumpkins kind of week. As one of my favorite bands of all time, The Smashing Pumpkins are one of those artists that I can listen to over and over and over again and not get tired of them. Their first 3 albums; Gish, Siamese Dream, and Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, are in my opinion, three of the greatest alternative rock albums of all time. Billy Corgan (lead singer, song writer, and composer) is a musical genius because for many of the songs, he wrote the parts for every instrument, played each instrument individually, and then layered the recordings together to make the completed song for the album.
In terms of lyrical content, I don’t think there’s a single person alive who would have considered his first 3 albums “Christian” in any possible way. In fact, Billy Corgan was no stranger to darker themes and his songs weren’t exactly the epitome of positivity and encouragement. He most certainly would not have been played on K-Love.
However, something I’ve found myself frequently drawn to is when I find something spiritually profound or that connects me to God in a powerful way come from a seemingly unlikely source. In his fourth album, Billy Corgan wrote a song called To Sheila that contains the following lyrics:
Lately I just can’t seem to believe.
Discard my friends to change the scenery.
It meant the world to hold a bruising faith.
But now it’s just a matter of grace.
I found myself utterly struck by this and had this song playing on repeat all day long. Here was a man, who by all accounts of his music up to this point, seems to have no interest in following God whatsoever – and yet, in one incredibly poignant couplet seems to get it, really get it, in terms of what it means to be a person of faith:
- He describes how difficult it can be to believe sometimes. Every honest Christian I’ve ever met knows this struggle.
- He describes that feeling of restlessness and seeking change; of looking for something and changing something hoping that it would make things better.
- He describes how it can be easy to turn faith into this bruising forceful thing where you can think “I’m right, I have the truth, I have the right moral code, and it’s my job to make sure others do too.” all the while thinking you are serving God by pummeling others with doctrine, morality, and what you believe to be “truth” (I certainly know I did this in my younger years of faith)
- He then describes how in the end, it’s not really about that but instead it’s about grace. The free, unmerited, overwhelming, gift of God.
As I sat pondering the incredible power of grace, I found myself drawn back to one of my favorite stories that illustrates the concept, the story of the prodigal son.
Luke 15:11-32: Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.
Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.
When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father.
But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.
Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’
The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’
‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”
The unconditional love here displayed by the father is absolutely beautiful. Despite the younger son’s incredible screw ups, the father still loves him, values him, accepts him and wants him. Definitely a powerful picture of grace.
In thinking about that further, something struck me that I’ve never seen before. In the past, I always thought that there were no similarities between the older and younger brother as their respective characters display polar opposite traits. I thought the older brother was mainly there to be a contrasting figure; a foil (to use a fancy literary term) to make the story of the younger brother more poignant.
However, I realized that they do have something in common – both of them think they have to earn the approval and love of the father. The difference is that the younger brother thinks he has not earned the father’s love “I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (Notice the use of the word worthy, that is earning mentality language), whereas the older brother thinks he has earned the father’s love “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders.” (An earning mentality will always point to one’s performance to justify why something is deserved). In other words, neither one of them understand grace.
There’s a profound quote by Dallas Willard where he says “Grace isn’t opposed to effort, it’s just opposed to earning.” If you notice the difference between those two things effort is an action whereas earning is an attitude. So two people could do the exact same action but have a totally different attitude driving their behavior. This is the problem with the older brother. There is nothing wrong with his actions (never disobeying his fathers orders), the problem is with his attitude – that because he never disobeys his fathers orders he thinks he has earned his father’s approval. Likewise with the younger son, his actions (though bad) aren’t really the issue. The real issue is his attitude where he thinks his actions have earned his father’s disapproval and rejection (I am no longer worthy to be called your son).
I totally understand the appeal of the earnings based system. If I’m being really honest, the reason I’ve found myself drawn to it before is because it gives me a measure of control – if I behave poorly, then I get disapproval and rejection, if I behave well, then I get approval and acceptance. Either way, my behavior determines the outcome; or in other words I get to determine the outcome. In addition, it appeals to the notion of fairness – that I in effect “get what I deserve”.
This is where the real power of grace comes from; that it is, by nature, profoundly unfair – because it is a gift. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:8-9 “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast.” A gift cannot be earned – that would undermine it’s very nature. There’s a different word for something we receive because we earned it – that’s called a reward. All the Olympians this summer who won medals did not receive gifts, they received rewards because they earned those medals through performance.
However, our performance could never be good enough to earn God’s approval. The reality is that the older brother got a huge dose of grace as well. Though he had obeyed all his father’s commands and worked tirelessly, he was full of self righteousness and pride (which are sins as well) for which the father could have easily said “Away from me you evildoer!”.
But he doesn’t.
The father gives the older brother the same beautiful grace he gives the younger brother; the same unmerited favor, love and acceptance – the same wonderful gift.
So whether we tend towards self-righteousness and pride because of our behavior, or feeling unworthy because of our behavior, God’s answer remains the same to both.
Or as Billy Corgan says –
Now it’s just a matter of grace.