When I was little, I loved the scene in C. S. Lewis’s book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader in which the character Eustace Scrubb greedily steals a gold bracelet from a dragon’s lair and promptly turns into a dragon. The gold bracelet, once big on his little boy’s wrist, becomes dangerously tight as his arm enlarges into a scaly dragon’s claw. Eustace is only freed when the lion Aslan takes his claws and rips off Eustace’s dragon skin, layer by layer.
To be clear, I loved this scene because Eustace was annoying and I was glad he learned his lesson. There was no danger of self-reflection. How could I be a dragon? I got good grades and made friends with the right people. I didn’t steal, cheat on tests, drink, or do drugs. I was at most a lizard, maybe a gecko. I lived in the corner of God’s house in Arizona and He watched me crawl up the walls while He made His morning coffee.
As time went on, I realized that in anger, I was awfully good at using my words to wound. I started to see that I put all of my identity into my intellect and worshiped at the altar of intelligence. A few broken friendships and nasty fights later, I was ready to admit that maybe I was a Komodo dragon: dangerously thick with sin, but still containable behind the zoo fences of good grades and leadership positions and church attendance.
When I got to college, I battled temptations I had only read about in books, and I lost. I cried in dorm showers because every prayer felt like it came back stamped “Return to Sender.” God brought me face-to-face with the ugliness of my soul. I saw the ways He had provided for me and how all I did in response was spit in His face. Overwhelmed by guilt, I literally fell onto my knees. The law did its job. It acted as a mirror, and this time when I looked into it I had to admit what I saw: a real, honest-to-goodness, fire-breathing dragon.
On my knees, two things happened. First, I recognized that I had not a chance of reaching Heaven in my own strength. I was so unworthy, so hopelessly burdened by sin. And then grace hit. The full magnitude of Love crucified and His unmerited favor bestowed on me — my brain knew all this quite well, but for the first time the unmerited part actually hit my heart. Because make no mistake: grace hits you. It hits you kindly, but it hits you. Grace is not a warm glass of milk before bed. Grace is the ocean, relentlessly abounding like nothing else you’ve ever known. Throw up your hands in repentance after you have relapsed for the two hundredth time or said your five thousandth cruel word and bam there is grace, ready to take you under again.
For the longest time, I thought of grace as kind of nice, like being wrapped in a fuzzy blanket, hands cupped around a mug of chamomile tea. I was wrong. Grace is not merely nice. Grace removes dragon skin, and removing dragon skin hurts. The free and unmerited favor that comes from God is far from comfortable. Grace makes us citizens of an eternal city, and the necessary consequence of that citizenship is that as long as we are on this earth we are never quite at home. Grace makes us children of God, and God disciplines the children He loves. Grace makes us homesick nomads and suffering servants. Grace shows in our sanctification, and sanctification refines us into gold, and nothing refines gold like fire.
Grace is not nice. Grace is better than nice: it sets us free. Like the jaws of a great white, sin yawns big as soon as you begin to stick your toe into the water. It wants to maim you, incapacitate you, claim you and chain you. But where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. Where grace meets sin, grace wins. Grace always wins.
The best thing about grace is that you can never run out of it. You will never be good enough to earn it, and you will never be bad enough to exhaust it. Grace will be merely a convenience as long as sin is merely a nuisance, but at the moment that your sin threatens to drown you, grace will become the very air you breathe. Maybe this is why Paul writes that God has lavished the riches of His grace upon us (Ephesians 1:8). Jesus became poor so that we might become rich, allowing the gold and diamonds of eternal life to overflow into our laps–the kind of gold bracelets that we can freely wear.