When you’re around Jesus, you think, oh, I want to be near Him; and I think He wants me to be near Him. There’s something in Jesus that brings to the surface the buried sense that you’re not as good as you’re projecting you are, but it doesn’t make you feel bad in a way that you want to get away from Him. Somehow you want to get closer to Him. That’s grace.
LC: One of the most poignant and convicting stories in your book is near the beginning, the Chicago prostitute who was selling her little girl, her daughter, to men for extra money to support her drug habit. I think it was a social worker friend of yours who saw this woman so full of self-hatred for what she was doing and said, “Have you ever thought of going to church?” She replied, “Why would I go there? I already feel bad enough about myself.” The message of church needs to be the message of Jesus: that what you’re doing is really awful, but it needs to be said in a way that you’d be drawn to change, and you’d feel less lonely because you’re getting a taste of what you really want: love.
PY: Bonhoeffer used the expression “cheap grace.” As much as I like and admire Bonhoeffer, that’s an oxymoron. Grace is free. It’s not cheap or expensive to us; it’s free. But what he really meant by that phrase has to do with grace as an excuse for sin, a blanket, a cover over sin. The question is, do we come to Jesus exposed, honest, with open hands? That’s all we really have: open hands.
LC: Like the prostitutes you interviewed at that rather unique meeting.
PY: I met with almost a hundred women who had been prostitutes from several dozen countries, and said, “Tell me your stories.” They were unbelievable. Sold to men at age four, every kind of degradation. So then I said, “Of those women you know who are still in prostitution, how many wish they could get out?” The universal answer was 100 percent after the first six months. The first six months, you’re treated like a queen. You’re given everything. Then they get you hooked on drugs and require you to turn as many as seventy tricks a day. I asked these women, “Explain to me the verse in the Bible that says prostitutes and tax collectors would come first into the kingdom of God.”
One of them replied, “Well, it’s obvious. We don’t have anybody to look down on. We’re as low as you can get. There’s not a mother in the world who looks at her little girl and says, ‘Honey, when you grow up, I want you to be a prostitute.’ We have no one to look down on. So when Jesus comes, we respond. The prostitute who looked at Jesus didn’t say, ‘I’d like him to be like me. I’d like him to be my client for the night.’ No, she thought, ‘I want him to liberate me because I can’t get no lower.’” I mean, think about it: who’s lower than somebody in a ditch?
LC: And your point is, we’re all in a ditch: prostitutes, pastors, alcoholics, addiction counselors. And only when you know you’re in a ditch does grace begin to mean something.
PY: I was asked to speak to a recovery group for Christians. I decided to talk on “Why I Wish I Was an Alcoholic.” And that wasn’t a joke. I listed five things alcoholics cannot deny or cannot know: “I can’t make it on my own,” that kind of thing. Their daily struggle undermines their pride and exposes who they really are. Addicts, like prostitutes, have to face realities the rest of us spend our lives trying to cover up by saying, “Well, I’m not as good as that guy, but I’m better than him.” We do that as individuals, as churches, and as nations.
LC: Philip, how has all this been influencing you personally? You’re a journalist. You do an incredible job of reporting what you see, but I’m not sure how much I see of your own struggles in your writing—some, of course, but I’m not sure how much. I’m in a spiritual formation group where one night, as my birthday present, they said, “Larry, for the next two hours, talk. Be as open and honest as you want. We’ll just listen.” It was a difficult but a good night. Openness doesn’t come easily, but grace empowers it.
PY: I’m sure you’ll identify with this situation, Larry. Things may be a little less than ideal with my wife, and now I have to go speak in public. So I operate on what Janet [Philip’s wife] calls Level 1, the calm, helpful, thoughtful me, and only she knows there is a Level 2, a layer beneath. I’m realizing that Hollywood actors are paid to act, to cut themselves into parts. As a public figure and a writer, I see the danger. I’m neither a prostitute nor an alcoholic, so it’s tempting to say, “Hey, I’m just not that dirty. And what is dirty I can hide and still function quite well.”
What comes to mind is a story Peter Hiett told [Peter pastors Lookout Mountain Church, where Philip and Janet attend]. He and his wife would drop their three little kids at the “Mom’s Night Out” program at their church. The folks in charge played games to make it fun for the kids. One question was, “What is your mom’s favorite thing to do with you?” Coleman said, “To clean me up.” When Peter and Susan heard that, they realized it’s tough getting close to a three-year-old boy, but when Susan put him in the tub, then picked him up and wrapped him in a towel and held him close, he could tell she was really enjoying herself; she really liked him. Peter then reflected, “People come into my office all the time, sit on my couch, and tell me all the bad things they do. And they think, ‘Here is this holy man close to God, and we’re terrible, lousy sinners,’ and I saw it—God’s favorite thing to do is to clean us up; not that He likes us to get dirty, but the only time we let Him hold us is when we say, ‘I blew it! I blew it!’ He loves to clean us up.” That’s grace.
LC: I love the passage in Hosea, where after God says in chapter 9, verse 15, “Because of all their wickedness in Gilgal, I hated them there.” But in chapter 11, God says, “But I can’t give you up . . . all my compassion is aroused.”
PY: I remember once getting stuck in LA traffic and arriving fifty-eight minutes late at the Hertz rental desk. I walked up in kind of a bad mood, put the keys down and said, “How much do I owe?”
The woman says, “Nothing. You’re all clear.” I said I was late, and she smiled, “Yes, but there’s a one hour grace period.”
So I asked, “Oh, really, what is grace?”
And she said, “I don’t know. I guess what it means is that even though you’re supposed to pay, you don’t have to.”
LC: You see the church living more by gravity than by grace. Are you hopeful for the church?
PY: Sometimes I think the only reason God tolerates or blesses the United States is that we’re the bankers for a lot of the external work, you know, in other countries. But I am hopeful. I’m really pretty upbeat about the church. When you get into actual churches, through all their faults, they are about the only place where a diverse group of people (and it could be as minimally diverse as intergenerational) spends time together. How many groups have you been in that involve eighty-year-olds and two-year-olds? It happens at church at some level. And the potential, not always the reality, is there to address our issues of pride, to expose ourselves, so to speak, to be vulnerable in a safe place.
LC: But it really doesn’t happen much.
PY: It could if we lived by grace and not gravity.