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Kyle Idleman: Grace Is Greater—Part 2

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Don’t miss part 1 of the interview, in which Kyle Idleman shares how stories take strange turns, bringing together such diverse realities as Taco Hut toilets, drunk drivers and outreach in the center of God’s grace.

Practically, how does Southeast circulate these stories of grace?

We learn and tell stories strategically and corporately. In our church we do that during baptism most weekends. We get a little peak into a person’s story. We do that with communion and we talk about what God has given us that we don’t deserve. Every week we meet with a small number of people who are new to the church and say, “Hey, how did you end up here?” As leaders, we connect with our people’s stories. One of things we do as elders is gather together every Tuesday morning, and we pray together for people who are struggling in various ways. We learn their stories. As we pray together for God’s redeeming work or conviction or repentance, it aligns our hearts with grace. It almost forces grace front and center.

Do you think all great stories find their center in grace?

When you hear someone else’s story about receiving or giving forgiveness, it automatically triggers a personal connection. I believe it’s true with almost any redemptive story that it can’t help but engage others. On Dateline, 20/20 and 60 Minutes you often see the story of a person extending forgiveness to someone who doesn’t deserve it. When I hear the background it almost always reveals someone who has experienced the grace of God. They are giving what they have received. That is, by definition, grace. It flows. You receive it and you give it.

How do you empower a community to tell honest stories?

In the last 15 years, a key word in the church has been authenticity. I think vulnerability is probably a little bit deeper. The more vulnerable people are in telling their stories, the more powerful the potential.

In Grace Is Greater, Idleman tells an embarrassing story about himself.

It was Thursday morning and I was lying in bed next to my wife. She had fallen asleep but I was awake, staring at the ceiling and thinking about my sermon for the weekend. The focus on my message was on learning to live with regrets. I suddenly heard a crash come from our bathroom. I hopped out of bed and ran in, and saw that the full-length mirror that had been hanging on our closet door had fallen off and was in pieces on the floor. When that mirror fell, it exposed something that I deeply regretted.

How did the closet door end up with a hole in it? I got into an argument with my wife. To be honest I don’t even remember what it was about. But I got angry, lost my temper, and punched a hole in the closet door.

After the mirror fell and broke, I stood there and looked at the hole in the door and then down at the floor. I could see my reflection in the broken shards.

You shared that story the following Sunday during your sermon. Why tell a story about punching a hole in a door?

I know, you’re already thinking, the guy who punches a hole in the wall, you don’t want to be that guy. But that was the point: I was that guy. I felt like God wanted me to share it. It also fit perfectly with my sermon about regret.

What was the reaction to you sharing the story?

The power of sharing was really surprising to me. People lined up after the services and they were saying, “Me too.” So many guys came up to say, “I’ve never told this to anyone, but I’ve done that.” By being vulnerable it created a greater culture of grace with one another in our community. It was safe for people to be vulnerable themselves. When I was vulnerable, I repented and discovered grace and other people did too. This is what I mean by a culture of vulnerability where it’s safe to be honest. Instead of pointing a finger, the church raises a hand and says, “Me too.”

But it makes you look bad.

It was really hard, not just because it was embarrassing to me. It was embarrassing for my wife and for my kids, but it was true. I once read a quote from a pastor named Jean F. Larroux III: “If the biggest sinner you know isn’t you, then you don’t know yourself very well.” When I first read that I was a little bit defensive. Paul says something similar in 1 Timothy 1:15: “Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst.” Some people assume Paul was talking about his past mistakes as a persecutor of saints. But Paul doesn’t use the past tense. He says am not was. When I know myself better, I realize even the good I do is often times motivated by my selfishness, my pride and my desire to impress other people.

What are the consequences of not understanding the depth of our own sinfulness?

In Hebrews 12:15, the author pleads: “See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.” The idea of a bitter root is that it’s a poisonous plant.

I think that’s the danger for the church. If grace is not explained, experienced and celebrated in the church, it plants poisonous seeds, which root and grow and things get toxic. A lot of times grace gets put on the opposite side of sanctification, but that’s not biblically true. In Scripture it’s all about grace. Titus 2:11-12 says: “For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives.” In the church we want grace to be the motivation for our godliness; we want grace to be what inspires how we treat other people.

The story of the unforgiving servant takes a strange turn.

“But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’” (Matt. 18:28-33)

You talk about how the church should be outraged by “ungrace.” Outraged?

In Jesus’ parable of the unmerciful servant, the guy is forgiven this great debt, but when he refuses to forgive the debt of a fellow servant, the rest of the servants were outraged by it. That’s what I’m talking about. In our community, the one area where we should have some outrage when it comes to sin is when grace is being withheld. As a church, you want to confront that.

In Grace Is Greater, Idleman shares a true story of unconditional grace.

Elizabeth and Frank Morris’ 18-year-old son, Ted, was home from college for Christmas break. He had gotten a job to make a little money. It was late, and Elizabeth was worried; he was supposed to be home from work. That’s when the phone rang. Elizabeth answered and received the news no mother wants to hear. On Ted’s drive home a car coming the other way had crossed the median and hit him head-on. Tommy Pigage was driving the other car. He had been at a party where he got drunk. He blacked out and never saw Ted Morris’ car coming.

Tommy reached a plea-bargain that allowed him to be freed on probation. Tommy was now free, and Elizabeth began having revenge fantasies in which she would kill him.

But Elizabeth had a problem. She was the recipient of grace. A Christian, Elizabeth took her pain to God and as she prayed she realized that her heavenly Father had also had his innocent son murdered. She knew she had to forgive Tommy as God had forgiven her. Elizabeth went and met with Tommy. She told him she wanted to help. Tommy came from a broken home and struggled with alcoholism. He needed help. Elizabeth and Frank began building a relationship and talking to him about Jesus.

One night, the Morrises and Tommy drove to their church, where Frank Morris baptized his son’s killer.

You believe reconciliation best demonstrates the love of God through his divine grace. Why?

Grace at its deepest level—and that is what the Morrises represent—is reconciliation. When it doesn’t just end but there is this new beginning. The church has the most potential to model the gospel when we go to that level of grace and forgiveness. There is a willingness not just to let go of bad feelings and the debt that is owed, but also to actually reconcile with the person who hurt you. Sometimes, reconciliation is not possible. You can’t take it to the next level if the other person doesn’t repent. But when reconciliation happens, it’s pure grace. It’s what God has done for us. He didn’t just forgive us but calls us into loving relationship. When the church models that—whether it’s in our homes, our marriages, our neighborhoods—it is a beautiful image of the message of the gospel and is a powerful and profound witness.

As a pastor, what have you learned about grace?

The way we word it at Southeast is: Stop thinking about what’s been done to you and start thinking about what’s been done for you. It involves taking a thought captive—Hey, this is what this person has done to me—and replace it with a focus of what Jesus has done for me. The experience of that kind of grace transforms our closest relationships, either current ones or from a long time ago. When that light goes on, and we really get hold of that, we experience supernatural power in our lives.

Rob Wilkins, an Outreach magazine contributing writer, is the founder and creative lead for Fuse Media in Asheville, North Carolina.