A few months ago I was reflecting on some of the warning signs that suggest we may not fully have grasped the grace of God. More recently I shared them on my Facebook page and I think they struck a chord with a few people.
I think one of the warning signs may be the temptation to operate as a spiritual traffic warden.
I’ve never worked as a traffic warden, and I am sorry if I offend any traffic wardens who might stumble onto this page, but it seems to me that being a traffic warden has something of a negative side to the job.
I know that there are sound reasons for traffic wardens. You can’t have people parking their cars anywhere they want for as long as they want; and the redcoats help keep everyone on the move. And I suppose that everyone keeping the rules adds up to a good day.
However, if no one ever parked in the wrong place, or stayed longer than they should, or didn’t pay and display, the traffic warden would never get to write any tickets.
You see, if you speak to a cardio-thoracic surgeon at the end of a week, he can tell you how many people he has had the opportunity to bless with a new lease on life. ‘Five bypasses and three valves this week. That’s eight people for whom life will be better (once they have got over the trauma of having their chest sawn apart).’ It’s positive. If they have notches on their desk, where they keep a running tally, a new notch means a healthy patient.
But what about traffic wardens? If they measure their effectiveness by the number of tickets they distribute, then the success of their day depends on finding someone who has done something wrong! They have parked in the wrong place, paid the wrong amount of money, or stayed the wrong amount of time. Enough of those, and the warden has a busy and productive day!
The more people err, the more work for the traffic warden.
Which takes me to my point: spiritual traffic wardens spend too much of their time and energy watching out for places where people cross the line.
Sometimes we (for I am personally aware of this condition) do this in literal traffic. (Don’t get me started on people who overtake on the inside). But it can be wider reaching. A spiritual traffic warden is a perpetual fault finder. First cousin to the ecclesiastical gnat-strainers and the theological nit-pickers.
The more people err, the more grist for the spiritual traffic warden’s mill.
It’s Jesus’ religious opponents getting bent out of shape because he dared heal on the sabbath. It’s those same opponents grumbling because the disciples plucked a few heads of grain on the sabbath. Or because Jesus welcomed a rag tag bunch of reprobates to eat at his table and listen to his teaching.
It’s the older brothers who – in the words of Kenneth Bailey – find that grace is not only amazing, it’s infuriating.
None of this means that parking regulations should be discounted and none of this means that ‘anything goes.’ None of it means that there is no ministry of correction or rebuke (see 2 Timothy 3).
It’s just that if you (or I) find ourselves obsessing about the imperfections of others, if that’s what we emphasise, we may be in danger of losing our grip on the grace of God.