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Grace and sin at the coffee shop

June 14, 2012

Several weeks ago I was sitting with a friend at Panera Bread.  Just across the aisle was a table where two other men sat.  They both had their Bibles, and they seemed to be discussing things of the Lord.  I really wasn’t paying much attention but I was happy to see them there as it is a good testimony when believers show their faith in public. 

Then it happened.  One guy, who had been drinking a large coffee, got up to leave, carrying his coffee cup with him.  No big deal I thought, I will quite often finish my coffee on the road home.  Then I heard him tell his friend that he always brings his empty cup home with him.  In that way, so he said, “I can stop by each day this week and get a free refill on my way to work.”

I understood what he was saying.  Since Panera allows you to refill your coffee at your leisure while you are there, people are going for refills all the time.  He could easily slip into the morning crowd and help himself to a free cup everyday without arousing suspicion.

I was frankly indignant.  I wondered what to do.  But, as he was gone, that was his “goodbye” comment to his buddy; he was out of the building before I fully grasped the whole matter.  I’ve been thinking about that incident for weeks now with the particular emphasis on this question:  How does grace respond to an incident like this?

Now if the title of this blog was “Everyday Law” I know exactly how I would respond.  I would get up, follow the guy out, point out that he was stealing, a sin, and tell him that he ought to stop.  That is the law response.  It is characteristic of the law that it correctly diagnoses the problem, the sin of stealing, and proposes the correct answer, stop that.  The law is inherently good.

The problem is not that the law is wrong, but that it is powerless.  A law response raises a host of issues.  For one, even if I did confront him there is no telling the results.  I didn’t know him, had no relationship with him.  It is doubtful my “tsk tsk” would result in changed behavior.  Secondly, where do I stop confronting?  Do I need to go back and confront his buddy too because he didn’t confront him?  In a world of endless sin, how many and which ones do I confront?

Most Christians believe that it is their duty to confront sin.  But if we did, we’d never be able to stop.  Over a century ago H.L. Mencken defined a Bible-believing Christian as someone who “lives with the gnawing fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.”  We simply cannot confront every sin we see.  And when we do, it leaves us open to charges of hypocrisy as there is sin in us too.  However correct the law’s diagnosis, it does not provide a solution.

So how does grace respond?  Frankly, I am not sure.  One thing that makes grace more difficult than law is that it rarely gives us “black and white” answers.  If you have some suggestions on a grace response to this incident, let me know what they are.  But here are some grace principles that I see:

  1. Grace accepts the reality of sin.  We know we live in a sin-filled world and we simply cannot stop them all.  We don’t like it, but we accept it.
  2. Grace is humble.  The grace-filled response includes the trembling awareness that we ourselves are sinners.
  3. Grace expresses itself in love and always seeks restoration.  It is all well and good, if I called that guy a thief, for me to say I was doing it in love but I doubt it would be true and I am certain he would not feel it.  It irritates me how often Christians can say the most hurtful things and claim they are doing it in love.
  4. Grace always includes forgiveness.  It doesn’t propose how he can change his actions so he can get forgiveness, it presents forgiveness as a basis on which he can change.
  5. Grace tends to be most effective when you have a history of expressing love.  Jesus could express grace and forgiveness because he was publically known for his grace.  For us it usually means we need to have a relationship in which to express grace-responses.

There may be other principles and if you have some, let me know.  But I confess that, on that day at Panera, I was challenged to think through my grace principles once again.


From → Christianity

  1. David Worley permalink

    Is this a case where we should let the Holy Spirit confront this man? In my way of thinking and if the opportunity presents itself I would likely have just gone up to him and asked him a simple question, “Are you a Christian?” He may not be. And not really go into it more than that? What ever his answer just say “Thank you.” Now, if he asks why you can then ask whether he thinks what he is doing is stealing or not. And then walk away.

    There are times we need to challenge fellow believers. But when we don’t really know them it seems to me the best approach is to just bring up the points as questions and let the Holy Spirit use that to prod self thought and reflection.

    And maybe this is just my cop-out of not really helping a fellow brother. But I’m also not sure I need to challenge each person I see committing sin either.


  2. Charles Mercer permalink

    The question for me is: “Does an awareness of God’s kindness to me cause me go behave in a better way?” That’s my problem. I dont think it does. Maybe his grace and my behaviour cannot be linked. Because it sure as nuts doesnt seem to work that way.

  3. jacq permalink

    Possibly & give him the money & say: “You are obviously short of cash so here is the money to pay for the coffee” This, I think, would be kind & challanging at the same time. Jacq

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