I love it when I have the chance to talk with young people about their faith. The other day I had breakfast with a college student I’ll call “Jill,” who had come to a new appreciation of God’s grace and mercy during the preceding months.
As Jill tells it, she was busy with classes and work and recreation, and didn’t seem to have much time for meditation or quiet reflection. Then she made some not-quite-optimal decisions related to, uh, boys — in particular, boys who don’t share her faith; this shrank the time available for sleep and studying. If I have this right, she turned a paper in late and went into an exam with insufficient preparation. She ended the term exhausted and discouraged, and headed off for a short-term mission trip, where she fell ill and spent some days in bed.
So what happened on the paper, the exam, the short-term mission?
Before I tell you, I’ll trot out the old saying that sometimes the people who benefit most from short-term trips are the people who go to serve. What I mean is, if a few dozen (or a half-dozen) people from the US go overseas to build a house or paint an orphanage or teach a few Bible lessons, the family or orphans or students get some benefit. But whose life is changed? Whose view of God has grown? In many cases, the kids have seen other short-term workers come and go, and the new homeowners have seen another family in the community get a house built by “rich” Americans. Sure, it was somebody else who got the house last time, or maybe a church building was erected before and this time they added an extension. But very often what they see is incremental.
Now consider the experience of a hypothetical first-time team member. Maybe they’ve read appeal letters from World Vision; perhaps they’ve seen flood victims on the news. But on a short-term mission they build a house and talk to the people who move in; they erect or paint a church building and go to the church members’ homes and eat a meal there.
Thus a middle-class American encounters the developing world directly — in person, not on the screen or printed page, but face to face. And they’re changed. It’s not just that they get a heightened sense of gratitude; they see with their own eyes how God is at work in some faraway place, and they experience being an answer to someone’s prayer — in a way they typically don’t when they’re at home in the US. God gets larger for them.
You probably guessed it: Jill wasn’t docked for turning her paper in late, and she did fine on the exam (the questions were on things she had down cold). And on the short-term mission (not her first trip by the way), her teammates accepted her and cared for her lovingly; she recovered quickly. Jill loved the kids she went to serve, and came away with a renewed sense that children’s ministry is in her future.
The Bible says that the Lord
… does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
Psalm 103:10-12 NIV
For those who have spent a lot of time around churches, this is not particularly new. We’ve heard many times that Jesus died for our sins, that we’re forgiven for our envy, selfishness, lust, greed, or whatever. But we also “know” that actions have consequences. And sometimes they do; sometimes bad things happen when we miss a deadline, and exams sometimes don’t go well if we’re unprepared.
But sometimes the Lord has something special in mind for us — he wants to express his love and mercy in an unusual way. And how nice it is when he does!
I hope that when this happens, we keep in mind the great mercy of our Lord, as it’s written in Psalm 107, and also here:
Who is a God like you,
who pardons sin and forgives the transgression
of the remnant of his inheritance?
You do not stay angry forever
but delight to show mercy.