When I was young, some of the most frustrating and devastating experiences in my young life were the few occasions when I would put my change into a vending machine and punch the E6 Milky Way button only to have a coin get stuck in the drop slot. The chocolate, caramel, nougaty deliciousness would sit there taunting me. Furious, I would literally beat the machine for robbing me, trying to get those nickels and dimes to drop.
I know that you’ve had similar experiences with vending machines and arcade games. It’s such a common experience, in fact, that this is where the phrase “the penny dropped” came from.
Older, wiser, and now a pastor, would you believe that this same “penny dropping” analogy continues to be the cause of some the most frustrating and devastating experiences in my personal and professional life?
When I became a pastor, I was very excited about the idea of reaching the lost with the gospel. I still am. What I wasn’t anticipating, however, was the need for helping the gospel penny drop in the lives of existing Christians. I now find this to be nearly as important of a mission as general outreach.
What do I mean by helping the “gospel penny to drop” in the lives of believers? Well, we live in a culture where, statistically speaking, 80% of people claim Christian faith but less than 20% are committed enough to those beliefs to let those beliefs affect their lifestyle in any sort of drastic way. In a sense, Christian conversion is a one-time occasion in which the Holy Spirit enters the heart of a human who is by nature opposed to God. This happens when the Spirit creates a trust in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. The converted individual now has two “selves” – an old self and a new self. In theological terms, this conversion is called subjective justification. In another sense though, a Christian continues to convert throughout his/her life. They develop a deeper, more profound understanding of what the gospel really means for their life and the end result is that their life experiences some external changes that fall more in line with God’s design for them. In theological terms, this “continued converting” is generally called sanctification. I’m referring to this moment when the gospel moves from being an intellectual truth to a life-altering, joy-inducing, existential reality as…..”the penny dropping.”
If this still isn’t making sense, maybe some practical examples will help. So, as not to sound like I’m picking on anyone, I’ll start with myself:
In my youth, when I struggled mightily with obsessive-compulsive disorder, I washed my hands constantly. The fear of getting sick ran my life – my functional master. But I wasn’t using the resources that the gospel allowed me. The gospel of Jesus Christ says many things about physical sickness. For starters, throughout Jesus’ ministry, he repeatedly healed the sick. And yet there were many sick on the planet that he didn’t heal. What this indicates to us is that Jesus possesses the power to heal, but doesn’t always, and in both cases it’s for the benefit of the individual. Jesus proved his ultimate control over sickness and its final outcome, death, by rising from the grave. Consequently, the evidence suggests that Jesus must be stronger than germs, bacteria, and any possible illness. There is nothing to fear. Sounds obvious, right? The penny hadn’t dropped yet for me though. I knew the truth intellectually, but my heart was not yet rejoicing in that truth, allowing me to express the faith necessary to touch public doorknobs, use community phones, or even exchange money. Since then, the penny has dropped in that aspect of my life. All of this wasn’t just a phase I worked through. It was an actual obstacle to faith. And when the Spirit of God penetrates your heart to the point that it’s changing your behavior, it’s a freedom that feels like heaven.
If you’re constantly stressing out about money, it’s likely that the penny hasn’t dropped. (By the way, Luther said that last thing converted on a man is generally his wallet). Understand, I’m not suggesting some don’t have serious financial situations that require a great deal of concern. Nor am I suggesting that, in faith, we sit back and wait for the divine abracadabra from heaven to change our financial situation. That’s tempting God, abusing the gospel, and spiritually irresponsible. However, if there is a disproportionate amount energy and thought in your life about the bank account, the gospel penny simply has not dropped. In Matthew 6:33 Jesus says But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. If you really believed the gospel, you’d constantly be looking for ways to share your money, because you’d understand that it’s not really your money in the first place. God has simply allowed you to manage it for a time, and He, not you, is going to make sure your needs in life are truly met.
Likewise…..if you desperately pursue physical beauty in your life to a consuming degree, it’s likely that the penny hasn’t dropped. Again, taking care of yourself physically is not the problem here. In fact, I’d suggest that sometimes Christians, perhaps under the guise of living for the next life, poorly manage the body and appearance that they’ve been given in this life. Over-management and under-management of blessings are typically out of line with God’s will. But for the young woman (more often young woman than man, anyways) who sacrifices endlessly for worldly attractiveness, there is a mistrust in the gospel. Peter tells women, “Your beauty should not come from outward adornment…..Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” (1 Peter 3:3-4) Most Christian women know that intellectually. The problem is that they don’t understand the beauty they already have in Christ. In Psalm 27, the psalmist says, “One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.” (Psalm 27:4) Paul then tells us in the New Testament that all of the ugliness and imperfection that we have was placed upon Jesus on the cross and, at the same moment, all the beauty of Christ, our LORD, became ours (2 Cor 5:21). To the degree that you understand that – that a greater beauty than the one you’re pursuing is ALREADY yours in Jesus – you will be able to put down the endless obsession for beauty in this life, freed from cosmetic slavery.
Likewise……for many men, who are wired for success through accomplishment, who put in endless hours at the office or can’t sleep at night because they’re mind is racing about work, it’s likely that the penny hasn’t dropped for them either. By the way, accomplishment obsession is why men’s lives seem to revolve around a series of “highlights” and life markers – video clips of sports, animal heads on walls, trophies on mantels, merit badges, certificates in offices, letter titles before or after our names on our doors and name tags. Why do you think Crocodile Dundee wore sharp, rotten teeth around his neck, even in formal settings? Only a dude does that. For many men, fear of failure and pride in dominance and victory drives us.
Hard work is great. Accomplishment is a blessing. But if you think the milestones you’ve reached in your life are primarily your own doing, or you continuously dwell on the missed opportunities of life, the accomplishment of Jesus in the gospel hasn’t taken hold of your heart.
For starters, the Bible says that every accomplishment we enjoy is really the product of God’s work – Isaiah 26:12 LORD, you establish peace for us; all that we have accomplished you have done for us. Second, the greatest accomplishment imaginable – putting mankind on your back and carrying them across the finish line – was already done through Jesus on the cross (“It is finished.” John 19:30). This is a victory that he now shares with us. An immeasurably distant second place is the highest we could ever rank on the ultimate man’s man list. However, if your existence is already “in Jesus” then the pressure to perform is off, the victory is already won, and all that stupid Rocky Balboa “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” nonsense can go away forever.
Likewise……for many parents, providing their child with every possible resource to get ahead in life, every wall of defense against evil, and every comfort possible in general is an all-encompassing endeavor. Of course taking care of the needs of the family is important. Of course love leads you to want the “best” for your kids. But if you are constantly micromanaging your children, a phenomenon that 21st century psychologists have labeled “helicopter parenting,” it’s likely that the gospel penny hasn’t dropped. While you may understand the gospel proper – that Jesus paid for all of your sins and your children’s sins on the cross, you still don’t get the broader gospel implications. In this specific case, what the parent needs to recognize is that the gospel teaches us that God actually loves our children more than we do, and since he’s holy, righteous, and blameless, unlike us, that means that he’s significantly more qualified to watch over and guide our child’s life than we are. Jesus expressed his interest in parenting our children when he said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matt. 19:14; Mark 10:14; Luke 18:16) The practical gospel reality is that if Jesus has already laid down his own life for my family so that we can call his Father our Father, wouldn’t it make sense that he’s going to protect his investment by continuously watching over our family? When you realize that, it naturally leads to sounder nights of sleep.
Enough examples? Maybe I didn’t hit yours. But I think you get the point.
Most importantly, the gospel provides you with the necessary resource for salvation – Spirit-given faith in your Savior Jesus. But when you grow as a Christian, the penny drops further into your heart so that you begin to see all of the enormous and glorious implications of the bottomless gospel. The gospel transforms your future life from the outside-in (Jesus’ work becomes your work for eternity) and this then transforms your life right now from the inside-out (from your heart to your hands – real, measurable, tangible changes).
Pray that the penny drops. A wonderful peace comes when it does.