I have had plastic surgery.
This is not to say that a surgeon has improved the appearance of my nose or my hips. Liposuction has never reduced my middle-aged belly fat. And even though I don’t fault anybody for getting a little work done on sagging chins and laugh lines around the eyes, I’ve never considered a facelift.
The plastic surgery that I underwent was corrective and reconstructive. In fact, I have undergone two surgeries to correct a birth defect. For whatever genetic or environmental reason, my little in utero body never developed a soft palate.
Nature followed the usual developmental patterns with my hard palate and my upper lip. They are just like anybody else’s. But somewhere along the line the DNA code for forming the rear portion of my mouth’s roof misfired.
Surgeons constructed a soft palate for me—and then years later what is called a pharyngeal flap—from skin and muscle tissue harvested from the sides of my mouth and from my throat.
More properly speaking, then, I should say that I have had reconstructive surgery. Doctors restored my congenitally deformed palate to a structure that allowed for proper function. Now I can speak like any person born with a normal palate.
Many people undergo reconstructive surgery. Some, like me, were born with physical defects. Scoliosis and various heart defects come to mind. Physicians straighten backs and close walls between the chambers of the heart so that their patients can move freely and enjoy a normal range of activity.
In addition to congenital defects, the changes and chances of life—car wrecks, war, fires, work site accidents, dog attacks, and scores of other traumas—leave people wounded and disfigured. Surgeons have reattached fingers, prepared limbs for prosthetic devices, and transplanted vital organs like lungs and hearts and kidneys. Literally, and figuratively, medical intervention has gotten people back on their feet again.
Salvation is like reconstructive surgery. Many of us mistakenly think of salvation on analogy with passing a test. We want to know what we have to do to get God’s ultimate approval. Or at least to avoid a big, fat celestial F. But Jesus has not come to grade us. He has come to heal us. In Jesus, God restores the entire creation through grace.
Jesus makes this especially clear when a man asks him, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mark 10:17)
The man has come to Jesus for a resumé review. He wants to make sure that he has accumulated all the necessary spiritual and moral requirements needed to get the nod from God. If he’s missing anything, he wants to make sure to fill in the gaps. And he’s confident that he can. In other words, the man thinks of salvation as a reward for attaining and maintaining moral and spiritual standards.
Jesus doesn’t see salvation in these terms at all. Salvation is about grace, not achievements and rewards.
The man’s problem isn’t that he lacks a crucial achievement. His problem is that he relies on his own moral and spiritual abilities. He can’t bear the thought of bringing himself to God lacking something vital and needing to be fixed. And yet, relying upon God to mend the irretrievably broken is the very heart of grace.
We are all smashed and ruined in ways that we cannot repair. Grace works like this. We come to God in complete powerlessness and vulnerability. No, that’s not true. God comes to us. God has already come to us. That’s who Jesus is: the one who meets us in our fractured, fragile mess of a life. Jesus offers to make this life whole through forgiveness and compassion, through love and mercy.
Most of us would rather be spiritually and morally all that. To rock this whole life thing with such panache that God can’t help but give us a thumbs up for our unblemished goodness. But God takes another approach. God is about grace.
We screw up. No matter how hard we try, despite our best intentions and our most sincere efforts, we’re going to blow it. We break something that we can’t fix. That’s when we need love and forgiveness. You know, grace.
That’s why Jesus told the man that he lacked one thing.
Jesus said, “Go sell all that stuff you’ve accumulated. And while you’re at it, drop the status and the reputation and the comforts and the privilege that come with success. Hand yourself over to me in all your embarrassing incompleteness, awkward inconsistency, uneven rawness, and exasperating cussedness.”
In other words, you’ve got just one achievement left. Quit relying on your achievements to make you whole and make you lovable. Jesus does that. And you’re not Jesus.
The divine plan does not entail that we build ourselves into something acceptable to God. Most of us would prefer that. As moral and spiritual successes, we wouldn’t have to be vulnerable to anybody else. We would just get it right and get the reward we’ve got coming.
But God breaks us apart with compassion and puts us back together with love. God does not merely reassemble us. God reinvents us in a new shape, according to a new pattern. In Jesus we are a new creation.
Being saved isn’t about racking up moral and spiritual achievements. In Jesus, God uses the holy instruments of compassion and love, forgiveness and mercy to perform a kind of reconstructive surgery.