Michael Morrison: Steve, thanks for being with us today.
Steve McVey: Thanks, Mike. Glad to be here.
MM: Steve, you’ve written a book called Grace Walk. It’s sold quite a few copies now, and in the book you describe the story of how you came to an understanding of grace, and I wondered if we could start today by rehearsing that story as to what motivated you to write this book.
SM: Sure. I grew up in a Christian home. My parents were Christians; they’re both in heaven now. I was taught about the Lord from the time I was a small child. I understood the gospel when I was 8 years old, and by the time I was 16, I was preaching. I preached my first sermon at 16 years old and was very sincere….became a senior pastor at 19. Can you believe that? 19 years old and I was a senior pastor of a church with about 100 people — about 80 of them were over 65, which seemed old to me back then. It doesn’t seem so old these days.
I was sincere in my Christian walk, but little by little I found happening to me what I think happens to a lot of people: my focus began to move, in small increments, away from being on Jesus and began to be more directed toward my own performance — how well I was doing and living the Christian life.
The essence of legalism is thinking that somehow we can make spiritual progress or gain God’s blessings based on what we do, making sure that we do the right things, making sure that we’re keeping all the rules. In the modern church, I think we get grace when it comes to evangelism for unbelievers, but then once people believe, it’s like bait and switch — we turn the tables on them. It’s like “OK, it was grace for you to understand the gospel, but now that you’re a believer, everything’s changed. Now it’s all about you and what you do.” I lived that way for the first 29 years of my Christian life. 17 of those years I was a senior pastor.
In my first book, Grace Walk, which was published in 1995, I described how the Lord brought me to a place where I realized that although my heart had been in the right place, my head was in the wrong place. That book starts out with me lying on my face in the middle of the night at 2:00 a.m. crying in my office, as a pastor, saying, “If this is the Christian life, it’s overrated, and if this is the ministry, I want out.” How’s that for sort of a tease introduction to a book? A pastor who wanted to quit.
MM: It sounds like you’d been a successful pastor, if you had 17 years, and if you then continued to focus on performance, perhaps that’s because you were “performing” well.
SM: Right. It’s interesting. I write about it in the book, that for many years as a pastor I felt successful. I felt that way. I got that from accolades of other people, the affirmation of my ministry and those kinds of things.
But I began to pray a prayer, and I tell you this is a prayer that the Lord takes seriously. I began to pray a prayer, and I said, “Father, I want to know you more intimately than I’ve ever known you. I want to be used by you. I want you to work through my life to impact people with your love, your life, more than I could even imagine it.” Then I said this: “And whatever it takes, I want you to do it to bring me to that place.”
He heard that prayer. I’m making a long story short…I wrote a whole book about it. Shortly after that, I moved from a church where I served as senior pastor in the state of Alabama to Atlanta, Georgia. I moved to Atlanta anticipating that I was going there to build a megachurch, and that I would see unprecedented success in my ministry. The church I was going to had been dying in every measurable way for five years before I got there, but I thought when I got there, things would turn around.
But to my surprise, things didn’t turn around. The church just kept dying, right out from under me. After I had been there a year, that’s when, as I mentioned a moment ago, I was approaching the first anniversary date of my tenure as pastor, and I found myself lying on my face, and I said, “If this is the ministry, I want out. If this is Christian living, it’s overrated.”
But the ironic thing is that what the Lord used in my life (as he does in all of our lives when he wants to bring us up to a deeper or higher understanding of grace), is he had to bring me to the place where I had discovered my need for grace. You see?
We “get” grace [i.e., understand it] for unbelievers. But sometimes as pastors, especially, we don’t get it. We think, “I’m preaching the Bible, I’m counseling, I’m doing all the things a pastor should be doing. I’m having success with it.” The Lord has to work in our lives to bring us to the place where we say, “I can’t do what I thought I could do,” so that we’ll be open to what he wants to teach us.
MM: So in some ways, failure was good.
SM: Failure is always good, because failure is not the end. Suffering and pain and what we interpret as failure is sometimes not failure at all. It’s the principle in the Bible about dying to live. Jesus said unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it abides alone; you’ve got to die to live. The Bible is full of paradoxical statements like that. We have to think about that the Bible says we die to live. We have to be weak in order to be strong. We go down so we can go up. It has to get dark before the light comes.
But we’re wired in this world. Our flesh is programmed this way. Especially those of us who live in Western culture, we’re wired to think that we have to succeed, and we have to make our mark, and there has to be this continuous upward trajectory toward success and what we’re doing. But we don’t get strong enough for God to use us. We have to get weak enough for God to use us. The best way to learn that is in the midst of our failures.
MM: That kind of thing hurts, doesn’t it?
SM: It does. Just like when my children were small and I took them to the doctor for their vaccinations, it always hurt. When I took them for their booster shots, it hurt, and it was for their good. It was a good thing, though in their little minds it didn’t seem like it. In our minds, as human beings, sometimes when we’re in painful circumstances, we think, “If God cares, why is he letting this happen?” If we could hear him answer, we would hear him say, “It’s precisely because I do care, that I’m letting this happen.”
In my situation, I came into that church and it kept dying out from under me (numerically, I mean), and I had always been used to growing churches. So I prayed, “Lord, what’s going on?” I began to feel weakened. I began to feel discouraged, despondent, finally despair. I kept praying, “Lord, make me stronger, make me stronger.”
I realize now what he was saying is, “Steve, I’ve got a better idea. I’ll make you weaker.” I’m going to say it again: We don’t get strong enough for God to use us, so we might as well stop praying “make me stronger,” because grace isn’t afforded to the strong. It’s not the strong people who tap into grace. It’s weak people who understand our need for grace, so we’ve got to become weak, so that we’ll reach a point where we can become recipients of grace in an experiential way.
MM: When we have strengths, we tend to rely on our strengths.
MM: For some people, it’s physical strength, others it’s intellectual, some social.
SM: That’s right. That reliance on our own abilities and our own strengths as we’re describing it — the biblical word for that is the “flesh.” When the Bible talks about walking after the flesh, it’s not talking about the skin, these physical bodies. It’s can’t mean that. Paul said to one group, “You’re no longer in the flesh, but in the Spirit.” He didn’t mean they were ghosts. What he meant is, “You get it. You finally get it.”
“The flesh” is you or me trying to live for Christ instead of understanding that we can’t live for him. We weren’t called to live for him. Grace is the enablement, by virtue of his indwelling life for us, to live his life because he’s expressing it through us, not because we’re doing it for him, and there’s a big difference between the two. To experience that kind of outflow of grace from our lives, we’ve got to come to the point where we realize, “I can’t live the Christian life no matter how hard I try.”
It’s a great day for any of us when we discover that the Christian life is not hard for us to live, it’s impossible for us to live. There’s only one who can live the Christ-life, and that’s the Christ himself. And he will live it, if we come to the end of ourselves and abandon ourselves in total surrender to him. The gospel is not just the gospel for unbelievers, it’s the gospel for believers, too. We need his grace just like unbelievers need his grace.
MM: People tend to rely on their strengths — sometimes they call those spiritual gifts. How do we tell the difference between our fleshly strength and a spiritual gift?
SM: That’s a good point, and there’s a fine line sometimes, because the abilities that we have come from our Father. He’s given us those abilities. The key distinguishing factor revolves around one question—what animates those abilities? What is it that I’m relying on to give expression to those abilities? Is it me? Is it my own know-how? Is it my own determination? My own willpower? My own intentionality? Or is it an attitude that says, Apart from him I can do nothing, so I rely upon him and by faith I trust him to be the one to animate those abilities.
For those first 17 years as a senior pastor, I tried to do things for the Lord. My heart was in the right place – it was my head that was messed up, not my heart. My heart was toward him. But when the Lord brought me to brokenness in 1990 and began to teach me this grace walk and what it means to let him live through me, I’ll never forget the changes I began to see, because the most evident change is I began to see is that I didn’t have to struggle anymore. I could simply rest in him knowing that he is in control of my life. It’s not even my ministry. It’s his ministry, and if I just yield myself to him, he will do through me what he wants to do.
He’s done that in ways that exceeded anything I could have done or imagined. It’s not like God has a favorite and he’ll do for me what he won’t do for somebody else. He doesn’t pick folks like you and me and say, “I’m going to do something with their lives, but you guys on the margin, on the periphery, I won’t use your life or I won’t work for you.” No, no, no. He wants to use all of us. Paul told the Corinthians that “You see your calling, that it’s not many that are noble and mighty and strong…” You know the passage…but he goes on and says, “God chooses the weak.”
So I would say to those who watch us that if they feel like, “I’m just not strong like that guy. I’m weak. I’ve never written books. I don’t have the education or the abilities, or…” No, no, no. I’d say to them, “You’re the perfect candidate for God to use you, because you know it has to be him that does it, and that’s the kind of person he will use and takes delight in.”
MM: But he doesn’t necessarily use us in the way that we associate with success.
SM: Absolutely not. God’s definition of success and ours is very different. It’s not possible for us not to be successful as we depend on Jesus as our life source, because he is our success. Christ is our life. In him we live and move and exist, Paul said on Mars Hill, and he was speaking then to unbelievers. He said, “In him we live and move and exist.”
Christ is our life, so success is our union with him. We can relax. It’s not about striving for success anymore. It’s about just resting in Jesus and letting Jesus be who he is in us and through us. There’s success right there, whatever it might look like.
MM: So I can be a success without doing anything, achieving anything.
SM: Absolutely. In fact, we don’t achieve anything. We’re not called to achieve anything. We are receivers, not achievers. The great Achiever lives inside us, and he will accomplish through us whatever he wants to do as we depend on him. We don’t have to make something happen — as I said, we don’t live for him, we don’t have to do anything for him.
Now, for people who have been groomed in the legalistic mindset, they’re thinking, “That guy’s talking passivity.” No, I’m not talking passivity. I can speak for all the people I have seen who have embraced grace in saying this: He will do more through us in a day than we can do for him in 25 lifetimes. We just need to stop the struggle.
Jesus said, “Come to me…” (I’m quoting the King James—it’s the one I grew up on, so this is the way I memorized it.) “Come to me all ye who labor and are heavy-laden, and I’ll give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Learn from me, for I am meek and lowly in heart and you shall find rest for your souls, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Religion beats the daylights out of us. (Sound of whip cracking) “More, more, more!” That’s what legalistic religion does. But grace is the voice of Jesus saying, “Come to me and I’ll give you rest.” Yet it’s not passivity, because it’s a life of active rest, where he lives his life through us and does more through us than we could ever do for him.
MM: What’s the role of our decisions in that? How do we let Jesus live through us without us taking credit for the results?
SM: It’s a mindset. Once we’ve failed enough to realize “I will mess it up every time I try,” that’s a good teacher. When we see God doing something through us, we begin to realize “This is not me. I couldn’t have done this.”
Can I give you one example? First time I saw this after I began to understand this… (to begin to understand, notice, because all of us are still growing in grace). The first example that I saw in my own life… I had been trying to make my mark for Jesus. I was a senior pastor. My secretary comes in and says, “Pastor, there’s a guy here who would like to talk to you.” I said, “What about?” She said, “About attending church.” I said, “Okay.”
The guy comes in; he was from Africa, from Cameroon. He begins to talk to me about the church, and I quickly realized that he doesn’t understand the gospel or anything about our faith. So I share the gospel with him and the guy believes. He trusts in Christ that very day. Every week he began coming for me to disciple him on Tuesday. I did that every week.
One week he comes in and says, “Pastor, have you noticed that every week when I come, I take notes of what you’re saying? I said, “Yeah.” He took copious notes every week when I was discipling him. He said, “Do you know why I do it?” I said, “I guess you take them back and study.” He said, “No. I go over to the shipping place and I mail these notes to the chief in my village in Africa. Every week the chief is getting these notes, and he goes out and calls the village together. He’s sharing with them what you’re teaching me.” He said, “A lot of people in my village are trusting Christ, and they’re asking the chief questions that he doesn’t know how to answer, and he’s asking me, and I don’t know how to answer, so I’m supposed to ask you. If I translate, will you answer the questions of the new Christians in my village?” All of sudden, it just washed over me. I thought, “Here I am sitting in Atlanta, Georgia, with one man across the desk from me, and I’m evangelizing and discipling a whole village of people in Africa.”
MM: How strange is that? Pastoring them, too.
SM: Exactly. I couldn’t make that happen in a million years. That’s the point I make. When we strive to do things for God, all it results in, is what the Bible calls “dead works.” It’s just religious works. But if we give up on our struggle, and as the writer of Hebrews says, “enter into his rest.” (I used to think that meant dying and going to heaven — that’s how anemic my Christian life was. No – enter his rest.) I stopped struggling and striving, and I’m going to trust that God is my life and that he’ll live through me.
If we’ll do that, the kind of thing I just described, that one anecdote, that’s just the tip of the iceberg. I’ve been on six continents sharing this message and seeing God do things that there’s no way I could take credit for. How do I know it’s him and not me? Because I’m not smart enough to do the things he’s done through me. People might see his life expressed in different ways. It might not be something that they would consider on a grand scale, but it doesn’t matter, because when Christ does something through us, we recognize, “That happened from a source beyond my own abilities. That was him through me.” We see it, and that encourages us and motivates us to want to trust him more.
MM: That reminds me of Susanna Wesley, who had no idea that her role as a mother would turn out to be so influential. Just an ordinary station in life, she thought, and yet the Lord was able to use what she had done.
SM: Perfect example. I wrote about her. I wrote a book called Walking in the Will of God, and I make the point toward the end of the book, that very point. I said, fulfilling God’s will in your life doesn’t mean that you have to see your name in lights or anything. I gave the example of Susanna Wesley. What greater contribution could somebody make than Susanna Wesley made by being a godly mother? Look at what Charles and John Wesley gave us – and continues to give us.
MM: You said your heart was in the right place, but your head was not. What about our head knowledge is going to make a difference, the kind of difference that you describe?
SM: Here’s the big thing I see in the modern church: We think God has called us to himself because he needs us to do something for him. I’ve got good news and bad news. I’ll start with the bad news: God doesn’t need us. If we think God needs us, then we greatly underestimate him or we overestimate ourselves. You can take a blank sheet of paper and write down a list of everything you think you have to offer God on that paper, and stand up to the edge of eternity and hold that list up to the God who stood on the edge of nothingness and said “let there be” and there was, and tell him what it is you think you’ve got that he needs. No, he doesn’t need us.
But the good news is, he wants us. He’s not looking for a maid, he’s looking for a bride. This is biblical, Acts 17. The Bible says, “Neither is he served by human hands as though he needed anything.” I like the passage in the Old Testament where God told Isaiah, “If I were hungry, I wouldn’t tell you.” You know why? Because there’s nothing we could do about it. God doesn’t need us.
But the religious culture of the world today, even in the Christian world, somehow communicates, “God has shown you his grace by bringing salvation to you, and now you understand that he’s forgiven your sin, you’re one with him now, so now it’s up to you… You’ve signed up for something and now it’s up to you to accomplish something, to achieve something, to do something for him.” It’s a misguided, albeit sincere, intention, because it suggests the very contrary of what I’ve just shared from the Bible. God doesn’t need us. We have been called to live in this union, this perichoresis, this inner penetration of inner love and harmony. We’ve been called to live in that group hug and then to live out of that group hug expressing the life of the Father, Son, and Spirit in our day-to-day activities.
That’s a far cry from religion. Religion demands that we do things, but when we live out of the circle of the Father, Son, and Spirit, we find it’s not demand, it’s desire. It’s not law, it’s love. It’s not responsibility, it’s relationship, it’s privilege that motivates us to want to express the divine life of the Father, Son, and Spirit to the world around us. That’s a country mile, as we say down south, away from religious obligation.
MM: A lot of people have a picture of God that’s austere, and not very inviting. But you’re describing a more attractive God. Is that part of the head knowledge that makes a difference in our relationship?
SM: How we see God, our theology, is everything. That’s the foundation. Sometimes people say to me, “What difference does theology make?” The answer is: it makes all the difference in the world, because our view of who God is, our understanding, our concept of who he is, will affect the way we see and do everything else in life. It will affect how we see ourselves, how we see others, how we see situations that we face.
If we grew up in the evangelical world, it was almost inevitable that we would come to the conclusion that we serve a God whose primary interest is in matters of right and wrong, that his primary focus is that once he’s forgiven us of our sins, now he’s going to teach us how to do the right thing.
MM: Sure. In the Bible we see all sorts of commands – do this, do that.
SM: Right. But we don’t see those commands through an unfiltered lens. We read the Bible like we look at God, and that is through the skewed, tainted, blurred lens of our own making. All the way back in the garden, when Adam and Eve sinned and they…immediately they had this skewed sense of who God is. They began to see him through the distorted lens of their own guilt and shame. Ever since then, we’ve done that. Just because a person trusts Christ and says, “Thank you, Lord, for forgiving my sin, I’m a believer,” don’t think that that lens instantly goes away. It doesn’t. There’s this renewal of the mind that has to take place.
I’ve had two monumental paradigm shifts, radical changes in my life since the time I trusted Christ as a child. One was what I wrote about in this book, Grace Walk, when I began to understand my identity in Christ…that I don’t have to try to live for him, but that I died with him and now he is my life. The other was when I began to understand the Trinitarian viewpoint. That is this idea of who the Father, Son, and Spirit are, and that our God is not a punitive, judgmental, harsh, demanding, exacting God who’s looking down on us saying, “When are you going to ever learn to quit doing the wrong and start doing right?”
For God to do that would be a violation of what he had told Adam and Eve in the Garden when he said, “Don’t eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” But they did, and suddenly everything became about morality, and it became about issues of right and wrong. We lifted up that filtered clouded lens and we looked at the face of our God through that.
But sin didn’t change God – it only changed Adam and Eve. Our God never was, never has been, never will be, a God who’s preoccupied with issues of right and wrong. Our God is preoccupied with us. It’s about relationship, not rules.
If we read the Bible through a particular lens, we’re going to see a lot of demanding things in Scripture. Let me give an example, if I could, and excuse this kind of familiar example, a personal example. When I go home from California, back to my wife, if she says, “Get over here and kiss me now,” if she commands me to come kiss her, okay, her commandments are not burdensome, to quote Scripture (laughing).
You see what I’m saying? The commands of the Bible, when we understand the New Testament… First, we’re free from the Old Testament law. Paul said in Romans 7, “We are made to die to the law so that we might be joined to another, to him who was raised from the dead.” We’re out from under the law — we don’t live in that world anymore.
The commands in the New Testament, that’s like my wife saying, “Get over here and kiss me.” John said, “His commandments are not burdensome” (King James, “His commandments are not grievous.”). We want to do those things. God gives us a new motivation, and the motivation is desire. It’s not duty, it’s desire. For anyone who thinks the New Testament is filled with commands that they have to struggle to keep, I think it comes back to their concept of who their Father is. Because once we know that we’re totally accepted, that changes everything.
Life is not a test. Life is a rest. Jesus said, “Come to me and I’ll give you rest.” He didn’t say I’ll give you a test. There is no test. It’s a rest.
MM: There’s not a final exam.
SM: Right. We’ve passed, we’ve scored a perfect score with flying colors because the grade that we have is the grade of Jesus, because he is our life, we’re one with him. Paul said, “He who joins himself together to the Lord is one spirit with him.” It’s simple. No wonder Jesus said, you have to become like a little child. With our religious minds and our adult minds, and our Western-world minds, we tend to miss it. It’s so simple. If I could say it as simply as the Bible says it: Just believe it!
It’s called the gospel because it’s good news—if we could just believe it. God in Christ Jesus, by the power of the Holy Spirit, has made everything right. We’re restored, we’re reconciled, it’s all good now. So all we can do, all we need to do, is just live out of the overflow, the celebration, of that perichoresis, the koinonia, that fellowship that we have with the Father, Son, and Spirit because of the cross. Sounds too good to be true, and when it does, it’s probably the gospel – it’s grace.
MM: Many people think that that’s not very workable. They don’t…
SM: It’s not (laughing). It’s not workable – you can only trust it. That’s a good point. That was a little slip there, I like it. It’s not workable. It’s not of works, it’s of faith. Sorry to interrupt, but I couldn’t resist that. But you make a good point. A lot of us think that that we’re forgiven our sin and now we’re in Christ, but now we’ve got this manual here [the Bible] …
MM: Yeah…isn’t right and wrong found in there?
SM: It is, and we’re told to avoid it. Here’s the key: “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” You can do the right thing and it still be a sin. It’s not about right and wrong – it’s about trusting Christ in us to live his life through us. This is where the modern church misses it, in my mind. We’re capable of more than doing right. You don’t have to believe in Christ to do the right thing. Many people who renounce the gospel don’t commit adultery and don’t steal or kill, or we could go down the list. But we’re capable of more than right – we’re capable of more than morality. Morality is that system of right and wrong based on the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the one God said stay away from. We’re capable of more than moral living, we’re capable of miraculous living. By that I mean that the deity, Father, Son, and Spirit, flows through us, out into this world like a river of living water from our innermost being.
MM: You say that we’re capable of this, but yet in a way we’re not doing it — it’s Jesus working in us.
SM: That’s right. We’re capable because he has enabled us.
MM: Our role is to get out of the way?
SM: That’s right. We are capable because he’s made us capable. We are responsible, response-able. We’re now able to respond to him and say, “OK, I get it, I don’t have to struggle.”
I wrote in Grace Walk an experience I’ve witnessed many times. When I was a pastor I’d visit hospitals. A guy might have had heart surgery, and he’s on a breathing machine. Have you ever been in the room with somebody when they wake up on a breathing machine? They have to learn with that thing, because if they’re not careful, it happens a lot of times when a person wakes up in a recovery room after surgery and they’re on a breathing machine, they try to breathe. And when they try to breathe, they’re fighting against the machine, and alarms go off, and it’s very uncomfortable for them. I’ve seen it again and again. My own dad had heart surgery, and I saw him on one. The nurse will come in and say, “Calm down, don’t struggle….” Listen to this, “You don’t have to try to breathe, just relax. The machine will breathe for you.” Sure enough, I’ve watched it again and again. The people would just kind of let go and relax and quit struggling, and the machine takes over and begins to breathe for them.
Isn’t it interesting that the word for Spirit is breath? When we rely on the Holy Spirit, we don’t struggle to breathe. We just depend on the Spirit of Christ in us, the Spirit of Jesus that indwells us, and as we learn to just rest and realize, “I don’t have to make it happen – I just trust him.” As we learn that, then he does it through us. It’s a rest.
It’s one of those paradoxical statements. In Hebrews the Bible says… It’s almost comical to me, “Strive to enter into that rest” (laughing). The reason we have to strive to enter into that rest is because it’s not the default setting of the flesh to rest, so we have to be very intentional about that.
We have to say, “No, no, no, I’m not going to take my life or my circumstances, my will, I’m not going to try to take this back into my own hands – I’ve already proven I’m not capable. So I’m going to, by intentionality, which is the striving part, I’m going to choose, I’m going to decide, I’m going to go against the current of modern religion, I’m going to go against the current of my own fleshly inclinations, and I’m going to just trust and rest and let him be who he is in and through me.” That’s grace. It’s the unilateral expression of his life and love in us and through us. He does it all. We’re containers and we’re conduits of his life, but we don’t work it up.
MM: And that’s the grace walk.
SM: Yes Him doing it in us and through us. It’s not a passive lifestyle. It’s a lifestyle where we actively rest in him, and he does it all.
MM: Thanks for being with us and sharing with us about grace and faith.
SM: My pleasure, Mike. Thank you.