The Fruit of Grace

Hollywood is not known as a culture of grace. Dog eat dog is more like it. People love you one day and hate you the next. Personal value is very much attached to box office revenues and the unpredictable and often cruel winds of fashion. It was doubly shocking, therefore, when one way love—and its fruit—made such a powerful appearance on the big stage in 2011. The occasion for it was Robert Downey Jr receiving the American Cinematheque Award, a prize given to “an extraordinary artist in the entertainment industry who is fully engaged in his or her work and is committed to making a significant contribution to the art of the motion pictures.” A big deal, in other words. Downey Jr. was allowed to choose who would present him with the award, and he made a bold decision. He selected his one-time co-star Mel Gibson to do the honors.

To say that Mel’s reputation had taken a serious nosedive in recent years would be a severe understatement. An arrest for drunk driving in 2006 in which the actor-director spewed racist and anti-Semitic epithets was followed by public infidelity and a high profile divorce in 2009 and then culminated in 2010 when tapes of a drunken Gibson berating his then-girlfriend in the most foul manner imaginable were released online. Reprehensible does not even begin to describe it. Downey Jr’s ceremony took place a little more than a year after that final incident, the one that rightly cemented Gibson’s place as pariah numero uno in Tinseltown.

Of course, Downey Jr was no stranger to ostracization. In the 1990s, he became something of punchline himself as someone notoriously unable to kick a violent addiction to drugs and alcohol. Arrest after arrest, relapse after relapse, people both in Hollywood and elsewhere began to think of him less as an actor and more as a junkie. Professionally he became a liability—even those who wanted to work with him couldn’t because insurance companies wouldn’t underwrite a film if he was part of the cast. Bit by bit, and with the notable help of some good friends, Downey Jr eventually got sober and his career slowly got back on track. In 2008 he was cast as Iron Man and the rest, as they say, is history. Today he is one of the most beloved and highest grossing actors in the business. So the award coincided with the very height of his popularity and the nadir of Gibson’s. This was his moment of glory.

Instead of using his acceptance speech to give an “aw shucks” to the crowd of adoring colleagues, and doff his hat to his agent and family, Downey Jr did something unprecedented. We’ll let him speak for himself:

I asked Mel to present this award to me for a reason. Because when I couldn’t get sober, he told me not to give up hope, and he urged me to find my faith—didn’t have to be his or someone else’s—as long as it was rooted in forgiveness. And I couldn’t get hired so he cast me in the lead in a movie that was actually developed for him. He kept a roof over my head, and he kept food on the table. And most importantly, he said that if I accepted responsibility for my wrongdoings and embraced that part of my soul that was ugly—”hugging the cactus” he calls it—he said that if I “hugged the cactus” long enough, I would become a man of some humility and my life would take on new meaning. And I did and it worked. All he asked in return was that some day I help the next guy in some small way. It’s reasonable to assume that at the time he didn’t imagine the next guy would be him. Or that some day was tonight.

Anyway, on this special occasion… I humbly ask that you join me—unless you are completely without sin (in which you picked the wrong… industry)—in forgiving my friend his trespasses, offering him the same clean slate you have me, and allowing him to continue his great and ongoing contribution to our collective art without shame. He’s hugged the cactus long enough. [And then they hug].

The short speech not only testifies to the amazing power of one-way love, it is itself a beautiful example of the ‘fruit” of one-way love. At his lowest point, Downey Jr. was shown mercy by Mel Gibson. He didn’t deserve it, his track record was abysmal, but Mel, for whatever reason, took a risk—at great cost to himself. He personally paid down the massive insurance premium for Downey Jr. on 2003’s The Singing Detective so that his friend could get back on his feet. You don’t forget something like that.

Downey Jr’s response was one of gratitude and generosity. His speech may have phrased things in terms of repayment, but Mel’s injunction was obviously an after-the-fact suggestion rather than a condition. Downey Jr’s gesture goes so far beyond any sense of “owing”, especially considering the choice of moment and venue. To associate with Mel in such a public manner, indeed to advocate for him, meant putting Downey Jr’s own reputation on the line. It was a self-sacrificial and even reckless move. There was no possible gain for Downey Jr.; such was the antipathy that Mel inspired. No, his defense of the indefensible was the uncoerced act of a heart that’s been touched by one-way love. There is a direct line from the love Downey Jr was shown to the love he then shows. His supreme generosity is the fruit of grace.

Mel clearly had no idea about what Downey Jr. was planning to do. And Downey Jr’s tone and demeanor make it very clear that he was not putting himself out there under duress—he did it because he wanted to. His ability and desire to show mercy seems almost directly proportional to his personal experience of it, his firsthand knowledge that he is just as much in need of mercy as “the chief of sinners”. His plea, in other words, was rooted in humility about his own sin and gratitude for the love he has been shown, which asserts itself in kind. Belovedness births love. Grace accomplished what no amount of court-ordered, legal remedies ever could: it created a heart that desires to show mercy to the “least of these.”

Of course, as powerful of a story as it is, the episode is not a one-to-one analogy for the Gospel—no story could be. As impressive as Iron Man is, he is not God. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t close. Thankfully, when it comes to God’s grace, there is not even a hint of exchange. No suggestion of payback, or pay it forward. There are no strings attached. Only grace can change a heart and produce law-fulfilling works of mercy, but grace is not dependent on a changed heart or law-fulfilling works of mercy. Grace alone produces the conditions that induce change, but grace is not conditional on change. It is pure gift. Our greatest hope. Our only comfort. Our deepest relief.

It is one way love.

(Excerpted from my forthcoming book One Way Love: Inexhaustible Grace for an Exhausted World)

  • Simul Justus et Peccator says:

    Thank you.

  • anonymous says:

    beautiful story and amen,hope does not disappoint:one-way love will overflow to two-way love, by His kindness and power.

    we exult in hope of the glory of God, and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us; Christ in us, the hope of glory. Rom 5: 2b,5; Col 1:27b

  • Susanne Schuberth (Germany) says:

    Thank you for always excerpting your books, Tullian.

    I believe that this part you have chosen here is outstanding because God inspired you all along the line. Indeed, a very touching story of His love!

  • Paul ST Jean says:

    I appreciate the blog because I am in the midst of reading this book by Paul Zahl. here is another excerpt:
    Ladies and gentlemen, I give you God’s least deserving creature, whom he has made a little lower than the angels. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the recipient of this years aeon’s award for being least endowed and hence the most endowed with perfections; I give you the Marquis de Sade and the man of La Mancha. I give you the Countess Lucrezia Borgia and the “wench” Dulcinea. I give you man and women! pg. 118
    Grace Imputes. Grace sees the image of God in men and women when the reality is the twisted image of fallen people implicated in original sin,people who have unsavory associations in the form of total depravity and are prevented by their un-free will from helping themselves. Grace looks on all that failure and imputes. To impute means to ascribe qualities to someone that are not there intrinsically,to regard somebody as a person that he or she is not. Pg. 119
    psalm 32:2-5

  • Paul ST Jean says:

    fellow bloggers
    my mistake I am reading “grace in Practice” a theology of everyday life by Paul Zahl. which is probably as good as the one Pastor T.T. is refering to in this blog. or better? we shall see.

  • John Dunn says:

    There is no grace, no good gift, no radical life-changing power that comes to us apart from the active and indwelling new life of the Spirit.

    Grace cannot be personified or accredited with producing or accomplishing anything apart from the Spirit of Grace (Heb 10:29).

    He is the New Covenant minister of Christ’s righteousness, life, peace, love, joy, and freedom. Let’s magnify Him!

  • mark mcculley says:

    David Powlison, The Journal of Biblical Counseling (27:1), “How Does Sanctification Work? Part 1”

    Here’s the takeaway. I dare not extrapolate my exact experience of God’s mercies to everyone else. Similarly, those who have had their Christian life revolutionized by awakening to the significance of justification by faith dare not extrapolate that to everyone else. One pattern of Christ’s working (even a pattern common to many people) should not overshadow all the other patterns. A rightly “unbalanced” message is fresh, refreshing, joyous, full of song, life-transforming. But eventually, if it is oversold, it becomes a one-string harp, played by one finger, sounding one note. It drones. Scripture and the Holy Spirit play a 47-string concert harp, using all ten fingers, and sounding all the notes of human experience. Wise ministry, like growth in wisdom, means learning to play on all the strings, not harping on one note.

    I am certain that those who teach “sanctification by revisiting justification” have heard that message as a new and joyous song that sanctifies them. May Jesus Christ be praised! Perhaps God has been liberating them from a ponderous Christianity that seemed to breed a weight of failure to perform, of failure to live up to expectations, of failure to accomplish all that needs doing, and of judgmentalism toward others who fail. May the God of mercies be praised! But let’s not forget to learn all the other sweet and joyous songs. And let’s learn the darker notes of lamentation and the blues. Let’s learn the call to action in work songs and marching music.

  • This moved me to tears. I needed this today.

  • […] have been following Tullian Tchividjian for about 3 years now.  He is a powerful pastor and author.  His book, […]

  • Ken Garrett says:

    Thank you for keeping the spotlight on grace, grace, grace. This kind of talk about grace feeds the soul, every time!

  • […] have been following Tullian Tchividjian for about 3 years now.  He is a powerful pastor and author.  His book, “Unfashionable” […]

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