The Case of the Unwashed Hands

“I will remember their sins and their misdeeds no more.” Hebrews 10:17

All preachers are grateful for their children, if for no other reason than that they are little walking bundles of sermon illustrations. Of course, as children get older they tend to resent even the subtlest hint that they are related to the preacher. I tried to respect the privacy of my own two, except when it was late on Saturday night and I was desperate.

I did broach the subject with Lauren when she was about 4. We were on the way home from church, and I had mentioned her in the sermon that morning. I asked if that bothered her. She said it did not. I then very helpfully told her that there would likely come a day when it did and not to hesitate letting me know. Clearly trying to assure me she said, “it’s all right, Daddy. I’m usually asleep by then anyway.”

Which brings me to my granddaughter, who is three and about to be the centerpiece of this brief devotional. One day she too will become an eye-rolling teen and forbid public mention of anything about her life. I will respect that, but right now she can’t read and is totally fair game.

The incident in question regards handwashing. I hasten to add here at the outset that handwashing is filled with religious significance especially among our Jewish forbearers. It’s no small matter. The following story is fraught with deep religious overtones!

Not really. The handwashing in this case was nothing nearly so serious. We were at the supper table, Emily Grace had to use the potty, and upon her return Leslie (Ma’mere) asked if she had washed her hands. She hesitated in such a way that clearly indicated she had not. Again this was no big deal, and one of the great things about being a grandparent is that you don’t tend to view every little incident as predictive of either future success or a life of crime and dissolution.

When asked “are you sure you washed your hands?” she nodded but started to look exceedingly guilty and tear up. At this point, I sensed a theological application coming. I suggested we just go back into the bathroom and do a good hand wash. Interestingly, she had closed the bathroom door (covering up her sin!).

Poor little thing looked absolutely miserable. Again, neither Leslie nor I had raised our voices or even sounded doubtful or accusing. We had just asked simple questions. But something was bothering her. She knew that she had crossed a line with people she loved.

Now as her Gandy I had a decision to make. Should I descend upon her with thundering clouds of judgment and accusation? Or should I take a gentler approach? Relax. I chose the latter.

I knelt down and said, “You’re not in trouble. Gandy loves you. If you want to tell me something, you can. It’s ok.” Now if she had tearfully confessed, then this would have been THE PERFECT ILLUSTRATION. But she did not. She just kind of melted into my arms and cried.

It’s still a good story though, with roots that go all the way back to Eden.

I did not threaten or punish her. She was doing that all by herself. I kept reassuring her that she could tell me whatever she wanted, and that she would feel better if she did. She’s just not there yet. One day I’m sure she’ll understand.

One of the great misconceptions about God is that He is the slinger of lightning bolts, the resident policeman, as J. B. Phillips put it. Too many folks believe He’s got His finger hovering over the “smite button,” just waiting for us to step out of line.

You can certainly point to a lot of biblical texts if you want to take that position, most all of them in the raw Old Testament. But the Bible is not flat. It has a progression in it, and in the latter days we’ve seen God clearly through His Son. The fact of the matter is Jesus never punished a sinner. Not once. He had harsh words for the hyper-religious people who were keen to punish sins, but He was known as a friend of sinners. That’s so powerfully significant, yet so often overlooked.

I know some people point to the second coming as the time when Jesus will get even, but they don’t have to be so gleeful about it. Besides, let’s handle the apocalyptic texts with care. Being literal in Revelation is a little dicey. But that’s another subject, and I’ll deal with the emails I’ll be getting for this little excursus.

The point here, and the one illustrated by my granddaughter, is that we’re not so much punished for our sins as by our sins. I remember them and suffer for them long after God has dismissed them. Sure God hates sin because it hurts His children. My heart ached for Emily Grace and her tender conscience. I longed for nothing more than to relieve her burden. I think that’s the way God responds to my transgressions.

Benedicta Ward put it this way, “God can exercise his mercy when we avow our defects. Our defects acknowledged, instead of repelling God, draw him to us, satisfying his longing to be merciful. As this is understood through meditation, the person realizes that those things by which he feels unlovable are exactly what he has to offer God to attract him.”

So Emily Grace was not ready yet to “avow her defects.” She’ll be fine. I need to be ready to avow mine before God and know that I really will feel so much better when I do. It doesn’t make me a bad person to have those defects. It makes me human. And I am one of the humans God longs to shed His mercy upon, to take into His arms, and to assure me that I am still His.


Dr. Terry Ellis

March 13, 2016

  1. Thanks Ter, just what the Dr. ordered, a big dose of Grace

  2. Not too many articles or sermons can make me laugh, cry and thank God for insights given and perhaps a prayer for forgiveness but your meditations are so uplifting and practical and a genuine blessing each week. God bless, protect and guide you and Leslie always…

  3. You are one gifted and blessed preacherman!
    Can I go on an Outward Bound for Seniors?
    Been checking options!