My Piano Lesson on Justice & Grace

If I am sure of anything about the character of God, it’s that I will never be able to balance the tensions He so perfectly represents. To begin, the tension of His justice and His mercy, His righteousness and His grace. AW Tozer reminded us that “we should banish from our minds forever the common but erroneous notion that justice and judgment characterize the God of Israel, while mercy and grace belong to the Lord of the Church… whether in the Garden of Eden or in the Garden of Gethsemane, God is merciful as well as just.” And perhaps the best example I’ve seen of this came while playing piano as a child with my dad.

There’s no question we see the nature of God reflected in motherhood – in the way He comforts us (Isaiah 66:13), has compassion on us (Isaiah 49:15), and calms and quiets us like children (Psalm 131:2), and I am truly blessed with a mom who embodies each of those qualities to me with supernatural patience and sacrifice. But there is surely great significance in God’s decision to portray Himself far more often as a Father—perhaps because these tensions are demanded and demonstrated in fatherhood even more clearly. That’s part of why I love this story so much.

There is surely great significance in God’s decision to portray Himself as a Father.

When I was as young as six or seven, my older brother and sister began taking piano lessons while I was forced to wait until I reached what seemed to be the impossibly far off age of eight. But when I finally did, I was thrilled. Beginning in those early days, I found in piano an escape of freedom, a peace of mind, and an outlet for creativity that I still treasure today. Of course, for this gift, I have largely my parents to thank—not only for funding my lessons but for establishing and enforcing expectations for practice so that I could learn, advance and thus enjoy playing even more. Also to my parents’ credit, the expectations were clear, consistent, and not particularly demanding. I was to practice 30 minutes a day, five days a week. And yet, as I began to view that expectation as more of a rigid requirement than a discipline for development, my gratitude increasingly turned to resentment. What was once a joy to anticipate became a burden to dread.

Forgive the ridiculous exaggeration of feelings (quite evident in hindsight), but at the time, I felt enslaved to an uncompromising standard that, in all my striving, left me frustrated and exhausted. All this came to a peak quite distinctly one Thursday afternoon. As the 30-minutes on the kitchen timer counted down slower, my anger welled up faster, finally overflowing in tears streaming down my face. So there I sat, my hands pounding out Mozart’s Allegro in D while my pounding heart choked out sobs. Then, all of a sudden, the kitchen door opened. Dad was home.

Many, many things could have happened in that moment. My dad, finishing a long day at work only to walk into the chaos of emotional turmoil at home, could have thrown down his briefcase, stormed into the piano room and told me to get it together. Or he could have disciplined my tantrum by raising the requirement for practice even higher. And I honestly don’t know what would have happened if he had. Maybe everyone would have been roused up with soon-to-be regretted words of anger. Maybe we all would have lost it all together. Or maybe I would have begged my parents to let me quit piano for good, forfeiting an art I truly loved and still do.

He reached up on top of the piano, sorted through the scattered books, spread a new piece of sheet music in front of me, and asked a single question: “Will you play this one for me?”

But my dad didn’t do any of those things. Instead, after a quick assessment of the situation, without a single word, he came and sat down beside me on the piano bench and loosened his tie. Then he reached up on top of the piano, sorted through the scattered books, spread a new piece of sheet music in front of me, and asked a single question: “Will you play this one for me?”

Right then, everything changed. What I felt in that moment was a flood of compassion, of kindness, and of grace. And so, after blinking through my tears, I began to play again – this time, not just to meet an ever-looming standard for the sake of fulfilling a requirement, but because my dad, who loved me, wanted to hear me play. And so, as the sobs slowed to sniffs, my fingers went from angrily banging out steps to gently crafting melodies I’d forgotten I loved. And as that song drew to a close, my dad reached up, found another piece and asked a single question again: “Now will you play this one for me?”

And so I played—resentment softening to gratitude, obligation returning to joy—as my dad sat beside me listening to song after song, until I was shocked to hear the ring of the kitchen timer I had long since forgotten. Those 30 minutes, which once crawled on painfully slowly, had suddenly passed. And as I finished the last song, my dad reached up, closed the lid to the piano and said, with sincerity I never questioned, “Thank you for playing for me.” For the first time in months, I didn’t want to stop.

I didn’t know it at the time, but on that Thursday afternoon, I had reached the tipping point of exhaustion that comes from striving to uphold commands (even good, clear, reasonable commands set forth with sound reason in mind and our best interest at heart) with the sole aim of fulfilling a requirement. And so, I began harboring the ugly suspicion that these commands were unnecessary and restrictive. But my dad’s reaction to my frustration that day reflected the beautiful tension of our heavenly Father, who is always righteous and always full of grace.

His commands were not given to enslave us to a life of legalistically striving for His love, acceptance, and salvation by our good works. Rather, they bring joy and peace leading to eternal life, for to keep them is the very love of God.

The standard for piano playing was not compromised. The 30-minutes of practice still had to be met, but I was not left alone to uphold this command by sheer self-will. My dad came alongside me, shifting my motivation and focus from merely completing a task to delighting my father who loved me, transforming my bitter, resentful heart into one enabled to play with joy once again. And in the same way, when the aim of our obedience to the Lord shifts from burdensome compliance to hopeful trust in a loving Heavenly Father who gives good commands and delights to watch His children fulfill them, we are thus “released from the Law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit” (Romans 7:6).

And as we serve in that new way with that new heart, we come to see that His commands were not given to enslave us to a life of legalistically striving for His love, acceptance, and salvation by our good works. In contrast, He assures us that we are saved not by upholding those commands, but by grace alone, so that no one can boast (Ephesians 2:9), while reminding us at the same time that His commands are not burdensome. Rather, they bring joy and peace leading to eternal life (John 12:50), for to keep them is the very love of God (1 John 5:3).

And as we set our eyes on that joy set before us, right there in the middle of our exhaustion and tears, I think we may just feel Him sit beside us, place the next set of notes in front of us, and gently ask us a simple question: “Now will you play this one for me?”

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