08/26/2014 05:13 pm ET Updated Oct 26, 2014

On Grace as a Weapon

I'd been a single father for about two years when I met Julie. We'd been dating for a couple of months when we saw an opportunity for her to meet my two daughters, then 4 and 8. We'd wanted to wait until we could seriously contemplate marriage, and that time had come sooner than we'd expected. We felt she had to enter fully into my family life if we were going to be able to discern whether we could make a lifelong commitment.

The nonprofit ministry where she worked was hosting a fundraiser at a local restaurant. I forwarded an email invitation to my family and a few friends. "I'm bringing Aurora and Rowan for a low-key way to meet Julie," I wrote. "It'd be great if a few other people were there." A close family friend, "Prudence," replied, telling me she couldn't meet us for dinner because she didn't think the Bible condoned remarriage after divorce. She cited four Scripture texts. "I know that my interpretation of scripture is not popular, or pleasant," she wrote.

I wrote back: "Prudence, I'm not sure why you are telling me this. God doesn't need you to impose your interpretation of Scripture on me or anyone else. God calls you to love. Period."

I went on to address each of her proof texts, one by one, telling her why her interpretations were wrong.

"God hates divorce," I wrote. "And so do I. I hope and pray that you NEVER, EVER come to hate it as much as I do because that will mean you have suffered from it in the way that I have. Until then, you cannot understand the depths of God's hatred of divorce. You can only understand it as some sort of moral, judgmental stance, which it is not. It is the stance of our loving God alongside those who suffer in this world ... I am sorry that you feel compelled to believe what you believe. I don't think it has any basis in Scripture and, like so many beliefs rooted in fear, it causes conflict between us and will continue to cause conflict between you and anyone who interprets Scripture outside of the very tiny minority community that you have chosen to side with. There is a great big world of Christians out there who could teach you a lot if you did not cling to fundamentalist dogma. I also love you and will continue to love you, even if you continue to sit in judgment over me. I will offer you grace as someone who hasn't matured enough to realize that grace is the only thing worth offering each other. But you create conflict, not shalom, when you try to impose your own extra-biblical moral positions on other Christians."

She wrote back: "I'm pretty hurt from your response ... It's a conviction that I feel from the Holy Spirit, and I have no choice but to submit to it and be open to His changing my heart on the matter ... The references I sent were merely there to back my conviction, not to change yours. I must agree that grace is worth giving, but I think you have to agree that there's absolute value in living a life based on godly conviction."

I wrote her back saying I had felt her judgment for as long as I had known her, and those close to us had tolerated it out of love. "I just wish I could soak you in the depths of God's love. A person sure of God's love does not need to live with conviction ... Conviction is how we seek to earn God's love, rather than basking in God's grace ... I cannot trust you and offer you my whole self when you cling to moral perfectionism. God, my Father, has welcomed me back from the pigsty, throwing me a party in the form of a wonderful, godly woman named Julie. I wish you would come to that party, instead of grumbling about the integrity of your convictions."

The girls did meet Julie, surrounded by family and friends, but not Prudence. More than a year later, Prudence and I finally tried to put a cap on that discussion, agreeing to disagree and never talking about it again. Our relationship has never been the same. I wish I had never responded to Prudence. I wish I had followed my own advice to just live and let live. I did the very thing I had accused Prudence of: I tried to impose my sense of morality on her. I tried to teach her love, instead of just showing it. I used grace as a weapon, trying to force Prudence toward what I thought was a truer vision of God, instead of leaving that work to God alone.

I was speaking out of my own pain, trying to throw off the shackles of my fundamentalist past, just as she was speaking out of deep concern for her own troubled marriage. Neither of us could see that clearly in the moment. We each talked as though it was our spiritual values at stake, but, in truth, it was the shape of our very lives. If my marriage could fail, permanently, so could hers, and that might have been her worst fear. On the other hand, her judgment was a threat to my future, the redemptive life I was dreaming of. In her act of disapproval, I heard condemnation to a life of loneliness. For two years I'd been going to my ex-wife every few months, asking her to reconcile, asking her to go back to counseling with me. She'd never responded. I'd done all I could, but she didn't want to be my wife. I couldn't understand why Prudence didn't see that.

I'm calling her Prudence because of The Beatles' song. It seems to me a miracle of twentieth-century pop music -- a real divine intervention -- that it happened to be a woman by the name of Prudence Farrow, the actress Mia's sister, who was taking her human religious practices a bit too seriously when John Lennon and the band went to India in 1968 to study transcendental meditation. "She'd be locked in (our hut) for three weeks and was trying to reach God quicker than anyone else," Lennon told rock journalist David Sheff. Isn't "prudence" a double-edged sword of a character-trait? Do you know anybody like that, always trying to reach God quicker than anyone else? This little light of MINE!!!! MINE!!! I sure can relate. You have to love the prudent, because they're trying to do the right thing, and yet they (we!) have a hard time admitting that we're incapable of always doing the right thing. We praise the prudent, and yet they (we!) are not that fun to be around. In the Gospels, the Pharisees were the prudent ones. Jesus was the imprudent one, healing the lame on the Sabbath, knocking over tables in the Temple, dining with hookers and small-time crooks. The prudent always have something to prove, and it can make us, well, prudes. Lennon's lyrics evoke a sense of our place in Creation, calling us to embrace what beauty is already within our reach, rather than always striving for the unattainable. I wished John could come back and sing his song to the Prudence in my life. Dear Prudence, notice the bright sky, feel the breeze, hear the birds, try to understand the real world I'm living in, not some ideal world we both wish we had. Dear Prudence, open your eyes.

Deafened by my own defensiveness, I couldn't hear that Prudence was trying to be true to herself more than she was judging me. She couldn't see that I was gasping for the air of freedom. In those moments, there was too much at stake for us just to let each other be, and we hurt each other badly in the volley. She, at least, was true to her beliefs. I was so busy protecting mine that I forgot to live them.

Author/musician Jesse James DeConto performed this Beatles song with his band The Pinkerton Raid at the 2014 Paradoxos Festival in Durham, N.C. He is releasing this video and accompanying book-excerpt as part of a series celebrating the release of his spiritual memoir, This Littler Light: Some Thoughts on NOT Changing the World.