Grace is, arguably, the foundation of the Christian faith.
“It is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not of yourselves, it is a gift of God. Not of works, lest any man should boast.”
“Amazing grace – how sweet the sound! – that saved a wretch like me!”
The idea is that God saves us – from our sin, from ourselves – with His grace. We cannot be in relationship with a perfect, infinite God as finite, imperfect beings. Thus, God gives His grace as a bridge between Himself and His creation (forgive the gender pronouns – it’s hard to break a 30+ year habit.) And though we have different ideas about the atonement through Jesus – whether it was a substitution, an exemplar, a liberation from death – we have always understood grace as having come from the death and resurrection of Jesus.
So, what’s so tough about grace?
I wrote a blog post a few weeks ago about what I saw as the idolatry in our pursuit of religious freedom. That post generated more discussion – both positive and negative – than I have seen on my writing, since I started writing publicly. But, what was meant to be a discussion of our pursuit of religious freedom at any cost and our willingness to hurt others in the name of it quickly turned into a discussion of who God’s grace was for. Also, there were many words said about who deserves God’s grace, who can have God’s grace. There are some who believe that His grace is available to all, a gift freely given that must only be realized and accepted. Others believe that grace can only be received through repentance. Some believe that God’s grace can only be given by God, to an elect group of people.
There are enough different theologies of grace that I would require months worth of weekly posts to discuss them all. I am a Wesleyan in my personal belief system, but I know Southern Baptists, Calvinists, Unitarians, and many others whose grace theology is very different than mine.
From many discussions, I think I’ve narrowed down our problem with grace to two areas.
For some, the issue with grace is in receiving grace. We live in a culture that constantly reminds us of our unworthiness. The airwaves are flooded with weight loss products, because you’re too fat. We hear about anti-aging creams and cosmetics, because you’re not pretty enough. We have all experienced failure and rejection, whether it be from a career, a relationship, a church. We pile on these responsibilities in order to make ourselves more worthy. We do good deeds to feel like we deserve better in life than we sometimes get.
I understand this very well, because I have experienced these feelings of unworthiness for many years. After my time in Iraq, I felt as though anything that was good in me had died, and that I had to atone for the lives lost, my personal failures. I was unwilling to receive the love and grace of the people closest to me, and thus could not even approach the love and grace of God.
But, over years, something happened (which is something that I also wrote about very recently): I began to understand that my worthiness or unworthiness had nothing to do with grace or love. Love, true love, flows freely from the giver to the receiver. I have always understood this in my family relationships. I have two sons, and I love them both dearly. They don’t deserve my love – they are constantly doing and saying things that are hurtful, that make me angry, that go against everything that I have taught them. Yet, just as there is nothing that they could do to deserve my love, there is also nothing that they could do to become unworthy of my love. They’re my kids – I could stop breathing more easily than I could stop loving my children. There is no talk of earning or deserving or being worthy when I tell my sons that I love them. My love is a gift, and all that they have to do is receive it.
So it is with the grace of God. We might be unworthy, but that doesn’t matter. We might not deserve it, but that doesn’t matter. We can’t earn it, because it’s not ours to earn. It’s only His to give, and ours to receive.
The second problem that I think we have with grace is in the area of sharing grace. You can see this most clearly in the constant war of words and legislative actions surrounding the LGBT community. Religious people are almost always at the forefront of attempts to discriminate against this group of people. More than that, religious heterosexual people are telling religious LGBT people that they are not welcome in communion, in congregation, in fellowship, because of their sin. Grace is supposed to be a free gift, available to all who want it, and yet people who confess Jesus as Lord and seek that grace are denied it by the same people who had no problem receiving it for themselves.
Obviously, I think this is the worse of the two offenses. The Bible tells me that we cannot say that we love God, yet hate our neighbor. And, for all the talk about “speaking the truth in love” and “tough love”, I cannot imagine a love that looks more like hate than the “love” that much of the Christian community has shown to LGBT persons.
While that is the most egregious example of ways that we have failed to share the grace given to us, it is certainly not the only one. How many churches keep the poor at arms length? How many churches refuse to visit prisons, or would accept a felon into their congregation? How many churches would accept a drug addict? How many would accept a prostitute?
Time and time again, we see grace denied to those who are willing to receive it, who need grace in their life the most.
Why do we do this? What’s so tough about grace?
We quote verses like Ephesians 2:8-9, but in the end, we think we get grace because we’re better than those others. Even though we’ll speak the words about how “we’re all sinners”, the grace that is afforded to us can’t be extended to those whose sin is worse in our eyes. I also often hear, “Well, I’ve repented of my sin. They (homosexuals, drug addicts, prostitutes) are still living in sin.”
“Repentance” is a kind of buzzword in much of church culture. It’s much like a child who grudgingly says, “I’m sorry” when caught hitting their sibling. The behavior probably won’t stop, but at least we apologized. In much of Christianity, we seem to think that cheating on your taxes, lying to your boss, divorcing and remarrying – these are all things that we can do regularly, but as long as we repent, we are still “covered by grace.”
The word for that is hypocrisy, and we’re really, really good at it.
What’s so tough about grace is that receiving grace is hardest for those who need it most: the drug addict, the prostitute, the war veteran, the felon. Those plagued with feelings of unworthiness just can’t see why they’d ever be worth loving, forgiving or saving.
What’s so tough about grace is that sharing or giving grace is hardest for those who never really felt the need for it: the righteous of the world, who have never felt the shame, the guilt, the desperate sense of unworthiness that claws at the soul of so many. For those righteous ones, they can’t imagine what a wondrous gift grace is, how abundant it is, how amazing it really is. And so, they hoard it for themselves, never realizing that it’s only free so that you can give it away.
What’s so tough about grace? Nothing.