It is difficult to imagine Christianity without grace.
While opinions may differ about what is non-negotiable in Christianity—the things a person must believe, value, or practice to remain within the boundaries of the tradition—grace seems about as essential as anything.
A shorthand for grace I heard as a teenager was “getting something you don’t deserve.” That feels like a harsh way to put it! That wording works well if the best metaphor for our relationship with God is one of, say, benevolent but strict parent to fundamentally naughty child.
However, I don’t believe we are fundamentally naughty. I believe we are fundamentally good. Now, if you look at the raw data of our lives, we are both, right? A complex mix of good and evil? But in our theologies, we tend to lean more heavily into one or the other story about what a human is. This story shapes everything from our preaching and worship to our outreach and social concerns.
Maybe it would work better for me if that shorthand from my childhood was something like “getting something to which you are not entitled.” That may seem so minutely different to not really make a difference. But to me, “deserve” carries a negative connotation, as though we are telling people that they are not any good, which I can’t help but feel is not only a slap in the face to the person but to God as well.
But to say we are not entitled feels less disparaging to what God has made. It may also offer a subtle critique not of humanity in itself but of the egocentric tendencies many of us display.
I believe we are not entitled to our existence, as though God owes us this. Yet we exist instead of not existing, as a free gift from God, no strings attached. Grace.
I believe we are not entitled to God’s presence with us, as though God owes it to us to be with us or pay attention to us. And yet God is with us, freely. Grace.
I believe we are not entitled to God’s transformative work in us, as though God is obligated to nurture us toward greater wholeness, greater completeness, greater love. Yet I believe God generously cares for us. Grace.
I believe we are not entitled to the good things we have. I actually think it’s quite fluky (and distressing!) that some people have a lot and some people have very little. Grace should encourage, especially the privileged among us, a more chastened understanding of what is “mine.” Maybe we should not think of ourselves as being entitled to our money. Or to continued enjoyment of laws and policies that favor us and hurt others. Or to do whatever we please out of a warped understanding of human rights—rights meant to protect and respect everyone, not meant to enable bullies.
Grace may warrant a “thank you” to God, but perhaps just a quick one. God is not offended if I do not say “thank you” enough times. God is offended when I ignore others who could use a bit more of the good things I take for granted, whether food, safety, or the power to shape my personal future.
Furthermore, grace should not stifle spiritual growth. When grace discourages us from trying to become better humans, I think we are doing “grace” wrong.
Do you need to become better to win God’s favor? Absolutely not. I do not believe God’s commitment to you wavers based on your performance, like a GM’s take on a struggling athlete, a boss’s opinion of an employee, or a narcissistic parent’s fickle attitude toward his or her child. God’s love is unfailing and overflowing.
But we may need to become better if we want to truly love people. We may need to become better if we want to stop hurting people.
I am so flawed. Really; no feigned humility here. I’m petty. I’m judgmental. I’m anxiously needy. I’m indifferent to how my actions affect others. I’m a little prejudiced. I’m cowardly. I’m impatient. I’m not always all of these things, but I am these things.
But if my response on a given Sunday morning to these flaws is, “well God, thanks for loving me and not holding these things against me,” and then I’m at peace with myself, I’m doing grace wrong. If my response to people who extend me grace ends with “phew, what a relief!”, I’m doing grace wrong.
Grace can allow us to accept that we are flawed but should not mean we declare our flaws “acceptable.” Too much is at stake.
Self-improvement without God may be impossible, or even a delusion. Buy passivity is not the answer. God, through grace, has given us the ability to set and pursue goals, to learn, to practice, to shape ourselves and others. Grace and personal initiative are not enemies but allies.
If I do not try to improve myself, I imply that the ways I snap at my family members, resent them, or manipulate them are acceptable.
If I do not try to improve myself, I imply that the ways my buying habits are hurting the planet or the poorly-treated makers of the goods I consume are acceptable.
If I do not try to improve myself, I imply that acting as though poverty does not matter, black lives don’t matter, uninsured lives don’t matter, non-U.S. citizens lives don’t matter, and so on, is acceptable.
“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me…I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see…” See what? The harmfully self-deprecating “wretch” language notwithstanding, I think the metaphor of blindness and sight is crucial. What I am often blind to are the ways I am hurting others. And this is unacceptable to me.
What I am blind to is how being petty puts up obstacles for those who care about me.
What I am blind to is how judging others is just a way to cope with my own feelings of inadequacy.
What I am blind to is how some of the items I purchase have tragic, gruesome stories behind them.
What I am blind to is how my desire to make everyone happy, especially with me, makes me obsessive (and does not make others happier).
What I am blind to is how I subtly demean women, racial minorities, and LGBTQ+ persons, but cannot cope with the shame accompanying the fact that I might still be on the path of unlearning my prejudices and so try to hide this fact.
What I am blind to is how being too timid to say what I ought to say or do what I ought to do means others continue to suffer because I don’t want to feel uncomfortable.
What I am blind to is how being in such a hurry and unable to endure the pace of others, from my children to others with whom I am trying to make a decision, is disrespectful to the journey and process of others.
If amazing grace is really saving us, it should not be letting us off the moral hook, telling us “you can’t be better, so don’t try.” If amazing grace is really saving us, it should be making us better people. That is, more caring. More generous. More determined. More grateful. More courageous.
Grace is amazing! Until it’s not. Until it effectively thwarts rather than grows Love.
But then I suppose it is no longer really grace, but something else entirely.