A reader recently emailed me to ask if I'd explain the Christian idea of grace.
What does the term mean? she asked. How do we appropriate grace in our lives?
Checking my archives, I discovered I'd written about this in March.
Which is fine because it's worth repeating.
Notions will differ among clergy and, Lord knows, scholars, but I think the first and finest apologist for grace was St. Paul, who seems obsessed with it in his letters.
His is a doctrine that, as far as I'm aware (please correct me if I'm mistaken), is unique to Christianity. Our belief system shares many tenets with other faiths, and especially with Judaism. But the grace message, I think, remains ours alone.
If you don't buy into Christianity, which is your privilege with no hard feelings from me, much of what follows may sound like mumbo jumbo.
Paul says human beings are profoundly screwed up (that is, in my 21st Century paraphrasing). We're born with what amounts to a death wish.
We engage in all manner of counterproductive acts and attitudes guaranteed to hurt ourselves and others, from overeating to drug abuse to gossip to murder to tantrums to lying to promiscuity to narcissism. The list is endless.
If it's unhealthy, mainly we crave it.
True, we also perform praise-worthy deeds. We slip a five to a homeless guy. We sit up all night with a disoriented, elderly uncle. We give to the United Way.
We're not completely bad. There's good in our hearts, too, maybe.
But we're bad enough that, if we happen to be encumbered by a conscience, we labor through many of our days battling shame and self-loathing.
We neglect our parents or cause our divorce or spoil our children.
Paradoxically, Paul says, pursuing religion and trying to keep its lofty moral rules does nothing to relieve this shame.
The more religious we become, the more we're reminded of how short we fall. Rather than helping us feel better, religion — at least the rule-oriented, condemnatory type — leaves us feeling even guiltier and less adequate.
Happily, there's a solution, Paul assures us. A solution ordained by God.
The rub, Paul says, is that the cure itself is crazy. It's intentionally illogical, designed to draw peals of laughter from intellectuals and howls of indignation from religious legalists.
The cure is: God sent his son, Jesus, to earth. We humans eventually killed Jesus, but, in death, he somehow — here I'd add, neither Paul, I nor anyone else understands how — took all our wrongs on himself and in exchange granted us his own divine favor.
Spiritual purity isn't a condition we can earn or live up to.
God gives it to us by proxy, as soon as we believe he'll give it to us.
You want it, you accept it, you have it. Gratis. Forgiveness for all wrongdoings past, present, future. A ticket to heaven when this bawdy-show of a world is over.
You realize you've committed all manner of sins.
But God — the only one whose opinion matters, ultimately — declares you innocent, always. Not guilty, not guilty, not guilty.
It taxes the brain, doesn't it?
This is what Paul calls the Good News. He calls it that because it's really good. Really, really good. Too good to believe.
Which is why most people, even devout Christians, don't believe it. They sweat and fret as if they have to earn God's pardon. Earn it over and over again.
Yes, the temporal results of our bad choices remain with us. We don't get a free pass there. If I eat a whole sleeve of Chips Ahoy cookies every day, God will still love me and declare me innocent of overeating. That's what he's promised to do.
But I'll also get fat as a sow, suffer diabetic complications and appear to my clucking friends as a weak-willed glutton. Actions here on Earth have consequences.
Still, my gift from God is unaltered. I didn't create it; I can't sabotage it. I didn't earn it; I can't lose it.
I'm his child, always accepted with open arms, just as I am.
The only way we can receive this grace is by shrugging and saying, "OK, God, guess I'll have some of that."
Our only appropriate response afterward is humility toward him and our fellow pilgrims alike.
After all, we've hit the cosmic lottery. We're guilty, yet we've gained absolution from the supreme court chief justice. Indeed, he adopted us into his family. Whew.
Our life becomes an ongoing, daily, moment by moment, "Thank you!"
Because we know we're losers who got lucky, that we did nothing to deserve this bounty, we should feel nothing toward our fellow travelers except compassion and hope.
They're silly and undeserving. But then, so are we. We're no better than anybody. If God showed us kindness, he'll do the same for them.
He loves us where we are, and in doing so, enables us to love others.