The concept that’s formed my spiritual aspirations is the concept of grace.
Grace is the best thing about Christianity, which, like all religions, has both strong and weak points.
Grace isn’t unique to Christians — and sad to say, far too many Christians themselves have no inkling what it means — but when it’s operating at its best, Christianity offers a spin on grace that’s different from what secular people or members of other faiths mean when they use the term.
I’ve written all this before, but I keep returning to grace because, first, I think it’s so important — everybody could benefit from more of it — and because, second, I’m still trying to learn to apply it in my own life.
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In a nutshell, grace means that because God is God, we don’t have to be.
It says the Lord is not only all-powerful, but kind, merciful and intimately concerned with us humans.
It says humans, by contrast, mainly aren’t like God. Left to our own devices, we incline toward arrogance, self-delusion, selfishness, dishonesty and cruelty. Sure, we’ve got good points, but we prefer self-destruction.
We need help. Grace says that fortunately God’s eager to provide that help. He loves each of us. He forgives us endlessly. He helps us find better paths.
Our proper responses to his grace are to be humble, to be grateful, to follow his leadership and to show the grace we’ve received toward others — to pay grace forward.
What, then, does a grace-conscious life look like down here amid the disappointments and frustrations we all face at home and at work and at tax time?
Here’s how I imagine it leads us, ideally, to think and act as we grasp it:
▪ Grace relieves us from the compulsion to change other people. It reminds us that because we’re not God, we’re powerless to transform ourselves, much less others. We don’t know why we’re the way we are; we sure can’t say with certainty how someone else ended up in the mess he’s in.
With grace, we get to quit playing the role of the grand fixer. If Junior quits medical school to become a septic-tank repairman, that’s between him and God. Not our project.
It’s not that we don’t care. It’s that we’ve realized where the real power for transformation lies. Only God has it, so we must step aside. We relax. We trust.
▪ Grace teaches us compassion. As Jesus said, those who have been forgiven a lot love a lot. Realizing how often we’ve mucked up everything in our path — and been accepted by God anyhow — we feel mercy toward folks who mess up rather than judgment or vindictiveness or glee. We experience what the Buddhist nun Pema Chodron has called, in a different context, “shaky tenderness.”
▪ Grace frees us from religious legalism. St. Paul said that whenever we try to gain God’s favor by obeying petty rules — don’t touch this, don’t taste that — we’re actually practicing sorcery.
Ancient sorcerers thought they could force their gods to act on their behalf by reciting the proper incantations or offering certain sacrifices. Doing this presumes two things: you have the clout to boss your gods around, and your gods must be coerced into helping you.
Instead, Paul said, our God does whatever he wants, whenever he wants. But what he always wants is to bless us. Thus, we wouldn’t need to manipulate him even if we could.
▪ Grace equips us to make better choices. St. Paul also suggests that the main thing legalism accomplishes — paradoxically — is that it impels us to sin even more. If someone tells us not to do a thing, we immediately feel driven to it.
Grace eliminates the whole don’t-do-this, don’t-do-that mentality, and replaces it with unconditional acceptance. As a result, we find ourselves empowered to make healthier decisions just because we want to. Grace doesn’t free us to act stupidly; it frees us from acting as stupidly as we used to.
▪ Grace delivers us from slavery to others’ opinions. We, of course, should never intentionally give folks offense. That said, grace assures us there’s only one opinion that matters. That’s God’s opinion; he’s a majority of one. He’s already declared us OK — by grace. He’s granted us his approval, so it doesn’t matter what the critics, fuss-budgets and scorekeepers think.
▪ Grace allows us to quit “doing” and start “being.” The Lord doesn’t need our efforts to accomplish his purposes. He’s not interested in our starting some great work for his glory. He’s got plenty of glory already.
He’s more interested in hanging out with us. He wants to be our father, mother, brother and, yes, best friend. He wants to spend all day, every day, with us. He loves us wildly and can’t get enough of our company. That’s the whole proposition. We’re allowed to be who and what we are. He’s performed the labor; we rest in him.
To me, learning to walk in grace means learning to live at peace with God, the cosmos, our neighbors and our own soul. I wish grace for us all.
Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.