Perspectives On Grace
How should our experience of God’s lovingkindness impact the way we live and love? Two writers offer their views.
The Surprise of Grace
One Saturday morning last July, our family eagerly loaded the car and began our six-hour trek to the Atlantic Ocean. All summer, we’d held out for this week. You can imagine an 8- and 10-year-old’s revved energy, asking at regular intervals, “How much farther? How much farther?”
We pulled into the driveway of the beach house and stepped out of the vehicle, breathing our first salt air. We grabbed a load of gear, stepped inside the door, and saw, to my horror, the living room and kitchen already filled with luggage and groceries. Another family had begun to settle in. Confused, we quickly exited.
We stood there, shell-shocked, in front of our car. I pulled out my phone and searched frantically for old emails. The short of it is that I made a dad-sized goof. I had marked us down for July 28th. We were supposed to be there August 4th.
I don’t remember, but my wife Miska tells me I had to walk away for a minute in order to “gather my strength for enduring the weight of the family’s crushing disappointment.” I walked back to the trio-in-mourning and told them I’d made a colossal mistake and we had to drive back to Charlottesville. Miska put on a brave face, but she was deflated. Wyatt, true to form, leveled a barrage of frenzied questions, searching for another resolution. Seth looked at me as though I’d just drowned his puppy.
We piled back into the car, and I wanted to cry. Of course, many have far greater difficulties than a luxurious beach vacation gone awry. But these days are important to my boys. They’re vital to my wife. We’d saved and skimped and held out through a weary season with the joy of this week in sight. There was no joy in our Honda.
The sky grew dark. A storm gathered. Gloom settled around, and inside, our vehicle. The wipers fought against water, and my eyes did, too. I felt shame over my forgetfulness. I felt foolish for dropping the ball. We were sad, and I had made us sad. A little ways down the road, as night spread over the lightning-illumined sky, Miska put her hand on mine. “Grace,” she said. She gave me a squeeze, and I knew the words she had no need to speak: Be kind to yourself. Wyatt followed Miska’s cue. “Dad, it’s okay. This way, I get to stay up past midnight, and we get to eat out for dinner.”
We can talk about grand themes of grace and salvation (and we should), but it takes moments like these—places where grace is immediate, gritty, and surprising—for grace to move from our head and seep into our soul. I know that some have spouses who would use a moment like this as ammunition. Miska’s not that kind of person. Still, it was a jolt to feel her kindness and tenderness when she had every right to be angry (or, at the least, irritated). My blunder cost her something, but she chose not to exact the price from me. Miska chose grace. And so did our boys.
Grace is powerful because it is surprising.
The way of the world is to get even, to trade blows, to exact pounds of flesh from those we’ve named as enemies. The way of Jesus, however, is to look for fresh opportunities to love, for new ways to extend undeserved kindness. Grace comes, as Jesus said, to those of us who are sick and broken. Of course, this means that grace comes to all of us. Grace is God’s surprising invitation to be forgiven when we’ve done wrong, to be free when we’ve lived bound, to receive kindness when good sense would tell us to brace ourselves for reprimand.
In Scripture, grace denotes not merely God’s generous disposition but also His concrete action toward us. Because of grace, God provided a ram for Abraham and Isaac. Because of grace, God rescued Israel from Egypt. Because of grace, Jesus submitted to rebuke and suffering, and then humbly surrendered to a cross. Because of grace, Jesus released Himself to the darkness of death and then rose from the dead to offer His accusers (and the entire world) forgiveness. Because of grace, Jesus invites us into a life we could never concoct on our own. Our kind God does all this because it’s His way—to be gracious, to transform us with unrelenting love.
There must be many reasons why the apostle Paul began his letters by extending the blessing of “grace and peace.” I imagine one of the reasons is this: We need to receive the shock of grace before we can hear whatever else God wants to tell us. If God’s grace never knocks us sideways, we might need to go back and listen again.
Mercy over Judgment
Although Mike had never been known to be lazy, he sure had been acting like it the last couple of months—sleeping in longer than usual and spending more time on the couch. And now, some farm work was falling behind. Mike was feeling guilty and his wife Debbie was becoming concerned. He knew he’d been putting off certain chores and, as a farmer, was especially familiar with those proverbs that warned against this. But why couldn’t he just pull himself together?
A month later, the answer came through Mike’s physician: Because of some stress that resulted from a car accident earlier that year, his serotonin level had taken a sharp dive—nothing a prescription wouldn’t remedy. And indeed, in a relatively short time, Mike was back to his diligent work ethic, and to no longer feeling guilty for being lazy.
Testimonials like this remind us how intimately connected our bodies and attitudes can be. They also help us realize why God is so merciful with our apparent or actual character flaws. He knows we are “but dust”—born into a physical body that was already “fallen” and prone to cause problems for the soul (Ps. 103:14). In addition, we were born into a world that would likewise program us in ways not of our choosing. Think of it like this: A prisoner may be behind bars because of bad choices, but it’s easier to have empathy for him if we’re to learn he was severely abused as a child.
Thus, the question that applies to us all: When it comes to our dysfunctional attitudes and moral behavior, to what degree are we a victim of our circumstances—certain genes, health conditions, childhood situations—and to what degree are we morally responsible to overcome their effects through free will? The answer, of course, varies with the individual and, because of the complexities involved, is an assessment only God can and will make, after the whole of one’s lifespan (Hebrews 9:27).
But meanwhile, this ambiguity serves a purpose—when we are tempted to look upon someone with disgust, it frees us from having to play judge in the sense of casting stones. Realizing we are all but dust allows us to exercise mercy over judgment, since we know so little about people and what they’ve had to overcome. Instead of contempt, we can default to compassion and, with help from God’s eyes, see the best in people. Of course, exercising this benefit of the doubt applies most easily to acquaintances who aren’t likely to be an inconvenience in our lives.
Thinking “best-case scenario” becomes more of a challenge when we feel put off by people whose attitudes or behaviors cause more of a letdown—such as those for whom we’ve set higher standards, like church leaders and parents. Pastors, in particular, are often burned out by unreasonable assumptions about their character and skill set. They may be expected to be more outgoing, or to appear more caring, or to smile more (or less) than they naturally do. But God is not usually as critical toward our spiritual leaders as people can be, and by prayerfully seeking His perspective on them, we can become part of the solution by meeting one of their most dire needs: encouragement.
The same is true for our parents. It may be, for instance, that your father didn’t do the best job of affirming you or showing enough affection through hugs or words. But as you speak with God about this, you may find yourself realizing he’s been an excellent father—considering how his own had treated him. Such a realization can be the turning point that allows you to hug him or compliment what he’s done well, without expecting anything in return.
In order to exercise mercy in this way, perhaps we must first have more mercy on ourselves, lest our loving others as ourselves be of little use (Mark 12:31). True, this can be one of the hardest things to do, but again, it requires that we hear what God has to say about us.
The good news: It probably won’t be shame on you, for it was shame—deep-seated self-contempt—that drove us to certain sins and failures in the first place, and God is not interested in perpetuating that cycle. His desire is for each of us to remember who we are—the son or daughter He had in mind and unconditionally loved before there was time, sin, or guilt.
If we keep this in focus, there will always be something better to do than heap stones upon ourselves—or cast them at brothers and sisters in Christ, who also need to be seen for who they truly are.