One of the most awful feelings I have experienced in my life is the feeling of guilt when I realize my sin. Now, I’m not talking about the kind of guilt when I get caught or even the remorse, I’m talking about the magnitude of sin in its effect on my relationship with God. For many, there is a natural tendency to run away, to default into flight mode, but that feeling doesn’t turn me away from God, rather it is at that moment that I crave His grace and forgiveness even more.
That being said, grace is the very thing I’m hesitant to extend when hurt by others, especially if their actions have taken something I consider valuable. For many, grace is difficult to deal with. There is a tension that exists. It is a struggle. But it is the struggle that makes grace so precious. It’s this struggle that makes grace more story than doctrine. It’s this struggle that reminds us that grace is bigger than compassion or even forgiveness.
This struggle and tension is the context for both. When we are on the receiving end, grace is refreshing. When it is required of us, it is often disturbing. But when grace is correctly applied, it seems to solve just about everything. Contrary to what is sometimes taught, the opposite of grace is not law. But in my study and experience, I have discovered God’s law is actually an extension of grace. The opposite of grace is simply the absence of grace.
To say that someone deserves grace is a contradiction in terms. Grace is, in essence, receiving something you don’t deserve. One definition is “unmerited favor.” You can ask for it. You can plead for it. But the minute you think you deserve it, this “thing” you think you deserve is no longer grace. It is something you have earned.
To earn something is to find something of an equivalent value. There is nothing equivalent where grace is concerned. Grace comes from hopeless inequity. Grace is the offer of exactly what we do not deserve. Thus, it cannot be recognized or received until we are aware of precisely how undeserving we really are. It is the knowledge of what we do not deserve that allows us to receive grace for what it is. Unmerited. Unearned. Undeserved. For that reason, grace can only be experienced by those who acknowledge they are undeserving.
From the beginning to today, the church has had an uneasy relationship with grace. We preach it when it comes to salvation, yet when it comes to Christian living, we find our comfort in falling on the side of law and legalism. Why? Because it affords us something highly valued – control and predictability.
Yet history has shown that the church and Christianity, in general, fare best when characterized by grace. The church is most appealing when the message of grace is most evident. Yet grace is often an early casualty in the world of organized religion. The gravitational pull is always toward graceless religion, towards law and structure. Instead of defining itself in terms of what it stands for, the church often takes the less imaginative and easier path of defining itself in terms of what it is against. Christians are known for what they don’t do, rather than the things we should do.
The odd thing is that when you read the New Testament, the only thing Jesus stood against consistently was graceless religion. The only group He attacked relentlessly was graceless religious leaders. The Pharisees and Sadducees loved control. To them, grace was dangerous because it was unpredictable. So we should not be surprised when we get to the end of the Gospels and discover that the people who crucified Him were those who claimed to know God but knew little of grace. In doing so, they confirmed everything He said about them.
Some people think grace is some New Testament idea. But if we look carefully at the Old Testament we see a thread from the beginning of Creation culminating at the cross of Jesus. Grace didn’t begin with Jesus. But it was certainly personified by Him. John 1:14 tells us that He was “full of grace and truth.” Also, Jesus is not the balance, like a scale, between the law and grace, rather He was and is the embodiment of grace. John 1:16 speaks of “the fullness of his grace” which gives us the idea that in Jesus we get as clear and as close a look as we will ever get of what grace looks like in an otherwise graceless world.
In Jesus, there was no conflict between grace and truth. It is that artificial conflict that throws so much of Christianity into disarray. It is our misunderstanding of grace, as modeled and taught by Jesus, that leaves us feeling as if grace allows people to “get away” with things. But grace doesn’t dumb down sin to make it more palatable. Grace doesn’t have to.
Grace acknowledges the full implication of sin and yet does not condemn. Grace is understood best within the context of relationships. It is only within the mystery and complexity of relationships that grace is experienced. As I mentioned earlier, grace has been a part of the story that began in the beginning. It is a story that traces its way through every book of the Old and New Testaments.
When you read the Bible, you discover the story of grace includes a broad range of characters. There were those who were rich and those who were poor. Some were powerful, and others powerless. For all of them, it is God’s grace that tips the scale in their favor. In some ways, these stories are our stories. For like the individuals who populate the pages of Scripture, we, too, need grace. But not just any grace. We need the grace of God.