Time passes so quickly. It hardly seems to be December, yet we are already two weeks into Advent, coming into our third week. Having spoken of shalom, the peace of God on the blog already this advent, and also about how we need to embrace the God who is all around us right here, right now, it seems right today to speak about grace.
I won’t pretend for one moment I can answer all the questions all of us have around this subject, or cover it wholly and completely in one short blog post. But I want to at least have a worthy examination of the subject.
What do you think of when you think of grace? Personally, I think of undeserved merit. Something given without thought of reward, without condition. We talk of people in some situations showing us grace, or being gracious toward us or when faced with difficult circumstances.
Grace is often talked about as a quality we display in certain situations or circumstances – a quality some people possess, and some don’t.
In other words, a specific type of personality.
The thing is, I don’t believe that grace is simply a quality that some possess and others don’t – not in terms of a personality trait.
No. I believe true grace is very different, much greater than that.
Read the quote below:
“The nuns taught us there were two ways in the world. The way of nature and the way of grace. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. … Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it over them. To have its own way…...The nuns taught us that no one who loves the way of grace ever comes to a bad end”
The quote comes from the 2010 film, ‘The Tree of Life’, directed by Terence Malick – himself a Christian. I could sit here and try and describe the film, but words really don’t do it justice. It’s a film I would recommend everyone to see, without hesitation. Here’s a little taster of it:
Having seen the film, I’d say even this trailer doesn’t completely encapsulate it. I could say its the story of one man’s journey through life, but I could equally say it’s the story of our entire universe, the whole of time, from beginning to end. It is at once intimate, yet epic.
But it is what it says about grace that I believe is crucial to this discussion.
The female voice in the trailer – and in the film – doesn’t speak of grace as a personality type, a quality that some possess and others don’t.
Not at all.
Grace is spoken of as a way of life. Something at the very core of how we live and who we are. Something that underpins our very lifestyle.
Grace is at the very beginning, before all things. We can choose either to go the way of the world or the way of grace.
The way of the world is the way of earning your salvation. Success, status, achievement, fame, wealth, unhealthy ambition. These are the marks of this way – called the way of ‘nature’ in the film. This is the culture we’re brought up into in many ways, it’s the way the world we live and work in operates – and its very difficult not to let that way define us. It seems in many ways quite natural – largely because that’s the culture and system we’re brought up in and live as part of, in particular in the West.
Grace, on the other hand, seems completely counter cultural. Totally against what sometimes we’re told is the right way to live. It can, in comparison, seem passive, submissive, weak. People of the way of nature, the way of the world, use this argument against it. That those who live by grace are just wimps who simply let everyone get away with everything, that if you allow yourself to live that way you’ll just get walked over.
When misinterpreted, when not lived rightly, grace can result in that. But actually, grace isn’t like this at all.
Grace doesn’t equal being a walkover.
It doesn’t equal passivity
That’s a complete misunderstanding of the way of grace.
The way of grace means that our value doesn’t come from what we achieve, from our status, wealth, success, from our work. It doesn’t draw it’s security or identity from those things.
No, a person living the way of grace draws their identity and security from their creator.
From the the divine spark that is living inside of them.
From the truth that they were created by a loving God, and a recognition that they actually don’t have all the answers, and that it doesn’t actually matter that they don’t. A recognition that the God who created all things is the only one who really has absolutely all the answers – then finally a willingness to trust this God and receive His infinite grace.
The way of grace begins, like all things, with honesty.
Living the way of grace means recognising that the way that a person has been living is out of sync with the way they were created to live, that they have said or done things which are not in tune with the way they were made to live. Something we often call ‘sin’, but which in this instance I prefer to view as living out of rhythm, living out of grace.
When we receive the unconditional grace of God, you see, allows us to recognise the truth of who we are, to be honest about how we’ve been out of tune with grace, where we need grace the most, and we can then receive this grace to the full.
It’s not that simple though is it. Of course it’s not. It’s easy for me to sit here and discuss the way of grace and go through all the correct wording. But that would ignore the elephant in the room.
Grace is difficult. Difficult to both receive, and to give.
I know I personally find it immensely difficult to receive God’s grace. When I have hurt people or done things I regret, the hardest part of the whole process wasn’t – isn’t – actually receiving the forgiveness of God nor my friends – but forgiving myself.
I felt I didn’t deserve it. Even though I’d apologised and taken action to deal with the issues – repented – I still didn’t feel like I deserved it.
But that’s the point isn’t it. Grace isn’t deserved. Grace at it’s root word actually means ‘gift’, and that is precisely what it is – a gift. The grace of God is ‘God’s gift’, and we must allow ourselves to receive it.
But grace isn’t passive, nor is it a walkover, and above all it’s not easy. The process of grace doesn’t end when we receive it from God or others.
Dietrich Bonhoffer talked in his book ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ about ‘cheap grace’. What he meant is that often there is grace without transformation, without discipleship, without a lasting impact on our lives. We receive the forgiveness and grace of God – or others – and take it for granted, and simply go on living as we did before.
This is my point. Grace is a way of life – it’s part of the process of discipleship, it’s at the heart of the way of Jesus.
If we have truly received the gift of the grace of God, we should then be compelled to respond, by living the way of grace, sharing that grace with others, living our lives as a response to the grace we have received.
None of this is easy. Receiving the good gift of grace from God and others is hard enough, then sharing this gift with others and making it a way of life is just as much of a challenge.
But what’s so reassuring is that even if we totally screw this up, God’s grace is still big enough to deal with it. That’s grace itself. It meets you wherever you are, whatever you’ve done, however you’ve messed up, and loves you just the same.
So what about our response to grace?
Grace at its best sparks us into action, to take a stand for the causes that God stands for, to treat people as Jesus would treat them – which doesn’t mean letting them get away with things they’ve done wrong, or that people shouldn’t face the consequences of their actions, but that we love them, serve them, bless them and forgive them, even in the midst of our own pain – exactly as Jesus did.
There were two criminals crucified with Jesus. One simply demanded Jesus give him what he wanted by saving himself and them. The other was different. He knew they were getting the just – at the time anyhow – punishment for their crimes, they were being held responsible for their actions.
He simply asked Jesus to remember Him. To show Him grace.
That criminal understood the way of grace – and it was to Him that Jesus said that He would be in paradise with Him that very day.
If we do not respond to the good gift of grace by living the way of grace, pouring out that grace into the lives of others, reordering our attitudes, behaviour and lifestyle around the way of grace, then we haven’t really received grace at all.
We’ve simply taken some religious-type action to make ourselves feel better about the bad thing we did, and moved on exactly as we were before. We’ve cheapened and abused grace, used it for our own ends and just thrown it away.
We haven’t been transformed. We haven’t moved deeper with God. We aren’t living as a disciple of Christ.
Indeed, this is why the way of grace doesn’t mean being passive or a walkover. If we receive, live out and then share this more costly grace with others, a grace which simultaneously accepts someone as they are, where they are – but compels them to be transformed and discipled, then we can never be accused of being passive or a walkover.
Rather, the way of grace will be seen for the life-giving, transformative process that it is meant to be. It will be seen as part of our way of life, at the root of who we are, rather than just a personality trait or quality
As we continue through this season of advent, building towards our celebration of Christ’s coming – a season of giving gifts – let us remember the perfect gift of Jesus, and the gift of grace that has been given to and for us.
Let us be honest with ourselves and remember how much we are in need of grace, and how much grace we have been shown by our creator.
Then let us respond to this grace, by living the way of grace.
Through being the physical embodiment of God’s grace and love in the world.
By extending the way of grace to others, and passing on this gift to those around us, knowing that even if we don’t get it right, that there is divine grace sufficient to pick us up and take us on the next step on our journey.
As we approach Christmas, let us learn to both receive and give one of the greatest gifts of all.
The gift of grace.
What do you think? Come & join the discussion:
In what areas of your life have you received grace the most?
Which areas are you most in need of the grace of God?
Do you struggle to receive the ‘gift’ of grace?
How can you avoid ‘cheap grace’ and allow the power of grace to transform you, and extend that gift to others?