Grace. (It really is amazing.)

by K.W. Leslie, 14 November
GRACE greɪs noun. God’s generous, forgiving, kind, favorable attitude towards his people.
2. A prayer of thanksgiving.
[Gracious 'greɪ.ʃəs adjective.]

Years ago I was sitting in on a kids’ Sunday school class when the head pastor visited, and encouraged the kids to ask him anything.

Bad idea. We spent way too much time discussing the existence of space aliens. The pastor’s view: They’re not real, and all UFO sightings are likely evil spirits messing with people. (He was one of those dark Christians who suspect devils are just everywhere.)

Dark Christianity is likely why this pastor whiffed this question: One of the kids asked what grace is.

Someone had previously told her we Christians are saved by grace. Ep 2.8 So she understandably wanted to know what this “grace” stuff was. She wanted to get it and be saved. Her assumption—same as that of way too many Christians—is it’s some sort of heavenly pixie dust. Pastor’s response: “We can’t define grace. It’s a mystery. It just is.”

I know; you’re probably screaming at your phone right now, “It’s God’s unmerited favor, you numbskull,” which isn’t very kind of you; bad Christian. But yeah, shouldn’t a pastor of all people know what grace is? Shouldn’t any Christian in church leadership? Heck, shouldn’t every Christian?

Problem is, many Christians don’t know. Largely because our fellow Christians suck at teaching on it, and more importantly and problematically, living it. There are a lot of ingrates in Christendom… because there are a lot of ingrates in humanity, and they didn’t give up this behavior once they became Christian. Instead they excused their ungracious behavior by describing and justifying it with a lot of Christianese words. You know, hypocrisy.

And too many churches don’t teach on grace enough. Or at all. We’re saved by God’s grace, but when you listen to those churches, you get the idea we’re saved by other things. Like having all the right beliefs. Like being a good person. Like saying the sinner’s prayer, getting baptized, regularly doing certain sacraments, being a regular at church, knowing another saint who can “get us in,” or just believing really hard you are—and never permitting yourself to question it.

If you think you’re saved by any of these other things, and not grace, stands to reason you don’t understand grace. And won’t care that you don’t. Won’t practice it much either.

Since Pastor didn’t know what grace was, and I did, I explained it once he left the room. (I figured since he wasn’t clear on the concept, he wouldn’t appreciate me correcting him.) And no, I didn’t go with the usual cliché of “God’s unmerited favor”—though it’s that too. But more accurately it’s God’s attitude. One he wants us to share.

God is love, and loves us. Despite our bad behavior, rebelliousness, apathy, and sometimes outright hostility towards him, grace is how God thinks of us. His attitude overwhelms and overcomes everything we totally deserve. Any of us would give up on humanity entirely, and sweep us away with floods or raging fires, or burn us down like a mean kid takes a magnifying lens to an anthill. But God forgives all, loves us regardless, and even adopts us as his kids and gives us his kingdom.

That’s why we call it amazing.

Why humans struggle with grace.

The reason humans, both pagan and Christian, struggle with the very idea of grace is simple: It’s not how we function. We believe in satisfaction. And on our better days, karma.

Satisfaction is about getting what we feel we’re due, or owed. Fr’instance when you accidentally back your car over some guy’s bicycle, regardless of how much you messed up your own car, he’s gonna demand satisfaction. Some people are reasonable, and only want their bike repaired or replaced. But many people aren’t reasonable at all, and want to give you a severe beating. Or chase you home and burn your house down. Whatever satisfies him.

There are plenty of examples of satisfaction in the bible. Some are even in the Law, like that whole eye-for-an-eye idea. Ex 21.24 But don’t make the massive mistake of thinking the scriptures teach satisfaction. They’re describing and mitigating bad behavior, not endorsing it.

Genesis 4.23-24 NET
23 Lamech said to his wives,
“Adah and Zillah, listen to me!
You wives of Lamech, hear my words!
I have killed a man for wounding me,
a young man for hurting me.
24 If Cain is to be avenged seven times as much,
then Lamech seventy-seven times!”

And that’s how human nature works. It’s completely messed up, and it’s commonplace. Hurt Lamech ben Methushael and he’ll murder you. Kill him, and his wives will kill your whole family. Cut someone off in traffic and she’ll shoot at you; owe the government money and they’ll take your house; commit three nonviolent felonies and get life in prison.

Oh, it definitely used to be worse. In the fairly recent past, people got the death penalty for theft, poaching, leaving your feudal estate without the lord’s permission, insulting the wrong person, being the wrong color in the wrong place. All humans need is an excuse. Then we kill. Till we’re satisfied.

This is why “eye for an eye” is in the bible: That’s God trying to mitigate our thirst for overwhelming vengeance.

Exodus 21.23-24 NET
23 “But if there is serious injury, then you will give a life for a life, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.”

Left to our own devices, people start with an insult, escalate it into an injury, escalate it into a murder, and their vengeance evolves into a generations-long feud. Even wars. Like Palestinians and Jews. India and Pakistan. North and South Korea. Arizona and Mexico.

Karma is what we tend to call this idea of eye-for-eye reciprocity. The word comes from the Hindu religion, where it refers to the good or bad deeds which affect your next life. To westerners it’s come to mean balance, fairness, tit-for-tat, getting what you deserve and no more. Murderers get executed. Thieves have to pay back their victims. Punishments must fit the crime. It’s such a commonly taught idea, people even assume karma is human nature. Nope; satisfaction is. Karma is what we believe on a good day.

And a lot of folks assume karma is how the universe works too. If people get away with their crimes, humans figure God will intervene and give you what you deserve through other ways. Maybe a long string of bad luck. Maybe an ironic but appropriate punishment, like when a cheat gets defrauded by someone else, or a thief’s ill-gotten gains are destroyed by “accident.”

When we humans feel generous, we practice and preach karma. The rest of the time, we want satisfaction.

But Jesus teaches grace. Which goes way beyond satisfaction or reciprocity.

Matthew 5.38-48 NET
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ Ex 21.24, Lv 24.20, Dt 19.21 39 But I say to you, do not resist the evildoer. But whoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other to him as well. 40 And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your coat also. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not reject the one who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ Lv 19.18 and ‘hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Even the tax collectors do the same, don’t they? 47 And if you only greet your brothers, what more do you do? Even the Gentiles do the same, don’t they? 48 So then, be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

Grace offers a free pass. We sinned against God, but God utterly forgave us. I stole from him, but he forgave me. You cheated him, but he forgave you. The ancient Romans and ancient Judeans murdered him, but he forgave them. We don’t get what we deserve. God doesn’t demand satisfaction. He offers us new life, eternal life, and an excellent place in his kingdom forever.

Sound great? Absolutely. Sound fair? Absolutely not.

Ungracious Christians under a gracious God.

I’ve heard way too many Christians try to explain how grace is totally fair. ’Cause it bugs them how it’s not. They prefer karma.

So when they describe grace, they try to make things sound like somehow God owes us grace. In John we’re told everybody who believes in Jesus gets eternal life. Jn 3.16 So there y’go: We fulfilled our part of the bargain and believed, right? God’s obligated to keep up his end. He promised he would. We’ve got him dead to rights: He’d better come through for us with grace!

Y’notice this is a totally ungracious attitude towards God. He owes us salvation? Talk about a sense of entitlement. We deserve jack squat from God. Especially when we think a few beliefs make up for a lifetime of ignoring those beliefs and sinning against him.

Grace is inherently unfair. That’s why the struggle. To us sinners, it’s totally unnatural. There are supposed to be consequences to evil deeds, dammit. God’s letting people get away with stuff. With sin. With evil. What’s wrong with him? Where’s the justice?

That’s why you’ll find these satisfaction-minded Christians so eager to preach about “God’s justice.” By which they really mean his wrath. They wanna see sinners get their just desserts at the End. All the fire, torment, gnashing, and weeping.

After all, God did command the eye-for-eye idea. So it sounds like he’s fine with reciprocity. And there are plenty of verses in the bible which state God cares about justice. Which he does: If we aren’t gonna be gracious like he is, God at least wants us to be fair. But ideally he wants us to be gracious. It’s why we’re instructed to forgive like we were forgiven. Ep 4.32 As the beneficiaries of God’s great grace, how can we not pay it forward?

But once graceless Christians get ahold of the word “justice,” it’s no longer about fairness, equality, balance, karma; in fact a number of them will rage against “social justice” and how it goes too far. In their hands “justice” looks a lot like satisfaction: The wicked get destroyed. Sinners go to hell. And they expect to celebrate at how the lost are headed towards their worst possible future—unless God intervenes; we always make that caveat. Wrath and mayhem and carnage are predestined for the reprobate, and we’re perfectly fine with seeing them suffer it. We don’t want to see sinners forgiven. Those motherf---ers are gonna pay.

It looks nothing like God’s justice. Just means fair. God expects us to be fair to one another. The needy shouldn’t be made to suffer more than they already are. The wealthy shouldn’t be able to hide behind their money, or use it to crush others. Wealthy Christians must recognize their possessions are a gift from God, meant to be contributed towards society. The rest of us speak up on behalf of the downtrodden. We try to restore balance and order and God’s kingdom to our sin-damaged world. That’s justice. That’s the bare minimum God expects of us.

Sadly, even those who love God suck at it.

But God’s ideal, demonstrated by his own example of Jesus, is grace. We’re to be gracious like he is. We’re to show unmerited favor towards people. We’re to have a heavenly attitude towards them. We’re to forgive them everything—forgive sins, forgive financial debts, forgive anything they’ve borrowed and not returned, forgive their inability to pay us back or show grace and gratitude themselves. We’re to be to them what God is to us, and in so doing, spread his grace around some more.

That’s a tall order. For most of us, justice is hard enough. But grace must be our goal.