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14 September 2015

Grace. (It really is amazing.)

If you don’t understand what grace is—and many don’t—you likely aren’t practicing it.

Grace /greɪs/ n. God’s generous, forgiving, kind, favorable attitude towards his people.
2. A prayer of thanksgiving.
[Gracious /'greɪ.ʃəs/ adj.]

Years ago I was in a kids’ Sunday school class when the head pastor visited and the kids were encouraged 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 probably devils messing with people. ’Cause he’s one of those guys who thinks devils are just everywhere.

Come to think of it, that’s likely why this pastor punted this question: One of the kids asked him what “grace” is. Somebody had brought up how we Christians are saved by grace, so she understandably wanted to know what this substance 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.”

So he didn’t know what grace is. I did, so I filled the kids in after Pastor’d left the room. I figured since he didn’t know what grace was, he wasn’t likely to show any to some visitor who showed him up.

Most other Christians define grace as “God’s unmerited favor.” Even so, we still talk about it as if it’s a substance. ’Cause God “pours it out” on us, or “gives” or “extends” it, or “covers us” with it. It’s a liquid, a blanket, a trinket—an object, not an attitude.

But that’s what grace is: God’s attitude. He loves us, despite our bad behavior, despite our rebelliousness, despite our apathy, despite our outright hostility towards him sometimes. Grace is the way God thinks of us, which overwhelms and overcomes everything we totally deserve. He ought to give up on us and sweep us away. But he forgives all, loves us regardless, and makes us his kids anyway.

It’s why we call it amazing.

Why we struggle with grace.

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

Satisfaction is about getting what we want: What we feel we’re due, or owed. Fr’instance when we inconvenience or insult certain people, deliberately or accidentally, they demand we make things right: They demand satisfaction. Now, some of these people are reasonable, and will accept an apology or compensation. Some of ’em aren’t, and want us to lose our jobs, or wanna give us a severe beating, or leave us for dead on the side of the road. It’s not equitable, like “eye for an eye” in the bible. Ex 21.24 It’s exchanging a bruised feeling for ruining, or taking, a life.

There are examples of this in the bible, y’know.

Genesis 4.23-24 KWL
23 Lemékh says to his women, Adá and Zillá:
“Listen to my voice, Lemékh’s women. Give your ears to my saying.
I killed a man for my injury, killed a boy for my bruising.
24 Seven will die in revenge for Cain; 77 for Lemékh.”

That’s human nature. Hurt Lemékh and he’ll murder you. Kill him and his wives will kill your whole family. That’s a far cry from eye-for-an-eye, tooth-for-a-tooth. God had to put the eye-for-eye idea in the bible as a limitation, lest people overdo their vengeance and it turn into generations-long feuds and civil conflicts. You know, like Palestinians and Jews. India and Pakistan. North and South Korea. Arizona and Mexico.

Left to our own devices, we’ll kill people for anything and everything. 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. Then we have satisfaction.

Karma (which means something different in the Hindu religion) is the much more equitable eye-for-eye, tooth-for-tooth idea. You get what you give, and give as good as you get. It’s about balance, fairness, reciprocity. Murderers get executed. Thieves have to pay back their victims. And if somehow you get away with your crime, humans figure God, or the universe, may 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.

And grace goes way beyond either of them. 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.

Christians who don’t understand grace, struggle to explain how grace actually is fair. ’Cause they’re bothered by the fact it’s not. They prefer karma. When they describe grace, they try to make things sound like God somehow 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?—so 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.

It is, you notice, 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 lifetime of sin against him, can be made up by believing a few things about 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?

“God’s justice”: How we’d rather he behave.

Satisfaction-minded humans don’t like to preach grace. They’d way rather preach God’s justice.

Yes, they do talk about God’s grace, ’cause they gotta acknowledge he gives it to us, we’re saved by it, and they at least have it. But all the other sinners in the world are screwed. They totally deserve their just desserts at the End. All the fire, torment, gnashing, and weeping.

After all, God did establish 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?

Problem is, a lot of Christians have redefined “justice” till it’s no longer fairness. Instead it looks a lot like satisfaction. The wicked will get destroyed. Sinners go to hell. Christians expect to celebrate 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 f---ers are gonna pay.

This 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 put down others. Wealthy Christians must recognize it’s 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.