Grace. (It really is amazing.)

by K.W. Leslie, 10 January
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 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. He was one of those dark Christians who think devils are just everywhere.

Dark Christianity is likely why this pastor punted this question: One of the kids asked him 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” 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.”

I know: Shouldn’t a pastor, of all people, know what grace is? Shouldn’t any Christian in church leadership? Heck, shouldn’t every Christian know what grace is?

Problem is, many Christians don’t know… because they think we’re saved by other things.

  • Saved by good karma: Be a “good person” and God’ll let you into heaven. (This is commonly called “works righteousness.”)
  • Saved by saying the sinner’s prayer.
  • Saved by getting baptized. Or taking regular holy communion. Or going to church, or by otherwise being religious. (It’s just another form of works righteousness.)
  • Saved by faith—by which they mean if they believe really, really hard they’re saved (or “have faith“ they’re saved), they are.
  • Saved by their religious faith, their belief system. If they believe all the correct things, it saves ’em. (I call it “faith righteousness.” It’s probably the most common belief among dark Christians.)
  • Saved by our relationship to some other saint, who can “get us in.”

If you imagine you’re saved by anything other than grace, stands to reason you won’t understand grace very well. You won’t care about it. You won’t practice it much; maybe with family members and certain friends, but it won’t extend to many others. Or, like Christ Jesus wants, everyone.

So 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.)

Most of the time, I hear Christians define grace as “God’s unmerited favor.” It’s that too. But we still tend to talk about grace as if it’s a material substance. ’Cause God “pours it out” on us, or “gives” or “extends” it, or “covers us” with it. It’s a liquid, a powder, a mist, a blanket, a trinket. An object, not an attitude.

But 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. His attitude overwhelms and overcomes everything we totally deserve. He oughta give up on us and sweep us away with raging fire. But he forgives all, loves us regardless—even adopts us as his kids and gives us his kingdom.

That’s why we call it amazing.

Why we 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 messed up your car is, he’s gonna demand satisfaction. Now some people are reasonable: The guy will be totally fine if you fix or replace his bike. And many people aren’t reasonable at all: The guy is going 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, 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.”

And that’s how human nature works. It’s completely messed up, but it’s commonplace. Hurt Lemékh 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 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.

It’s why God had to mandate “eye for an eye”:

Exodus 21.23-24 KWL
23 “If a mishap happens, give only soul for soul, 24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth,
hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, injury for injury, welt for welt.”

Because 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. But in our culture 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 taught grace. Which goes way beyond satisfaction or reciprocity.

Matthew 5.38-48 KWL
38 “You heard this said: ‘Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth.’ Ex 21.24, Lv 24.20, Dt 19.21
39 And I tell you: No comparing yourself to evil.
Instead, whoever punches you on the right of your jaw, turn the other side to them also.
40 To those who want you judged, to take your tunic: Give them your robe also.
41 Whoever drafts you to carry their gear one mile, go with them two.
42 Give to one who asks you. Don‘t drive away one who wishes to borrow from you.
43 You heard this said: ‘You’ll love your neighbor.’ Lv 19.18 And you’ll hate your enemy.
44 And I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors.
45 Thus you can become your heavenly Father’s children,
since he raises his sun over evil and good, and rains on moral and immoral.
46 When you love those who love you, why should you be rewarded?—don’t even taxmen do so too?
47 When you greet only your family, what ‘greatness’ did you do?—don’t even gentiles do so too?
48 Therefore you will be egalitarian,
like your heavenly Father is egalitarian.“

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.

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 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 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?

But once graceless Christians get ahold of the word “justice,” it’s not 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 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 put down 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.