Grace: Something More Than Forgiveness
During our family lake vacation each year we water ski. Leading up to our vacation this year, I got myself in a little bt of shape. My brother and I went out several times to ensure the boat was working and get our “ski legs” ready. Thigns were going great during the first part of the vacation But one day about halfway through, i just couldn’t get up on the slalom ski. I felt fine, but something just didn’t seem right. So I struggled and struggled, fought and fought to get up. The harder I fought the worse it got.
Through 30 years ok slalom skiing, I have never not been able to get up. So, you can probably imagine I was not very graceful about it. I got frustrated. Threw a rope down. Slapped the water pretty hard a few times. And by the end, I had to prayerfully address my actions with God asking for some grace to calm down and be forgiven.
And I think this sums up how we typically think about grace. That is, grace as that divine mindset that forgives us when we have sinned. And that is one aspect of grace. But I fear that modern evangelical Christianity has reduced grace to forgiveness. If grace were a gemstone, then forgiveness would be but one face of the gem. And as I have been encouraging you for weeks now, we must turn the gem over and over and examine each and every face.
So what are these other faces? Well, the amazing and mysterious and beautiful thing about Christian faith and spirituality is that we cannot exhaust the meaning of an idea like grace.
Grace is but a word to describe a fundamental quality of the divine reflected in the world around us.
Or to say it another way, grace is but a word to describe the image of the creator written into creation.
Or to say it another way, grace is the way that we mortals try to understand what is beyond mortal, or immortal.
Or to say it another way, grace is the way humans connect to the divine.
Or to say it another way, grace is the connective tissue between flesh and spirit.
Or to say it another way, grace bridges the divide between heaven and earth.
Or to say it another way, grace makes salvation possible.
Or to say this another way, grace is sacramental.
Or to say this another way, grace makes the ordinary extraordinary.
Or to say this another way, grace is everywhere and in everything.
Or to say this another way, everything is grace.
I am messing with you a little bit to get you thinking outside the box.
One powerful Biblical image for grace comes from Paul in Romans. In chapter 8, Paul spends considerable time talking about flesh and spirit and life and death and creation and suffering and prayer and intercession and resurrection and redemption and salvation and the connection of all these to how we live in the world. Paul concludes by saying that all things work together for good for those who love God.
Then Paul says, “Ok, so what? What are we to say about all this?” And his answer is another question:
If God is for us, who is against us?
He clarifies this question with several others:
- If God gave his own son, will he not give everything?
- Who can bring a charge against those to whom God has given?
- If God gives justice, who can condemn?
- Who can separate us from the love of Christ? Can hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword (and we could add a lot more to this list)?
Then Paul concludes :“
No, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ. In all these things we are something more than conquerors. Neither death nor life, things present or future, neither power nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
That is grace. It’s not a simple definition. Yes, it has to do with forgiveness. But it also has to do with the everyday ordinary gifts that sustain life. It has to do with things that would separate us from God, from love, from one another. It has to do with things that work against us – things like selfishness, power, lust, greed, enmity, suffering, lies, theft, violence, condemnation, hate, and all the ways that human beings would press one another down and seek to lift themselves up at the expense of another (intentional or unintentional). Grace has to do with that something more that is out there all around us that is FOR US in spite of everything that might seem against us.
Paul says, talks about deep spiritual and life things. He says, “so what?” And he responds with : FOR US. God is FOR US.
What does that mean?
Well, a couple of things:
First, FOR US implies a need. There’s tough stuff in the real world, and I need something more than me. Each of us need something, someone beyond our individual selves. That is, we do not, on our own, have everything we need. We need help.
Now, if you need nothing, then it doesn’t matter who is for you. You don’t need anyone or anything to be for you. You just need you. And you’ve got you.
But we are not independent creatures. We are dependent….dependent on one another, on human companionship, on family, friends, meaningful work in the world. We are dependent on food, shelter, love and ultimately on God who is our source, the source of everything.
In the self-help world there is this phrase: You are enough. These are words we need to hear when we begin to judge ourselves through others people expectations and feel like we aren’t doing enough, that we are smart enough, pretty enough, strong enough, or good enough. You are enough means that you don’t need to be anything else or anyone else. You are enough just the way you are.
Being enough doesn’t mean that I never need someone or something else beyond myself. You are enough does not mean you are all-powerful, all knowing, fully perfect, able to do and be all things by yourself.
In fact, knowing that are enough means you are secure with who you are and who others are and you are now empowered to embrace how you can work together with others to do something more – like pieces of a puzzle that make a picture or gears in a clock that keeps time, like, oh I don’t know, members of the body of Christ each part performing a function for the good of the whole.
So, that I need help does not deny that I am enough. Both are true. And we are most healthy when we accept both.
Which brings me to the second thing about the statement FOR US: Acceptance. Saying God is FOR US implies a recognition and acceptance of our need. That is, I have come to a place in my life of naming, owning, admitting and accepting my powerlessness to secure all that I need on my own. So, I am in need and I am aware of my need and my inability to meet my needs on my own.
We most often arrive at such a place in life through tragedy, trial or trauma…things like the loss, Bankruptcy, divorce, depression, things that bring us to our knees wondering what if anything is next. And it is there – at the bottom of the pit (as the psalmist would say) – that we see clearly our weakness, our mortality, our anger, our doubts, our unresolved feelings, our worry, anxiety, despair, our vulnerability…and our utter inability to climb out of the pit by ourselves. And it is this kind of raw vulnerability and acceptance of our condition that allows us to discover something that’s been there the whole time. Something more than our individual self. Something more than the mess of life we find ourselves in around us. We Christians call that something more God.
And the discovery of God in that kind of moment is called grace.
Is it about forgiveness? Yes sometimes the tragedy involves mistakes and miscommunication and missing the mark and wrong doing that needs forgiveness.
But sometimes it’s not about forgiveness.
Sometimes it’s something beyond you that nudges you to sense joy in the simple places of life amidst a sea of depression. That is grace.
Sometimes it’s something beyond you that pours just enough strength into your soul to take the next step forward after a bitter divorce or painful bankruptcy. That is grace.
Sometimes it’s something beyond you that releases you from some unresolved anger. That is grace.
Sometimes it’s something beyond you that reminds you of that deep trust within your heart and soul even in the midst of many doubts and you well up with a sense of comfort. That is grace.
And sometimes that something beyond you is a friend, a family member, a poem, a card, a song, a sign or symbol in nature.
And that something beyond you that nudges and pours and releases and reminds you is God. And the nudging, pouring, releasing, and reminding is grace. It’s the way God works. It’s the way the world works.
Grace, you see, is a governing force written into the fabric of the world. Grace is like a law through which God works in the world.
I think Rob Bell sums this up great when he is talking about what he means when he talks about God. He says:
… when I talk about God, I’m talking about the Jesus who invites us to embrace our weakness and doubt and anger and whatever other pain and helplessness we’re carrying around, offering it up in all of its mystery, strangeness, pain, and unresolved tension to God, trusting that in the same way that Jesus’s offering of his body and blood brings us new life, this present pain and brokenness can also be turned into something new.
You see, that is grace. The turning of all that tough stuff of life into something new and redemptive and beautiful and peaceful – that is grace. Now this redemptive peace is not something necessarily free from pain or tragedy or illness or heartache. But it is a peace grounded in grace, a peace which trusts in the power of transformation, a peace which is certain that what we see is not all there is, that the last word over your life hasn’t been spoken, that there is something more just around the corner and God has written the path that leads around the corner into the very fabric of creation. That is grace.
One final thought:
Ever heard the phrase “Cheap grace?” Dietrich Bonhoeffer first used the phrase to talk about grace without discipleship. His famous quote is:
“Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Now I think Bonhoeffer was rightly trying to get us to think about the way we live and respond to grace. That is, what does a grace-filled world call us to do? How does it call us to live? Do we receive grace as entitled people or thankful people? Do we embrace grace and pretend we are perfect or do we admit we are imperfect?
But many people have used Bonhoeffer’s words in a twisted way as though grace is a commodity. If you want God’s grace then you have to do x, y or z. This is understandable because of the society we live in where little if anything is free. If you want something you have to pay for it.
But God didn’t design a world in which grace had a price tag. Grace just is. Is it free? Is it costly? Well, honestly, free and costly are not categories that fit grace. Because Grace is not a commodity to be gotten or bought or sold. Grace is like gravity. It just is. It is part of the way the world works.
So let’s get away from these argumentative notions that center around the idea of cheap grace.
So here is the image that I invite you to take with you as you think this week about grace in your life…
Grace is like water skiing. If you want to ski, you cannot do it on your own. God is like the boat. Now as the boat begins to pull you, you will come out of the water. If you fight it or try to do it on your own, you will fail. Anyone who know how to ski knows that you have to let the boat pull you up.
That is grace. That what is means that God is FOR YOU. God will get you up. Trust, hold on, and go with the flow. It seems counterintuitive. You would think that you need to get yourself up onto the water. But in reality you have to accept that you cannot get yourself onto the water.
Sometimes the weaker we get, the more we fight…kinda like I did that day on the lake. Fighting against the pull of the boat will never get us up on the water. Instead, you and I need to recognize that we cannot do it on our own. We need to accept that we need help. I need help. You need help. The boat can help. And in our lives the boat is God. And grace is the pull.
If you will trust the boat to do it’s work, then you will get up. The boat will pull you up. God will pull you up. And that is grace.