I was leaving our worship center after preaching a sermon on grace. I had been in full-time ministry for a year or so. The man who regularly preaches stopped me on my way out. I expected a few pointers or immediate feedback on the sermon. He was great with constructive criticism. Instead, I saw a man visibly shaken to the point I wondered if a close relative just passed. I’ll never forget what he said next.
“I stood in a pulpit fifteen years before preaching a sermon on grace.”
His face screamed of guilt and sincerity. He knew grace was important the day he started preaching, but grace was rarely discussed, especially from the pulpit. It was too risky and too mysterious.
This statement highlights, maybe more than any I’ve ever heard, the worst of my particular fellowship. There are good components as well, many in fact, but this is a huge stain. The past 40 or 50 years, we opted for absolutes and certainties over mysteries and miracles. We chose works over grace.
I’m not bashing my fellowship. This is my experience, so I work from it. But let’s be real. I’m not alone here. Most Christians struggle with grace.
The more I understand Jesus the more essential grace becomes to faith, salvation, and everything in between.
In fact, I’m not sure you can understand faith, hope, and salvation unless you understand grace.
Until (and unless) grace becomes the lens through which you see Jesus, your image of Him will be incomplete, at best, and completely distorted, at worst.
Since this topic bears so much weight on every component of Christian faith, I want to highlight some reasons we struggle to understand grace.
1.) We see grace as a doctrine, not a person.
My understanding of grace is some holy algorithm of Bible verses, corporate worship, private meditation, and discipleship classes/mentoring. The values assigned to each variable are highly erratic because, well, they’re variables.
The more a tinkered with the variables, the more confused I became. Oh, I could spout off a definition of grace that would make my seminary professors proud. I studied it that much. Something, however, was missing.
The missing component, come to find out, was Jesus.
Most Christians struggle with grace because they attempt to find in the Bible. Make no mistake. The Bible is a tapestry of grace from cover to cover. But every word highlights God’s plan for redemption, culminating at the cross. Here, high on a hill and overcome with pain, God showed us Grace. Until that point it was words and ideas. While they were true nonetheless, they were also incomplete. When Jesus threw himself on a wooden beam, sacrificing his life, grace became complete.
Any understanding of grace without the cross is incomplete.
Grace isn’t a doctrine, a well-thought arrangement of words reflecting a core truth about God. Grace is God. It’s a person, a real one. Until Christians trade their academic pursuit of grace and fix their eyes on the cross, they will live with an incomplete, shallow, wrathful understanding of God.
2.) We see grace through an entitled, privileged lense.
“Hey, are you talking about me?”
“Yes, Frank. I’m writing this. I know you well.”
I have these strange dialogues with myself quite often. You’re judging me. Please stop.
For years, I looked for grace through my American lens, the only one I knew. To be fair with American Christians, it’s not your fault. You were born in a privileged country. Don’t regret something you can’t control. You must dance with girl you brought (Which is a dumb idiom. Having attended several dances, I usually “cut rugs” with other girls more than the one I brought and the same with everyone else.)
I didn’t understand grace until it appeared in my living room. This is how we experience grace, I believe. As I said before, it’s a person, not a doctrine, so why would grace not appear in the form of life experiences, often through other people?
Grace took the form of my wife, Tiffani. Through her, I saw grace for the first time.
It was the day she discovered porn as on my computer. I was an adulterer. She had every right to leave, hold this against me, or allow this to destroy her trust in me. I expected one of these, to be honest, or some combination of the three. Many spouses have left over similar issues.
What I received instead was shocking. Though upset, she embraced me. She never yelled or allowed her pain to spill out as hurtful words. She took the initiative to find me a counselor. She walked with me through good and bad. I’m free from porn in large part because of her.
This is the power of grace. Darkness has no answer for it. The schemes of Satan wither at the sight of it. When grace makes its entrance, evil has no choice but to leave.
Every egg rested in Tiffani’s basket. I had nothing to give, no bargaining power or leverage. If she left me, she would have been justified and I would have understood. But she stayed.
This is Grace. Grace says all the eggs rest in another’s basket. Go ahead, try the manipulation thing. Follow the right steps. Rev up the number of good works you do for the other. It’s all vanity, useless, because you have no power or control in the matter.
Grace says you deserve a guilty verdict because you’re guilty, but it chooses another verdict instead. Grace walks with you when common logic says run for the hills. Grace doesn’t place stipulations on the relationship (i.e. don’t watch porn for a month and I might consider staying). Grace stays, not because it has to but because it loves you.
Here’s why this matters.
That day, I felt guilt, pain, vulnerability, and other mushy words I tried so hard to bury. And, in that moment, when I had nothing left, all my plans and schemes were useless, and I experienced Grace. Until we find ourselves in this position, I’m not sure you can truly understand grace. What irony, right? The beauty of life, hope, and love show up when we reach the end of ourselves. This is true because it’s, in our desperation, that we turn to God. Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward, says it this way.
The bottom line of the Gospel is that most of us have to hit some kind of bottom before we even start the real spiritual journey. Up to that point, it is mostly religion.
Rock bottom, however, is the place many Christians try desperately to avoid. It’s the antithesis of the American Dream. Ironically, however, everyone who lives long enough knows suffering, or rock bottom, is inevitable. Everyone eventually meets that one situation beyond their control or capability. In this moment, you find the answer to the most important question of your life, “Will you try harder or look higher?”
Suffering isn’t failure. It can be a gift, an opportunity to see God’s grace, maybe for the first time. Suffering takes away our control, along with our talents, good works, and fool-proof plans. But it’s here, with nothing left, that we might just be desperate enough to seek God.
3.) The church hasn’t always been the best place to find Grace.
Unfortunately, this is a big reason many Christians struggle with grace.
The church reflects God and serves as the hands and feet of Jesus, continuing His mission on earth. For all the beautiful outpourings of Jesus, the church also has scars we would assume keep covered. The Inquisition, Crusades, and arguably both World Wars “emerged in and were tolerated by Christian Europe” (to quote Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward, again). Christianity’s journey to America yielded more scars, racism, slavery and sexism to name a few.
I know stories of grace exist, certainly. But too often, when Christians have an opportunity to represent Jesus as his bride, we’ve chosen mistrust, dissension, and exclusion instead. The church should be the one place, if such a place exists, where grace flourishes. It should be the one place where inclusion, forgiveness, and compassion reign. The church should be the one place where grudges die and forgiveness runs free as an uncapped fire hydrant.
Sadly, many communities of faith have chosen institutionalized hierarchies and structures over organic representations of compassion and healing.
I say this, not as an outsider but an insider. I love the church. I write as someone who receives many e-mails (good and bad) from church leaders, and I try to answer all of them. I would never abandon the church. You can’t do such a thing and love Jesus. I’m not throwing stones. I’m in the fight.
But we must face the facts. Outsiders see us as close-minded and judgmental, mostly because they’ve witnessed us acting close-minded and judgmental. We can do better. I can do better. Yes, grace makes no sense. It doesn’t resolve, and it rarely finds a home in the institutional hierarchy. But I believe we can improve. We can be a better picture of Christ’s bride to the world.
4.) Christians have historically thought it better to err on the side of too little grace than too much.
The problem? I say this, not once, not twice, but thrice…grace isn’t a doctrine, it’s a Person. Could it be that the American church has avoided grace because grace destroys our control? Church leaders, myself included, might say we’re protecting “weaker” Christians or newbies in Christ by advocating grace in moderation. I wonder, however, if we’re more afraid of losing power and control?
Without stipulations on grace, church leaders would have no control over things like “salvations” and discipleship plans. Rather than clone new believers by forcing them through our perceived understanding of Christian growth, they would have space and freedom to encounter Jesus.
God always leads his people towards freedom, always. But, we’ve always resisted it. The same is true with grace. We like the idea of freedom from rules until we’re staring this freedom in the face.
At that point, we make up some story about giants in the Promised Land or grace without conditions giving people license to sin. Both conclusions seemingly make sense and fall back on good stewardship principles. If the Israelites entered the Promised Land they would be devoured (so they thought). Therefore, staying put or returning to Egypt (slavery) made more sense.
Many Christians believe grace without stipulations or conditions inevitably leads to disorder and chaos. It’s too dangerous. It jeopardizes the souls of thousands. So we teach Goldilocks grace. Not too much, not too little. Just the right amount.
In doing so we failed to see the other side.
What about the Christians who followed the steps, finished the discipleship plans, then burnt out, fell away, or grew cynical towards God because their knowledge-based theology wouldn’t sustain them through real life struggles? What about the “souls” whose eternal trajectories might never intersect the living Christ because they’ve been taught to find him through knowledge and facts?
5.) Works and true Grace have never been in competition.
Building on the previous point, as a young lad I was taught that eternal life is a result of grace and faith. But unless I had works, my faith was useless.
It was almost as if grace and works were (yet another) equation which must equal 100%. So, if you’re 80% grace, you must be 20% works. If 75% works, then you must have 25% grace.
The resulting sum of these two, however, doesn’t equal Jesus. If you’re heavy on works, light on grace, the resulting sum is self-righteousness. If you’re heavy on grace, light on works, the sum is “I can do what I want because God always forgives” or “I can do whatever I want because I helped at the food pantry this week.”
Both answers suck.
Grace and works have never been sliding-scale variables. Grace without boundaries will undoubtedly lead to some abuse. But it will also lead to people experiencing Jesus, many for the first time. And, I don’t care who you are, once you experience Jesus, He rocks the foundations of your theology. Once you see Grace, whether it visits your living room, comes to you through a child in West Africa, or a cancer diagnosis, you’re eternally grateful for the weight of your gift.
And every breath in your lungs lives to serve Grace, not because you must earn something but because you’ve seen Someone. You feel the weight of this indescribable love, and you realize this love isn’t about equations or balancing acts. It’s about Jesus.
The conversations you entertained previously about reverence, works, and grace is out the window. You’ve never been more reverent, your works have never been more meaningful ultimately because your eyes have never seen Grace this clearly.
Those who “abuse” grace are actually abusing some faulty definition or false ideal. These individuals haven’t seen the real Jesus. Once you encounter him, you stop living for number one and start living for the One. You stop thinking grace you license to sin and start wondering how you could even entertain sin?
6.) We struggle with being indebted and receiving from others.
If you want to see awkwardness on full display, buy a nice gift (preferably during Christmas but anytime will do) and hand that gift to someone. It’s alright if you know them as long as this individual isn’t expecting the gift. Then ask he or she to open your present in front of you.
What ensues is pure, unadulterated awkwardness.
Chances are the recipient will immediately leave to purchase you a gift, return the favor so to speak.
Why? We hate being indebted. For many (probably most) Christians, gift-giving seasons like Christmas aren’t opportunities to lavish others with generosity. They’re opportunities to show others we’re in control. Let’s be honest, we’re much better at the giving thing than the receiving thing.
As Oscar Romero says, “It may well be…more blessed to give than to receive. But it’s more difficult to receive.”
If you’re hesitant to buy in this idea, picture this scenario, then answer accordingly. Christmas is tomorrow, and for some reason (financial strain, fraud, whatever) you have no money for presents. Zero. Zilch. Nada. And you have no means to acquire money before your family gathers for its annual Christmas shin-dig, where everyone is expected to bring presents.
You have two options: show up without presents…or…fake an illness?
“Hey, Frank. You forgot option three. Re-gift old crap you never used.”
Touche. But stop ruining my illustration.
I would rather someone hit me in my “tenders” (to steal from Kung Fu Panda) than show up without gifts.
Everyone would wonder what’s wrong. “Frank must really be struggling. He can’t afford gifts? Is it time for an intervention? Maybe Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace guide or something?”
Showing up with gifts tells others you have it together. This is the opposite of grace, and a big reason Christians struggle to understand it.
Grace is indebtedness. Grace is powerlessness. When someone gives you something of value, you instantly feel they have power over you. It’s as if someone paid the remaining balance on your house, then handed you a million bazillion dollars for good measure. Would you not feel indebted to them? I wouldn’t stop until I found some way to return the favor. But I know all my possessions combined times a million couldn’t repay the gift.
Jesus shows up, hands you a gift (new life) beyond value and never expects you to return the favor. You can’t.
Christians must learn the art of receiving. It’s the only posture that makes room for Jesus.
Angel Tree families are the ones who see grace more clearly than anyone. Those with very little must learn to receive, otherwise their children wake up Christmas morning without presents. We would be wise to associate with some of these families. Our giving might open the door to Grace, and we might catch a glimpse.
What if Christians stopped living in fear and let down the floodgates of grace? What if we stopped placing conditions around it and started looking for God in our suffering and trials? Maybe a generation of Christians would experience Jesus rather than acquire knowledge of Him. And maybe the result would be hearts drowning in passion.
Beware. If we start advocating for a “no holds barred” grace, many will label us. Freedom is the institutionalized church’s enemy. It can’t thrive where freedom lives. We must be prepared for name-calling and exclusion. But, in the process, we might spark a revival. I’ll take the labels, name calling, and exclusion if I also get revival. How about you?
I love you all. To God be the glory forever. Amen!