Grace can be defined as getting something you don’t deserve or didn’t earn. It’s a gift.
Grace is also one of the most difficult things for people to accept and actually embrace. Even Christians, who have grace as a major part of the belief system, have a ton of trouble living into what grace is and how it works. The concept of grace conflicts with so much of life. Things like contracts between people where the relationship laid out – I do this and you will do this in return. Grace is in conflict with the transactional nature of most of our lives. We pay money that we earned for things and expect to receive something of equal value. We earned it and we deserve it. And when it doesn’t go as we had hoped, we get upset and demand that the situation changed. We deserve what we are paying for after all. So much of our life is transactional. But grace is not. We don’t earn it or deserve it. We just receive it. And that’s what makes it difficult.
I think another reason people in the West have trouble with grace is because too often we seem to be most concerned with correct thinking and belief as well as who is right and who is wrong.
There are many Christians who stake salvation on correct belief about Jesus/God. If you don’t believe correctly, then you don’t get to spend eternity with God. If correct belief is necessary for salvation in any form, then aren’t be practicing idolatry. We’re making beliefs into what saves us. We are putting ourselves in the position of having to do something to receive salvation – doing a work in order to get something that we then rightly deserve compensation for. We are making ourselves, what we do, and what we believe as the center of salvation. We are making ourselves into gods. Salvation depends on us doing or believing something.
Anytime salvation requires something from us in order to receive it, we continue to fool ourselves in believing that we are in control and God owes us something. Salvation comes to us and we respond, but we cannot bring it to ourselves and grant it ourselves. We are not in control of it. Because we are not in control of God, who is the giver of salvation.
How many peoples and cultures throughout history have tried the approach of a focus on right/wrong belief, who’s right and who’s wrong? And what has been the result? Mostly division, abuse, destruction, death, and violence. All because we are convinced that we are right and they are wrong, whoever they happen to be at the time.
And when we buy into the fable, then our objective is to change the other to be like us for their salvation since we believe we are the holders of the truth and what salvation is really about. We become the distributors and judges of who receives salvation and we get to withhold it from those who don’t match our correct belief system.
In the midst of this, where does Jesus call on us to have the correct beliefs? I have no doubt that someone can pull out some random Scripture passage that makes it look like this is the way. But it’s not. Look at the themes that runs through Scriptures. A major theme is shalom, which means wholeness and completeness. Another major theme is about right relationship with God and others. Another major theme is love, which at its core is about self-emptying. It’s not about getting a 100% on some kind of cosmic salvation test. It’s about dying to self and following because we just don’t know.
Death is the ultimate reality check that gets in our face and screams at us “YOU ARE NOT IN CONTROL!!!” This is why so many fear it, distract from it, and put a whole lot of effort into avoiding it, rather than face it directly, learn from it, and see what kind of a gift it offers us well before we succumb to it. Death comes in a variety of forms. There is the obvious – the end of our earthly life. But we experience a variety of deaths throughout our lives – the ending of relationships, the ending of jobs, the ending of ages in our lives, the ending of abilities, the ending of likes and dislikes, the ending of ignorance, the ending of unhelpful and unhealthy things in our life, and more. Each of these repeat the same message to us – you are not in control. But do we learn this lesson, or do we continue to fool ourselves in thinking and believing that we are still in control.
The idolatry of correct belief, or certainty, takes on many forms and will use whatever belief is handy and appeals to us. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about right or left leaning ideologies, different strands of theologies, economic theories, or even beliefs about sports teams or anything else for that matter. The appeal of finding something that looks like salvation with the added benefit of a sense of control is just far too appealing to us. Frankly, this appeal doesn’t sound heavenly at all to me. It sounds like a version of hell – where we are constantly running around making sure that correct belief is in place and never, ever completing the exhausting task, with full responsibility on each of our shoulders.
Our call as Christians is not correct belief and trying to enforce correct belief on others or else! No, Jesus says it clearly, if any are to follow him, they must pick up their cross (the thing that will cause death), die to self, and follow. What needs to die in your life? Probably something that you would rather prefer not to die. We aren’t in control. We often don’t even know as much as we think we do.
We are called to see with fresh eyes, through the lens of grace, how we are not in control. But that doesn’t mean that all is chaos. Rather, we see through the chaos that exists. In the midst of the chaos is the God who brought order out of chaos at the creation. God makes Godself known in the world, in our communities, and in ourselves. Do we perceive it? Can we see the image of God all around us? Grace gives us a lens to see that.
And when that happens, we become aware of the grace we have already received. It’s not a matter of understanding it. It’s just a part of reality. Grace embodies us, even when we fall. But with grace, our eyes are clearer to see.
This is what shalom is all about. This is what the reign of God is.