“Grace is central in God’s action here, and it has nothing to do with deeds prescribed by the law. If it did, grace would not be grace” –Romans 11:6.
Grace. Such a big word. Super theological. Filled with deep meaning. And, I believe, deeply misunderstood.
As I’ve pondered grace throughout my life, my viewpoint has broadened. I’ve had my seasons of ‘Grace is all well and good, but we need the law to keep people in line, too.’ At some point, my thinking changed to ‘Grace doesn’t negate the law. Grace just means that God still accepts us as we disappoint Him.’ Around my 30s, I started believing, ‘Grace is where we start for salvation purposes; but we have more responsibility as we walk through sanctification.’ That thought morphed into ‘As Paul (and therefore ‘we’) walked through life, he started on a broad road that got narrower and narrower until he walked a tightrope at the end of his life.’ I looked forward to the tightrope … I’d practiced my whole life and had excellent balance! I knew I could show others how it was done …. *sigh*
In the last several years, I’ve needed a definition of grace that held less shame, less personal responsibility, more freedom … I looked for a definition that gave God less disapproval, more control, more power, more … well … God. This year, I’ve focussed on shame, humility, freedom and how all of those relate to living as Jesus lived. I’ve mentioned the idea that Jesus sets us free from shame–because the power of ‘sin’ is shaming us into living according to someone else’s rules. In recent months, I’ve come to believe that grace frees us from the shame that belongs to hierarchical systems.
By definition, a hierarchy is a lot like a pyramid scheme. Only a few reside at the top of the heap. The rest of us only hope to clamber closer to them, and if (joy of joys) they take a tumble, we might replace them–if we’ve
hidden our faults proven ourselves above reproach more than the next person. I’ve heard many in the upper echelons of the power hierarchy say things like, ‘We can’t let grace get out of hand. How will we maintain control?’ I’ve heard many songs, sayings, and bumper stickers proclaim, ‘Grace isn’t cheap.’ I say now, ‘No, it’s not cheap. But it is free!‘ I wish we dealt with the problem of too much grace, too much liberty, too much tolerance in churches. Instead, we have churches that want to harden grace and burden others with a limit to freedom. We don’t want to let grace be grace in all its messy, complicated, freeing glory. It’s harder to lead organizations if there aren’t set ground rules. It’s harder to corral people if we can’t use shame as a tool when they cross lines of decency. It’s a lot easier to pull out the rule book than to live in relationship with people and allow them to learn at their own pace from mistakes made.
A friend of mine went through a messy divorce years ago. Because her self-image took a beating during her marriage to an abusive husband, she kinda went overboard on exercise, provocative actions and wearing revealing clothing to get attention from men. She relished the ‘freedom’ she experienced after such a repressive life. She needed to let her pendulum swing from one extreme to another until she could find balance. I offered challenging questions to her, trying to help her reflect on how healthy her life choices were for herself and her daughters. Often, she received the questions I posed and changed a decision. Often, she went ahead with her plans and suffered some consequences. Many people judged her appearance. Many friends walked out on her. Few bothered to understand her motives and what needed healing in her heart. Fewer trusted that God would finish her story and would reveal more of Himself to her through offering her His grace as she stumbled along the path of emotional healing. She found balance. Not overnight. Not without pain. But, she found balance in God. She learned from His humility and grace. Now, years later, those earlier times have shaped her heart with empathy and compassion toward others who stumble in their own soul’s darkness. She offers her light that God ignited in her to help them see Him welcoming them to a smoother, well-lighted path.
I believe that as we learn to rest in the fullness of God’s grace, we become humble. As we become humble, we offer grace to others in their lives. We want to live compassionately, gently cherishing the journey of another’s soul. Because we no longer base the success or failure of our own lives on accomplishments or good/bad behavior, we no longer try to make ourselves look holy based on shaming another person … and clambering to the top of the heap just seems like so much work. So, we content ourselves with being just like everyone else–a blend of mature and immature attitudes, altruistic and selfish actions, and changing and unchanged beliefs. Instead of anxiously walking a tightrope fearing someone may notice if we fall, we’ve learned to skip along with skinned elbows, hands and knees on a path filled with uneven spots. And we stop with a smile to help those who have fallen. Because if we didn’t, grace would not be grace.
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