What is Grace?

I’ve been reading The Grace and Truth Paradox, by Randy Alcorn. It’s a good little book. Alcorn has a gift for expounding practical truths in such a blunt and obvious manner that the reader ends up feeling very silly for having ever forgotten or minimized them. Some of his one-liners almost (but not quite) make me want to say “Amen!” right out loud. That’s big—bigger than you may know.

But I don’t intend to discuss Alcorn’s book in this post. I’m going to discuss thoughts from a discussion that was prompted by his book. After I put the book down the other night, my husband and I fell to talking about grace—what it is, what it isn’t, and how it is popularly understood.

I’ll begin, as our conversation did, with an analysis of that awkward interlude that we have all been on one side or the other of…

One believer thanks another believer for some act of service or encouragement—only to be promptly informed that their gratitude is entirely misdirected. The forthcoming explanation apprises the grateful one that the good thing that was done really had nothing to do with doer’s efforts, but was accomplished solely by God’s grace working through him or her.

This humble-esque response is usually well-meant, but it may not be as humble as it appears—and it defintiely betrays a narrow and inconsistent view of grace.

It both assumes, and fails to assume, much.

Of course our actions and their outcomes are entirely dependent on grace!

Grace gives us life and a universe to live in. Grace holds creation together. Grace allows us to wake to a new day, everyday.  Grace gives us the ability to learn and to communicate. Grace affords us the opportunity to develop our character and talents. Grace opens our eyes to God’s heart. Grace gives us wisdom and guidance. Grace gives us the freedom to offer all of this back to God, or to despise him with it.

But this is not what we have in mind when we humbly defer to grace in situations like the one mentioned above. It can’t be what we mean—or it would come up a lot more often.

“This chicken is delicious, Mom!”

“Thank you son, but it wasn’t really me—anything tasty about this dish is only a result of the grace of God.”

Anything we do (good or bad) is indeed made possible by grace—why are we so very concerned with giving God his due credit in some circumstances, while taking it entirely for granted in others?

We came up with a couple possibilities—either the preeminence of grace in all things is being overlooked, or the Biblical concept of grace has become distorted in popular theology. Or both?

Early in my Christian walk, I was taught that the definition of grace is unmerited favor. And if you’ve been a student of Christian-ese for any time at all, you’ve surely heard the following lines:

Grace is getting what you don’t deserve, and mercy is NOT getting what you do deserve.

Imagine my surprise when I later learned that the New Testament grace (charis) is quite accurately translated (without a modifier) as just plain old grace—or favor.

grace

noun

1. favor or goodwill. Synonyms: kindness, kindliness, love, benignity; condescension

2. a manifestation of favor, especially by a superior (from Dictionary.com)

fa·vor

noun

1. something done or granted out of goodwill, rather than from justice or for remuneration; a kind act.

2. friendly or well-disposed regard; goodwill.

3. the state of being approved or held in regard.

4. a gift bestowed as a token of goodwill, kind regard, love, etc. (from Dictionary.com)

All things considered, I think grace is better described as God’s kind intention toward us—and its manifestation in our lives, and all of creation.

The designation of  unmerited isn’t completely without merit (ha!). God’s favor often has nothing to do with our virtues. He sends the life-giving blessing of rain to both the righteous and the unrighteous (Matt 5:45). And grace (in the form of Jesus voluntary, sacrificial death) is certainly identified as the means of our salvation—which we did not (and cannot) earn (Eph 2:8). This particular facet of God’s grace toward us is of supreme importance, and is, appropriately, a central theme of the New Testament.

But if we confine grace to the context of unearned salvation (and maybe the bestowal of a handful of recognized “spiritual gifts”), our version of this concept is only based on a true story. This narrowness really clicked for me when my husband pointed out the following Biblical rebuttal a few years ago.

 52 And Jesus kept increasing in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men.  (emphasis added, Luke 2:52)

Favor here is charis, the same word that is translated grace in all our famous grace passages. Jesus’ favor from the Father, and from other people—was unmerited?

I think I’ll leave it there for now. More on the scope and function of grace next time.

Until then, your thoughts and comments are most welcome!

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6 thoughts on “What is Grace?”

  1. Good thoughts.
    The sort of Christian-ese that leads one to say, “It wasn’t me; it was all God’s doing” may be well meant and may even be true in a small, narrow sense, but it misses the point. God gives us grace to be gracious from within ourselves, not simply to pass on God’s grace as one might a smelly pair of socks. If grace hasn’t affected our lives we have nothing to pass on, and we are effectively saying, “Oh, don’t thank me; I wouldn’t have done it. God made me.” Eeeuw! How about an old fashioned, humble, “It was such a pleasure.” And if you want to add somethig, “God has been so good to me, I wanted to share a little of his Grace with you.”

  2. It’s an interesting example to use in the discussion of grace. That scenario speaks to me more of our insecurities and thus inability to simply say, “You’re welcome” or “Thank you”. I’ve realized in my own life how I have learned to deflect compliments, finding them uncomfortable. Why, and when that started I’m not exactly sure. Maybe the “worm theology” effect? Maybe the age old battle of works vs. faith? Maybe self-hatred or issues of unforgiveness either given or received that keep me from fully believing and accepting God’s grace and love?

    1. That scenario speaks to me more of our insecurities…

      Very true. That’s why I say that it may not be as humble as it seems. This response is often a reflection of pride (even if in the form of insecurity). It can be embarrassing or awkward to accept compliments or gratitude if inside we are really craving the affirmation, but don’t think we should be.

      However, if there is any sincerity in the response, or even a real hope that it will be passed off as legitimate, there must be an underlying idea that grace brings about its own will–apart from the actions of the person through whom it is working. Don’t you think?

  3. May I know a little of the “much” in which a humble-esque response assumes and fails to assume, or is that for next time?

    1. Of course. Just for clarification, when I say humble-esque response, I am referring only to the one I have mentioned in connection with grace.

      I believe it assumes too little because it is not recognizing grace as the necessary component to our very existence. If we are operating under the awareness that all abilities (used for good or evil) are the result of grace, why would we think we needed to inform someone else that certain types of activities were executed by God’s grace? I would not hand you a tissue box, and then feel compelled to draw all attention away from myself and make sure you knew that I was only able to hand you the tissue box by the grace of God. It’s as true in that situation as in any other, but it would be silly to mention it, given that it is universally applicable. I would not exist, have the ability to move, or the awareness that you needed a tissue except by the grace of God. Somehow we’ve got the idea that grace is only connected with occurrences we view as “spiritual” – or at least that’s how we talk.

      And this is where the “too much” comes in. It also seems to be assumed that grace brings about it’s desired purpose on its own. But grace is not a force that acts upon us without our intentional participation. The sending of the Holy Spirit was an act of grace…but grace is not the Holy Spirit. 🙂 Grace is the favor, power, ability given to us to enable us to obey God and to embrace and fulfill his intentions for us – in all it’s forms. Even the grace that is given in the cross is ours to do with as we choose.

      Does that make sense/answer your question?

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