December 12, 2017

Has Grace Made Me Gracious?

I’m thinking about grace a lot today after a bit of a mystical experience in church Sunday.

As we were preparing for communion, I was praying. The Spirit brought to mind a series of dark incidents from my own life where God was miraculously gracious to me. I’m not talking about small matters. I am talking about incidents and character failures- most of which I’ve exiled from my mind and memories- where God alone is responsible for the fact that I was not fired, humiliated, divorced, dead or immersed in grief and suffering. Incidents that, if God had allowed them to be, would have been life defining in consequence.

These are moments and situations I know about. Only God knows the very many I don’t know about. These are crossroads moments where my life could have easily gone the route of people whose names we all know for their failures and mistakes, but God graciously intervened or overruled.

These incidents processed through my mind while I prayed, some of them embarrassing and humiliating to recall even momentarily. Others were astonishing in the new mercies revealed as I review them. How often my own failures and stupid choices should have brought about another outcome, but God’s grace had the last word.

Let me be honest: I am amazed at the grace of God in sending Jesus to the cross as my substitute and sin offering, but I am somewhat professionally jaded at the emotional impact of the Christian story. I am not ashamed to say that, because most of us struggle with how unmoved we are in comparison to all of God’s mercies and kindnesses. Every sin I commit is in full view of the cross. My heart needs the awakening power of the Holy Spirit to be freshly humbled by Jesus and his cross.

Remembering and re-experiencing these instances of God’s grace to me, particularly the fresh revelations of those experiences in the light of time and reflection, was arresting. My heart beats faster and my blood pressure surely goes up. Why has God been so gracious? So kind? So willing to see me through? It is nothing in me or about me. In fact, is there a person who is more deserving of loss, derision, failure and painful consequences than me?

Has all that kindness really been good for me? Would I be a better Christian if my missteps and sins had caught up with me and changed my life, my marriage and my ministry? Has the kindness of God led me to the right kind of repentance and the right sort of worship? Or has it “spoiled” me?

I sat there wondering, “How can I understand God’s grace when I have seen so many others fall down these same traps, stumble over these same obstacles and suffer far more from these same mistakes?”

I’m not sure that God’s grace is ever understandable. It’s amazing in all its forms. It doesn’t do interviews or supply answers. Grace is unpredictable and mysterious.

This far along in the journey, I’m wrestling with the meaning of grace almost every day. I’ve spent a year in the grip of resentment toward Christians who were unkind and selfish when I was dealing with an unthinkable rift in the spiritual unity of my marriage. It’s very easy to contemplate the enjoyment of ungracious bitterness and petty paybacks.

Situations come to me where grace is God’s clear word, but give me a few moments to consult with other Christians, and grace isn’t quite so clear after all. With the right kind of counsel, getting my way and forcing others to feel the pain of their mistakes can seem like the obvious way to go.

As a teacher and a preacher, I realize that almost every Christian my students know will give them law, law, law, morality, standards, behavior and the impression that Christian is a word award to nice people living a good life. Will I have the backbone and the honesty to let grace out of the bag? Will I let grace and the Holy Spirit define what it means to follow Christ, or will I hide behind that very convenient message of moral reformation? Will I present Jesus and the explosive good news of grace, or I will I present Jesus as the nodding, pale patron of a law-saturated religion of rule-following and practicing principles?

The big issues that face me as a teacher, writer, husband, father and employee are all about grace. Grace in everyday life. Grace to people who don’t deserve it. Grace as a way for me to live in the power of the Gospel when I’d rather be controlling things and determining outcomes. All day, every day I have to live in an atmosphere where the use of the law, guilt, manipulation and punishment are the standard ways of doing business. But I want my life to be more and more and more about grace, not to lessen the law, but to accomplish what the law cannot accomplish: create followers of Jesus and create lives- individually and communally- shaped by his Spirit.

When I remember the grace of God in my life, particularly at those moments when no one could rescue me from my sin and foolishness but GOD ALONE, it fires my heart with a hunger for grace in my relationships, actions and heart-motivation. (Thank God he didn’t treat me the way he advises that fools be treated in the book of Proverbs. Praise God for his wonderful inconsistency!)

The question for me today and from now on is “Has grace made me gracious?”
___________________

If this is the road you are walking as well, then you probably have resonated with my recommendations of the writings of Fr. Robert Capon and Brennan Manning. I now want to introduce you to someone who is just as exciting to me as these writers: Dr. Paul F.M. Zahl. I am currently reading his book Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life, and it’s explosive, helpful and very accessible reading.

Here’s a fine review of the book
. You can find it on Google books.

Comments

  1. Oh man, this post hit home today. I’m wrestling a lot with grace right now. I feel that God is granting the desires of many of my friends while I just sit here with my hopes yet again snuffed out. I want God to give me “my fair share.” I want to be happy for those around me but it just hurts to be at times. I want to be gracious but bitterness all too easily comes to the surface.

    God should have disciplined me a long time ago, but he hasn’t yet. Half the time I sit here waiting for him to bring the hammer down. But he doesn’t. Grace really doesn’t make sense sometimes.

    Your post reminded to reflect on how God has been gracious to me. Thanks Michael, keeping on fighting.

  2. Surprised it took you this long to find Zahl’s work. I don’t always agree with him, but he’s magnificent in so many respects. Very helpful.

  3. Boy oh boy, has God been gracious to me! Please Lord, let me practice this grace with everyone I come into contact with! Thanks Michael, for your honesty and sharing about the wonderful grace of God. I needed that to remind me from whence I came.

  4. I sat in a hushed courtroom listening to a judge pronounce sentence on a now-disbarred attorney that included a six-figure fine and some serious prison time. This disgraced (ironic use of the word, eh?) man is a friend, church member, and father of four. He had been a church committee chair, a husband, and a public official. I think every lawyer in town was there that awful morning–some out of concern, some out of morbid curiosity.

    I left the courthouse with extreme nausea that would not subside. I could not shake the conviction that there but for the grace of God go I.

    Six months later I still have not shaken it. Thank you, Michael, for helping me better understand why, as well as why I must continue to visit him in prison even though it’s much easier to stay far, far away.

  5. Michael, I’m so glad you’ve discovered Paul Zahl. He’s amazing, isn’t he? I found him last year and was equally blown away. Grace in Practice was the first book I’ve seen that puts radical grace into everyday life, and shows what would likely happen. What this book told me is that grace is never really tried. Believe me, I know. Living like grace is actually true is unbelievably harder than it seems. The political junkie in me was immediately attracted to the public policy aspects of practicing grace. I’m not sure I land everywhere he lands, but he forces me to think it through much more than I had previously. And for that I’m grateful. I recommended it to a local Lutheran church for a group study because he so clearly marks out the Law/Gospel distinction. I think he does go a bit too far in his critique of James, sounding more Lutheran than Luther! But overall, there is much to be gained from his book, and I’ve recommended it highly to everyone I know.

  6. Stan Hankins says:

    I desire mercy and not sacrifice. One of the things I try to remember is that anytime someone mistreats me, it is a golden opportunity to show them grace. I want so much to be a man of grace. And when I read this post- I could remember several times in my life where the Lord has stepped in and spared me much grief and sorrow. He is just so gracious!

  7. We featured a review of Paul’s great book in our May/June 2008 issue. You can access it online for the next thirty days here: http://tiny.cc/MR865.

  8. Navy Chaplain says:

    I’m looking forward to reading Ragamuffin gospel. God has been so good to me, I’m in ministry, doing well financially—but there are so many who could do what I do better than me. I’m a sinner and often don’t feel “spiritual” enough to minister to others. I catch myself often being critical of others, yet I myself would hung up to dry if the “real” me were on display. Thank you God for your grace. Help me to love you more.

  9. Wow, thanks for this entry. One thing that comes to my mind is how often I bring up past(though forgiven) sins, and how that guilt can eat away at me. This post reminds me to rejoice in God’s gracious forgiveness. Thanks also for the resources at the end. I’ll have to check it out.

  10. From one who has a tendency to take God’s grace for granted, thank you for this reminder of just how amazing grace is.

    Thanks for the book recommendation too.

  11. …i didnt begin to comprehend what Grace truly is until i read “raggamuffin gospel”..that..along with Steve Browns teachings have opened my eyes to the nature of God and myself that i “didnt get” before…..even now with so many varied voices in Christendom clamoring for my ear I tend to “forget” Grace….yet i ALWAYS migrate back to it…when i “cant take it anymore”…….

  12. alvin_tsf says:

    i grew up learning and hearing about the doctrine of grace but sadly i barely saw it in the lives of the christians around me. but, that does not mean it is untrue. in fact, like your experience, God does show up in unexpected times, ways and events that makes the truth of the Gospel and the power of His love real to me.
    “My heart needs the awakening power of the Holy Spirit to be freshly humbled by Jesus and his cross.”
    we have been too intelligent and sarcastic and jaded about the Gospel because it has never overflowed from our heads to our hearts. but the Lord is indeed faithful, He will not stop until we are flooded by His awesome grace. and then we bow down. and then we have joy. and experience true freedom.

    brendan manning helped me see that i am defined not by my doctrine, no matter how intelligently systematic it is, or by my orthopraxis, but that i am one loved by Abba.

  13. Lazarus says:

    Grace in the face of betrayal. . . Im not a strong enough person to dispense grace, myself or as a vessel of God. The recent events of my life have stripped me of compassion for my fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, left me crying daily for the sweet release of death, and has crippled my ability to listen to “God works in mysterious ways,” or “when God closes a door he opens a window.” My personal favorite is: “God never gives us more than we can handle.” No, I have no grace to give. I think about the Cross and His sacrifice for me and my family and yet in my outrageous selfishness, I am not moved to praise of Him. This saddens me even further.

  14. mebroken says:

    Wow, Michael. I’m at this painful, crying out point in my life. I’m only comforted by the truly shocking point that grace has made my pain joyful. My faith has been academic, and my stories banal, and not worth sharing. I am wounded and alone, but I am thankful for that bringing me back to my Saviour. I’m a little pissed off at my Savior, but I rejoice that we’re talking again. Lazarus, I’m rejoicing that I know my aloneness, that I think might come again as I faith death, to be able to speak about my pain honestly. How stupid I’ve been in the material comforts of my marriage and family. I’ve been sitting at the altar of the false idolatry of “christian victory” and I’m about done with it.

  15. …lazarus…let me be the first to welcome you back..to reality….nothing has changed since you were last here except the line…it just keeps getting longer and longer and longer…..

  16. Michael,

    Thank you, that is honest and powerful because it is gospel.

    While I was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Bristol in the late 1980s, Paul Zahl came and spent a short sabbatical in the college community. From that experience, let me also commend to you his brief book ‘Who Will Deliver Us?’ (New York: Seabury and London: Fount, 1983). Just 85 pages on the theme that the Gospel is a word to ordinary human pain.

  17. I thought of several responses. But then I realized that I do not understand grace. I have not understood grace. And, I probably will not understand grace anytime in the near future.

    And, yet, somehow, God’s Holy Spirit often uses each and every one of us as ministers of His grace in spite of ourselves and our many sins.

    Nope, I don’t understand it. But, I sure am glad to be one of the many recipient’s of God’s grace.

  18. Thank you, Michael. And the comments are heart-rending. Have mercy on your people, Lord.

  19. Memphis Aggie says:

    Awesome post

  20. Memphis Aggie says:

    “I’m not sure that God’s grace is ever understandable.”

    It so happens that today is sixth day of Holy Spirit Novena in anticipation of Pentecost where we pray for the “Gift of Understanding”. I think understanding has to be a gift.

  21. Memphis Aggie says:

    Short a couple of “the”s in the above comment – sorry.

  22. Larry Geiger says:

    Amen.

  23. political jules says:

    Loved the post. I struggle with it too. I have the tendancy to wallow in selfish pity when bad things happen, and have been known to cry, “ENOUGH” up to God with my fist in the air. Something that helped me recently is to remember two things:

    1. Never pray for an easy life.
    2. Pray for the strength to endure a hard one.

    When my daughter was born with Down’s syndrome and cystic fibrosis, I spent allot of angry energy toward God and even myself. Mistakenly thinking that this beautiful soul was some sort of punishment for my failures. Fortunately, that was five years ago, and Phoebe is now the sparkling light of my life.

    I have come to understand that she was my gift from God. A very special gift of love sent to teach me the purity of God’s love. I will be forever humbled by her depth and intelligence to point me back toward the grace of God.

  24. Christopher Lake says:

    Scott (1st comment),

    I know your struggle, brother. I am in a similar place. I am almost 36 years old, living with a physical disability (since birth), unable to drive a car, struggling to find work, and single.

    I daily have to remind myself that my “fair share,” as a sinner, is Hell. Anything better than Hell is mercy and grace from the God who is the Source of grace. That is not always easy to remember though– at least not for me.

  25. Christopher Lake says:

    That I *don’t* remember (and apply) the fact that I, as a sinner, deserve Hell and have been shown grace, only proves what a great sinner I am… and what an even greater Savior Christ is! Good thoughts to have before coming to the Lord’s Table tonight with my church community!

  26. There is part of me that is genuinely amazed and thankful at the vast quantity of grace that God has shown me thus far in my screwed up existence. But there is this other, twisted part that sees God’s grace as weakness — something I can take advantage of or exploit for my own advantage or use as a loophole for sin.
    I don’t know if any of you can relate to this, but I really am horrified at this thing inside me that receives grace with contempt — and I wish there was some way to kill it once and for all.