GRACE. When I read the word, peace pervades my thoughts. No kidding! Just looking at that word printed at the top of this page can send a beam of light into my darkest of emotional states. The entropy of panic, the static of selfishness, and the gravity of hatred have meager influence at best in the spaces where the light of grace has shown. Wow! GRACE. What can make a simple word so powerful?Grace has many definitions; all of them good. For those who subscribe to the theological definitions of grace, the word carries with it some awesome connotations. For those, grace means liberty in the most profound sense.
I’ll never forget the first time I understood grace in this way. I was on the job, driving a truck. It was early, and I was just beginning my daily routine. The radio was set to a local classic rock station, and my co-worker, Gerald, was telling me a raunchy joke I didn’t want to hear. Obviously, this was not an extraordinary day. I think it was a Tuesday, the blandest day of the week. It was at that moment, though, that grace hit me and I gave up being a judgmental, competitive little punk. It was pure emancipation. A part of me wanted to break through the roof of that box truck, and fly away like a superhero. But I was driving, and that would have been selfish. No, I wasn’t illuminated by a beam from on high. There was no choral singing. I didn’t go all Jake Blues, and start shouting “The band! The band!” All that happened was that I finally understood, for the first time in in my life the meaning of grace, in all its wild glory.
Perhaps, I should back up and explain what exactly lead me to that point. Like many breakthroughs, it was not a single moment, but the culmination of many. At the time, a popular book amongst my friends and colleagues was Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz. Miller’s entertaining collection of essays confronts the reader with a number of insightful ideas, but the one that really stuck with me was a notion of how to love others. Miller pointed out that we often use love like money; we give it to those we think have earned it, and withhold it from those we think have not. It’s a sort of system we use to reward or punish the people in our lives (friends, enemies, and neighbors alike), and we use love as if we had only a finite supply. The most noble way to use love, however, is not to use it at all, but to give it generously in every possible situation, even to those who do not deserve it.
This perspective of love was not entirely new to me, but there is something about seeing your own beliefs presented in a creative way that will make you think about them all over again. I realized I was tired of being stingy with goodwill, encouragement, and compliments. The irresponsible and rebellious side of me was intrigued at the possibility that I didn’t have to be careful with showing love, even to people who didn’t like me. Miller’s chapter made me crave more of such talk. I suppose it was inevitable that I locked on to Brennan Manning’s book The Ragamuffin Gospel. This book, a refutation of work-based sainthood, is a brilliant song of grace disguised as a simple piece of prose. Manning’s words seem radical, and yet all he does is reiterate heart of the message of Jesus Christ: There is no way to earn salvation, so the best thing to do is stop trying. Upright citizens and common criminals stand together on level ground, morally speaking, and the only way to achieve communion with the Creator is to accept the work of the resurrected Son of God. Those who attempt to work their way to goodness through a lifelong series of good deeds (or rituals, or intellectual ascents) are only ruining their own chances of knowing God. Manning puts it like this: “The gospel declares that no matter how dutiful or prayerful we are, we can’t save ourselves. What Jesus did was sufficient. To the extent that we are self-made saints like the Pharisees or neutral like Pilate (never making the leap of trust), we let prostitutes and publicans go first into the kingdom while we… are in the background having our alleged virtue burnt out of us. The hookers and swindlers enter before us because they know they cannot save themselves, they cannot make themselves presentable or lovable. They risked everything on Jesus, and knowing they didn’t have it all together, were not too proud to accept the handout of amazing grace.”
It was this kind of pride that was holding me back from being the love-your-neighbor-as-yourself kind of person I’d always wanted to be. It was this kind of pride that was keeping me in the prison of judgmental thinking. Manning’s words found me at a unique time in my life. I was working at a local rescue mission. The truck I spoke of before was a donation collection vehicle. As a paid employee, there was always something in the back of my mind that made me want distinguish myself from the homeless people I was working to help. If you have never worked at a homeless shelter, or a “soup kitchen” for more than a day you may not know that such places are filled with people that you probably wouldn’t probably wouldn’t invite to spend the night at your home, down the hall from your wife and kids. I am not trying to generalize the homeless population (for they are as diverse as any group), but many of the men I worked with had spent time in prison, struggled with all kinds of addictions, had been punished for not paying child support, had left a pregnant girlfriend to fend for herself financially, had beat a woman, had violated parole, had blown social security checks on drugs, had stolen from others who were in even greater need, had used up all their favors with extended family, or had just completely given up on getting financially stable ever again. My whole first year there, I arrogantly assumed, that me, the law-abiding college student who was faithful to my wife, was supposed to be an example for these guys. I felt that I was standing on a platform a few steps higher than them, and if I were good enough in appearance, they’d be inspired to do better for themselves. Many, many times I withheld love from my homeless neighbors because they had done something wrong, like “fall off the wagon” again. How stupid was I?
After contemplating Manning’s words for a while, I finally recognized where I had been going wrong for so many years. I was judgmental, because I was relying on my goodness to help myself and others, instead of on the accomplishments of Jesus. It just happened to be on the morning “bread run” in the mission truck, that this finally hit me. As my partner, Gerald, who was a resident of the mission at the time, finished his joke, it donned on me that I was just like him in every way. I was no closer to God than he was… and no further. My list of good deeds and his list of screw ups was irrelevant. As A.W. Tozer wrote in The Knowledge of the Holy, “Forever God stands apart, in light unapproachable. He is as high above an archangel as above a caterpillar, for the gulf that separates the archangel from the caterpillar is but finite, while the gulf between God and the archangel is infinite.” So who was I to think that I was closer to someone who was infinitely higher than I? I was no closer than Gerald or anyone else! To think so shows not only a total misunderstanding of the concept of infinity, but of grace. When this hit me, it was like being rescued from a prison. Suddenly, I felt a strong sense of brotherhood with Gerald. We were the same. When he’d finished telling his joke, I just started to laugh. I hadn’t even heard his punch line. I was just so happy that grace had finally given me permission to love Gerald and everyone else at the mission.
Later that day, in my journal I wrote, “I AM HIGH ON GRACE. Miller gave me a pipe, Manning packed it, and, this morning, Jesus lit it on fire. All of the sudden, I was free from myself. The basis for all my life’s pride and anger was gone. It’s not that I was humbled or crushed, but I was evaporated into God’s grace. Wow. Everything I do to prove myself, lift myself up, be better than someone, more successful or smarter than someone- All of this is useless or ridiculous since we have an infinite God and His grace. If I’m a little better than someone else, what’s the point? For the first time in my life I know that I am nothing, and that makes me free” (May 31, 2005).
Although that moment wasn’t the end of judgmental thinking in my life, it was, indeed, the beginning of the end. Since that time I’ve found grace challenging those judgmental mechanisms, those arrogant habits that had ruled my entire life. Like many Americans, I come from a the-Lord-helps-those-who-help-themselves culture. Fans of the self-made man, we like to see everyone to earn everything. Even charities have to go out and get a job. This is why we’d rather buy (Red) t-shirts at the GAP for $20, than just donate $10 to help end AIDS in Africa. With this attitude in place, grace is hard to understand. We feel we have to hold on to love until people earn it or have proven their worthiness. With grace at work, though, we can go all out and love people, and help them until it hurts without wasting time calculating whether or not they deserve it.
Certainly, I came to my understanding of grace though a spiritual path. My perspective is dependent upon belief in Christ. I often wonder what is the secular equivalent of grace? What is it that frees the non-Christian thinker from the types of judgmental attitudes I described in my previous blog entry? I welcome any comments in answer to these questions.
The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning and Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
Blue Like Jazz by Donald Miller
The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning
The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer
Revelation (a short story found in Everything that Rises Must Converge) by Flannery O’Connor