Who needs grace anyway?

As CPE draws to a close this summer, I think about a conversation I had with my supervisor Peter about grace.  "I've always hated the idea of grace," I told him.  "Even back when I was a child, I struggled with the idea.  I sided so much with the older child in the parable of the prodigal son.  I know that kind of the whole point of Christianity is grace, and I appreciate it in theory, but it really drives me crazy."  When I next saw him, per his request, I brought an essay I had written five years earlier about grace.  


This Thursday I remember a bit about my frame of mind when composing the paper, but I find myself reflecting much more to my more recent conversation with Peter.  After giving him the essay to read, Peter questioned exasperatedly, "Do you ever rest?  Can you ever feel happy?"  I paused and then admitted, "No, I guess not.  There's always more...we can always be better."  He looked at me quizzically, and I went on: "Say we raise one million dollars for cancer research.  Do I want us to stop there, resting in our good work?  Simply say, 'Enough, good work'?  No, I don't.  Why not raise two million?"  He absorbed my response for a moment, quietly laughed, and remarked, "You know, I actually kind of think you do get grace.  That to me sounds rather hopeful, rather graceful: that two million, that two million I see as you continuing to searching for more opportunities for grace."


Maybe it is not the age-old Protestant debate, after all, then of work versus grace.  Like Peter noticed, maybe our work is what carries the grace.



Who Needs Grace Anyway?

written spring 2010

I hate the idea of grace.  Some people struggle with Christianity’s preferential option for the poor, or Jesus of Nazareth’s advocacy for an attitude of detachment towards material possessions, or the cross’s encouragement of human suffering. I, however, am undoubtedly the elder child in the parable of the prodigal son, the one who tries to do the right thing all along and watches resentfully when those who repeatedly err finally seek forgiveness.


I know I mess up sometimes too.  I still cannot reorder my thoughts to buy the concept of grace, though.  Why should God’s opinion of human beings not be determined by individuals’ abilities to work for the advancement of the kingdom, to treat others justly and with love, to hold themselves accountable to moral decency?  Yes, my brain knows that I often fail to meet the standards God establishes, but I am surely far closer to satisfying God’s wishes than the ax murderer is, right?


So too often I ignore my faults and live according to the world.  I like the world’s standards.  They make sense.  I weigh my strengths against my weaknesses and simply ensure that the positives outweigh the negatives.  Accomplishments recognized by the secular realm (particularly the incredibly tangible ones which provide a tidy, definite assessment of one’s ability or character, like grades) fill me with great delight and triumph—for a moment.  Then anxiety always comes next, the fear that failure may soon follow.  I can never rest; I am perpetually on the hamster wheel of the world, running furiously in hopes to go far but actually getting no where.

Whenever I become too tempted to reject the legitimacy of grace altogether, life quickly catches up with me.  I would be lying if I said that there have never been times when I stare into the mirror ashamedly because I refused to meet the eyes of the homeless man on the Corner, or when I hang up the phone and regret that I snapped angrily at my father’s innocent question, or when I realize that days have passed since I have prayed or even thought much at all about God.  Those scattered, rare moments of clarity forcefully pull me into a different realm, and God’s warmth and grace washes over me. 


Yet sometimes I think grace is overemphasized.  I do not want to think that grace simply exists to make human beings feel better about themselves.  Surely something positive and tangible may spring from my misery of my own inadequacy and the subsequent relief I find when I rest in God’s love.  Certainly, grace is the foundation of the Christian faith but often grace is stressed at the expense of promoting the Christian’s call to perform God’s work.  Sinfulness may be one side of the spectrum of grace, but the implications of God’s forgiveness of human beings matter as well.  Where do we go once we recognize our sinfulness and receive God’s gracious love?  I firmly believe that we are called beyond mere recognition and acceptance; such divine love frees us—and in fact compels us—to act concretely. 


Emily Rowell Brownfaith