When Pope Francis convened a meeting of Roman Catholic bishops last October, it was for the sake of discussing the church’s historical tendency to place more importance on doctrine and order than on God’s mercy and forgiveness. He warned the gathered prelates of “becoming habitually unmoved by grace,” especially when in the presence of so many people wounded by the church’s behavior. 

All of us are familiar with the idea of grace. We know the pleasure of being around gracious people as opposed to ungracious ones. God’s favor or grace (Greek charis) toward Mary is well known. But whether we are a bishop or a botanist, what we often fail to enjoy in the experience of life is being stirred by the spectacular gift of grace.

The church can be as guilty as any party in being unmoved by grace. Religious people have an uncanny ability to make conditional what Christ makes unconditional. Grace gets thrown under the bus every time judgmentalism enters the picture.

So let’s see if we can get a handle on a definition of grace. 

How about describing it as a weird form of math where 2+2=5? That would be one way to think of its bounteous character. Or what if we were to believe that God knows everything there is to know about us and yet still loves us in a non-negotiable sort of way? It’s not because we have achieved or proven our moral value that we’re loved by God. It’s because we’re loved by God that we have value in the first place. Or perhaps grace is like a pre-owned car with one of those “AS IS” stickers taped to the window. To be embraced by the Lord is an unconditional proposition, not some “as we wish we were” ideal that will never really be. 

Every effort to define grace runs the risk of missing the mark, although adding our oblique attempts together may hint at the oddity and wonder of grace. How inconvenient that Jesus never used the word himself. Had he so much as put the word grace into even a few sentences, we might be able to arrive at a more exact definition. But frustratingly, we have no record of him uttering the word. All we have are the events and actions of his life that, strangely enough, communicate grace as something better lived than talked or written about.

For understanding the basics of grace, it helps if we step beyond the usual channels of reason. Grace is amazing because it typically works contrary to reason and against the grain of common sense. Renowned Christian ethicist Lewis Smedes articulated this as well as anyone I know:

“Hard-nosed common sense will tell you that you are too wrong to meet the standards of a holy God; pardoning grace tells you that it’s all right in spite of so much in you that is all wrong. Realistic common sense tells you that you are too weak, too harassed, too human to change for the better; grace gives you power to send you on your way to being a better person. Plain common sense may tell you that you are caught in a rut of fate or futility; grace promises that you can trust God to have a better tomorrow for you than the day you have made for yourself.” 

In a world that is organized around “you get what you pay for” and “you get what you deserve,” grace turns all achievement philosophies upside down. God’s love for us has no strings attached. No earned approval strategies. In fact, grace is never anything a person can get. It only arrives as a gift that one must receive. 

The gift of God’s grace arrives with the same surprise as rain — sometimes in gentle soaking fashion and other times in blanketing torrent, but always for the sake of reaching our moribund or needy lives. In sign language, the sign for grace is an open hand with five fingers spread, making a twisting motion as that hand moves downward from above the head toward the face. The gesture looks a lot like falling rain providing life to a seed, which may be yet another way to think about that extraordinary life-giving behavior of God.

Peter W. Marty
Marty, a pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church, Davenport, Iowa, and publisher of The Christian Century.

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