“For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus…” -Romans 3:22-24
I grew up going to church. I was baptized as an infant, receiving my “membership” before I could walk into a church by my own free will. I have heard the lectionary read through several times and sat through my fair share of sermons.
I say all of this to say that I know all about grace. I know that grace is the gift of God’s unmerited favor. I know that I have done nothing to deserve it. I know that it is freely given.
I know all of these things because I have heard them said over and over by the church and because I have said them myself. I have preached sermons and talked to youth and prayed with sick people about the overwhelming grace of God.
Here’s the thing: I never found it that overwhelming.
I never really believed it.
Let me tell you what it is like to be a “Christian” who doesn’t truly believe in grace: it is painful, dark, and lonely. It is all of these things because you can see the grace of God in the lives of all of those around you but at the end of the day you still go to sleep with the lingering doubt that you qualify.
I would venture a guess that I am not the only person in the Church who has felt this way; who has heard the Good News and yet not believed it in the depths of their soul. Of course I could be way off base and completely on my own on this topic. If this is the case, bear with me for the rest of this post. However, if my assumption is correct – if you have ever known the deep pain of unbelief, unworthiness, unlovablity walk with me for the rest of the page.
There are two (main) reasons that I did not – could not – believe in grace.
The first is that my experience of love in the world has always been conditional. The zeitgeist in America at the present moment carries a lot of the blame too. In our society you are only worth what you can do.
We are bombarded with messages from the media and advertisers telling us that we need to do more, earn more, be more than we currently are. There is some goal (perfection?) that is completely unattainable and yet, still the focus of much of our attention. That last ten pounds. That next degree. That higher salaried job. There is always something more that you can do to be better.
The flip side of this sort of thinking is that if you can’t do enough of something or get something right or be the person you are supposed to be, you are nothing.
The only thing that is freely given is failure, rejection, and pain.
So when I heard that the grace of God is freely given, my completely American reply was, “What do I look like? A sucker.” There had to be a catch. I had to do something to earn it. There is no such thing as a free lunch.
This is where the counter-cultural God of Jesus Christ comes roaring in. As far back as the Israelites people have been trapped by the notion that they are human doings and not human beings. When the Israelites were slaves in Egypt they were defined by what they produced. Brick after brick, they toiled in the hot desert sun for their masters. When they were led to freedom by Moses, God sought to guarantee that they never forget their true identity as human beings beloved by God.
One day a week – do nothing. That was the simple command. One day out of the week be good for nothing except praising God for your freedom. Remind yourself that you are not what you make or do or know. Your identity hinges on one fact – you are loved by God just as you are; no upgrade required.
The second reason that I did not believe in grace is that I was trapped in an academic understanding of the work of Jesus Christ. After a B.A. in Philosophy & Religion and a year of Seminary I sometimes thought the work of Jesus Christ to be an elaborate equation worked out by God and Karl Barth at some point that provided the solution to sin. I thought it was an abstract event that fixed a technical problem in the afterlife and led to arguments between seminarians and Twitter theologians.
Then it clicked.
It is not some abstract theological doctrine, but a world-changing, life-altering, Truth-exposing moment in the history of the world.
When the Word of God died and was buried, only to rise again, the whole tide of existence shifted. No longer did death have the last word. No longer could darkness overcome the Light.
We have been given power over the darkness: of our own lives and of the world.
Our past, present, and future cannot speak louder than the still small voice of God saying, “You are my beloved. In you I am well pleased.”
All of this came to a head a few Sundays ago as I sat in the pew at St. Anne’s, Episcopal Church in Reston, VA (my Field Education parish for the next two years).
As the congregation began to pray the Confession of Sin, I found myself really praying the words. And not just praying the words, but trusting that God had the power to forgive me of my sins through the grace of Jesus Christ.
When the priest stood in front of the altar and pronounced the absolution I found myself in an odd place:
I believed her.
I believed that God had forgiven me of all of my sins.
I believed that I was worthy to receive this pardon, even though I had done nothing to deserve it.
After over twenty years in the Church, I believed in grace.
My prayer for you is that you would believe in the grace of God for you. No matter what you have done, no matter where you’ve been: you are worthy of the pardon and love of God.
You deserve it simply because God delights in giving it to you.
You don’t need a degree or a new workout routine or a good resume or even a lick of sense.
You don’t need anything because you already have it.