- Walking into a fire
- Jumping into freezing water in the middle of winter
- Running across a busy highway
This all got me thinking about another, similar scenario. Catalina and I have wrestled very deeply with the issue of grace over the last few years. We've seen and been a part of helping those whose lives have been deeply marred by trials and sins. We've seen how many of these individuals attempt to take advantage of those willing to give assistance - those who show grace. We've seen how helping and loving often doesn't lead to a change in one's situation physically, socially, or spiritually. In our experience, grace and love seem like frivolous means. They are more often than not, useless tools in changing others.
While all good Christians know enough to never say what I just said, most think it, and most act like it. When Catalina and I talk to Christians about some of our past and current dilemmas with administering grace, love, justice, and judgment, many (including us) scoff at the notion of continuing to show grace to certain people. There is a limit to grace, you know. There's a point at which someone doesn't deserve it any longer. There's a point at which it becomes obvious that the means of grace and love are useless and should no longer be implemented. If grace is obviously not working and if the person is obviously hopeless, it's time to move on. To continue in grace any longer would not be courageous, but stupid. And that's the question with which we've continually wrestled. At what point is doling out grace more like courage, and at what point is it more like stupidity? When should we quit? When does our good 490th act of grace turn into our stupid 491st act?
One of the most beautiful depictions of grace I can think of is taken from the book Les Miserables. In the story, a former convict and current vagabond, Jean Valjean, is taken in for the night by a priest, against the wishes of others in the house. In the middle of the night Valjean steals some of the expensive silver in the house and sneaks off into the dark. He is soon picked up by the police who find the silver and take him back to the priest. When the priest answers the door, rather than condemn Valjean, he tells the police that the silver is a gift and chastises Valjean for leaving without taking the most expensive items in the house.
Going back to our original questions - "is it courageous or stupid?" - I will argue that it is the motive of the priest which makes his act courageous, just as we saw with our examples at the beginning of this post. Action isn't the main determinate of courage or stupidity. Motivation is. The others in the priest's house may have told him that Valjean was a danger, but the priest saw a man who was weary and without a place to sleep. The police may have brought Valjean in as a thief worthy of judgment, but the priest saw a man in need of mercy and forgiveness. Modern pragmatists may have counseled the priest that his actions would only enable and entitle Valjean, causing him to continue his thievery and manipulation in other churches, but the priest saw a man who would never learn a new life until he experienced unconditional love. Yes, the priest wanted Valjean to be transformed. Yes, the priest trusted that God could transform Valjean if he wanted. Most Christians are fine conceding these two notions. But the priest also believed that implementing God's means of grace, mercy, and love to a hopeless offender was the right course of action. The priest was motivated by a self-sacrificial love for another and was willing to lose his wealth, and possibly even his life, for someone who didn't deserve such costly things. This is where most Christians cut out. We can all embrace pragmatism, probability, and sound logic. If there is a reasonable chance that the means of grace can produce desirable outcomes, then we can align ourselves with this course of action. But to submit to the foolish means of grace which requires self-sacrifice in the face of enmity, hardship, and injustice without the promise of results? We cannot! We are all for grace, mercy, and love if we think they'll work. If we think they'll accomplish some end for us. If they produce some tangible product which we can feel good about. We may be content, like the priest, to house someone in need on our terms, but should they take from us, offend us, and show themselves hopeless, then they are no longer worthy of the means that God not only prescribes, but the very means he extends to us. We all too often conclude that grace, mercy, and love are only appropriate means for those whom we think are worthy of them, forgetting our own hopeless state and God's actions towards us.
We all recognize the beauty of what the priest did in Les Miserables. We recognize that this was courageous, not stupid. So why, when we are faced with opportunities to show grace, are we so quick to call gracious acts stupid or frivolous? For me, I think it's because my experience with grace is limited. Growing up in a Christian home, in a Christianized nation, in a Christian school, and being a pretty avid rule follower, I haven't really had many tangible experiences with grace. I am much more like a Pharisee. I am in need of the same grace as any other sinner, but my sins are hidden in the depths of my very deceptive heart. They aren't exposed and laid bare in front of me. And having not tangibly experienced grace to the depths a "prostitute or tax collector" with more overt sins may have experienced it puts me at a disadvantage when I face opportunities to grace others. "He who [thinks that he] is forgiven little, loves little." And there is our answer. For most of us, most of the time, acting graciously would be stupid. It would be like running into a burning building for no good reason. Without us realizing the tremendous love of God, and without that realization instilling within us a love for others, acting graciously can't possibly be courageous. We don't have the appropriate motivation to make it so.
I think the American mindset can also wreak havoc on our willingness to administer grace. We are so hell-bent on individualism, choice, and pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, that we place so much emphasis on what we believe people deserve. For some reason we think it's our job to tell others that they don't have access to the same grace God gave us because they don't deserve it like we do. We see ourselves as protectors of God's grace rather than stewards and distributors of it. While we may have some semblance of love for another, it's generally not of the agape kind. It's more conditional. While we are lovers and fishers of men, we are also judges who must ensure that justice prevails. We are elite guards at the Fort Knox of God's grace rather than aid workers handing out life giving sustenance in refugee camps. We have earned God's favor and we must keep it out of the hands of those who may access his grace in greater measure. We know how to handle grace. Others will just abuse it.
I must daily fight this inner battle. I must daily work to recognize how great God's grace is to me, and how great a calling it is I have to share that grace with others. Christians should have every motivation to show grace when the opportunity arises. Certainly what that grace looks like will be different depending on the situation. While grace may sometimes involve putting up relational barriers (see I Cor. 5 as an example), it seeks out restoration and the good of others. Grace may sometimes have sharp edges. It may initially hurt the individual we seek to help. But we know our actions are grace filled if our priority is the well-being of the offender and if what we do is motivated by catalyzing the restoration and building of relationship. Grace isn't always soft. In fact, grace must sometimes be quite hard, as it is the drill bit God uses to penetrate hearts of stone. But whatever hardness grace takes on should not come from the hardness of our hearts which seek punishment for the offender and justice for ourselves. Any hardness grace takes on should be solely reflective of the heart we're trying to drill through. God has given us every motivation to distribute grace, and to distribute it appropriately. For while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us, and in the same way we judge others, we will also be judged. So why should we be so focused on grace?
We Are Commanded
First, we are commanded to love and grace others. Matthew 5 and Luke 6 tell us all about loving offenders, including not retaliating with violence, not seeking restitution for stolen items, and loving enemies (which I'm pretty sure has a bit stronger meaning than "grouchy neighbors").
It Makes Us Like Christ
The second reason we grace undeserving offenders is for our own good. God's goal is for us to become like Christ. What is more descriptive of Christ than that he graced undeserving, hopeless offenders with love and forgiveness? If our ultimate hope is to become like Christ, why not start acting like him now? But beyond the mere imitation of Christ in action, we also know that we are made like Christ through our sufferings and trials. While we are not commanded to seek suffering and trials, we are told to expect them. Part of this suffering inevitably arises from our willingness not only to continue doing right in the face of evil, and not only in bearing abuse from others, but also bearing the burden of forgiveness towards our abusers. Our savior could have called ten thousand angels to save him from the cross, yet he chose to bear not only his burden, but ours as well, as he cried out "Father forgive them!" in the midst of his torture. Choosing grace helps to conform us to the image of Christ
We Are Indebted
Third, having been graced ourselves, we are indebted to God. We're not indebted in such a way that we have to pay God back for his grace. In fact, the point of the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18 is that our king forgave a debt so large, it could never be repaid. However, we do owe God our allegiance. One way this allegiance plays out is that we act on behalf of our king. If our king forgave us an unfathomable debt, then we should likewise forgive others their relatively miniscule debts against us.
Grace is Transformative
Fourth, God's grace towards us is transformative. We love him because he first loved us. His grace makes us new creations. We are born anew unto good works. As new creations, we seek to lay down our lives for others. We can be content in all situations. We can love those who hurt us. If we are true Christians, we are new creations. If the grace and love of God was the means to changing us, then we know that this is a means whereby God will change others. We are motivated to grace others not only because we are changed, but because we trust that it is a means God uses, through us, to change others.
God is Judge
Finally, we can leave judgment in God's hands. God has exacted his judgment on the cross, and will one day be the final judge. We do not need to accomplish justice for ourselves here. We can trust God. We don't need to be validated by seeking justice for ourselves, which is why Paul and Peter could counsel the persecuted church, slaves, women, and children to submit and be content.
So is extending grace to others courageous or stupid? I suppose that depends. Have we been inwardly transformed and are we changed in such a manner that we can recognize God's grace towards us? If we have, then surely our motivations will be distinct from those who are in the world. Surely we will run into the fire, jump through the ice, and step out into traffic - not for our pride and self-justification, but to seek to save that which is lost. Jesus has made us fishers of men and women. The hook is not self-righteousness, merit, laws, rituals, or anything else like that. The hook is grace. We love God because he loved us first. Others will only see God's love as displayed through his very own hands and feet, the body of Christ himself, the church. Just as we have been pulled from the fire by the unwavering grace and love of another, so we must seek to do the same, with love.