Over the last 2-3 years there has been a particular theme that has had a tremendous amount of impact on my thinking and has/is (I hope) shaping my life accordingly.
Grace is hard to pin down, though we often think we have is sequestered. Then we begin to talk and in our attempts to describe grace we begin to realize it’s out of our grasp. Describing grace is a bit like Barth’s description of theology as tracing a bird in flight: as soon as you have a particular image of the bird it has already flown off and the image has changed.
Grace is surprising. If there is one thing I can be certain about when it comes to grace it is that. It’s surprising because it’s big enough to include those we would rather not include (We look around the banquet table only to realize we’re surrounded by folks we never would have invited!). And yet, it’s also surprising because it’s elusive enough that we’re never really able to lay claim to it (grace is not something you own, like an iPod or a Costco membership).
Grace is a gift given. It is God’s doing. As my professor Joseph Mangina said, grace can be “summed up with a verb that has God as its subject. God creates. God rules. God overcomes evil and sin. God calls the church into being. God justifies and sanctifies. God makes all things new.”
I can hear the objections already. But what what about us? What about our responsibility? A gift cannot be enjoyed unless it is first received! We humans are so quick to want to have something to do with grace. We so desire to be able to claim some sort of responsibility for it (“I responded and thus received God’s grace!”). I can’t help but think this is putting the cart before the horse. Grace is much bigger than the forgiveness of sins (although this is certainly an important, if not central, aspect). Grace is the fact that you’re breathing right now. Grace is the fact that you’re able to participate in this strange mystery we call life: “God is gracious all across the board. It is all grace,” (Mangina).
Now, to be sure, grace beckons us to respond, as Mangina stresses, “While grace does not depend on our response (if it did, it would not be grace), it certainly cries out for our response–it demands to be “lived into,” to be inhabited, so that it more and more comes to define who and what we are.” Grace demands our response because it is only by grace that we are able to be shaped and formed into the sort of humans we are meant to be. If God is the potter then grace is the potter’s wheel, and thus we are formed. In fact, part of God’s graciousness is that His kingdom, as He has so chosen, can be furthered here on earth by our participation and obedience to His will. And so, becoming human is a process. We must learn to be God’s creatures.
I am still learning to respond appropriately. I often chose death rather than life, my own way rather than the way of grace. Yet, I think I am becoming more thankful. Surely, as Mangina notes, this is where we ought to be led: “The Christian life, in short, is radically marked by gratitude–a continual discovering of how our lives are constituted by gifts.”
I will leave you with the following quote from The Peaceable Kingdom by Stanley Hauerwas:
Not only is knowledge of self tied to knowledge of God, but we know ourselves truthfully only when we know ourselves in relation to God. We know who we are only when we can place our selves–locate our stories–within God’s story.
This is the basis for the extraordinary Christian claim that we participate morally in God’s life. For our God is a God who wills to include us within his life. This is what we mean when we say, in shorthand as it were, that God is a God of grace. Such shorthand can be dangerous if it is mistaken for the suggestion that our relationship with God has an immediacy that makes the journey of the self with God irrelevant. Grace is not an eternal moment above history rendering history irrelevant; rather it is God’s choice to be a Lord whose kingdom is furthered by our concrete obedience through which we acquire a history befitting our nature as God’s creatures.
To learn to be God’s creature’s, means we must learn to recognize that our existence and the existence of the universe itself is a gift. It is a gift that God wills to have our lives contribute to the eschatological purposes for creation. As creatures we cannot hope to return to God a gift of such magnitude. But we can respond with a willingness to receive. To learn to be God’s creature, to accept the gift, is to learn to be at home in God’s world. Just as we seek to make a guest feel “at home” in our home, so God seeks to have us feel “at home” by providnig us with the opportunity to appropriate the gift in the terms it was given–that is, gratuitously (p.27).