What's so amazing about grace? We all know and probably have sung the song "Amazing Grace." But do we really understand what we are singing? Do we understand what grace is? I think we need to know what it means in order to understand just how amazing it is.
I just finished reading the book "What's So Amazing About Grace?" by Philip Yancey. I have about 11 flags sticking out of the book where there are statements that got my attention. There are really many more than what I flagged - a very thought provoking book that all should read. It has been around awhile and was voted book of the year. I don't know which year but it was published in 1997 so it has probably been read by many before I was able to borrow the book and read it. If it were not borrowed I would have many sentences underlined.
On the inside cover someone wrote the following, "Grace is the church's great distinctive. It's the one thing the world cannot duplicate and the one thing it craves above all else -- for only grace can bring hope and transformation to a jaded world." Without grace, where would we be? What would we be? I hate to even think about not having grace.
Philip points out that all of Jesus' parables point to grace and tries to explain just what grace is. And he talks about the 'unfairness' of grace. Think about it. Look at the parable of the farmer who hires some men to help with the harvesting in the last hour of the day, while other workers had been working the whole day. These last men hired had just been hanging around the town square all day, doing nothing. And yet, at the end of the day, the employer pays all the workers exactly the same wages, whether they worked all day or just the last hour. Talk about unfair! At least the workers who toiled all day thought it very unfair, as would we.
" Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?"
Philip writes, "Jesus' story makes no economic sense, and that was his intent. He was giving us a parable about grace, which cannot be calculated like a day's wages. Grace is not about finishing last or first; it is about not counting. We receive grace as a gift from God, not as something we toil to earn, a point that Jesus made clearly through the employer's response."
Philip goes on to say that many Christians who read this parable identify with the employees who put in a full day's work, rather than the men hired toward the end of the day. We like to think of ourselves as responsible workers, putting in the full time required, and so deserve the full pay. And the late-comers do not deserve to be paid the same as we do. So we immediately say, "That's not fair!" He continues with, "We are missing the story's point: that God dispenses gifts, not wages. None of us gets paid according to merit, for none of us comes close to satisfying God's requirements for a perfect life. If paid on the basis of fairness, we would all end up in hell."
Grace is again explained in the parable of the servant that had a huge debt to pay, so huge that it was impossible for him to ever pay it back, and yet the king is touched with pity and cancels the debt, letting the servant off scot-free. The servant must have been overwhelmed with gratitude, right? But then, he turns around and demands payment from a colleague who owes him just a few dollars, and ends up having him thrown in jail for not being able to pay. What an ingrate! He had just received a tremendous gift of grace, but he could not extend a small amount of grace to another.
So now I have to stop and think. I must remind myself of the wonderful grace God has given me by not making me pay for my sins. Do I extend grace to those who have hurt me in some way? Another word for it is forgiveness. What do we pray in the Lord's prayer? "Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us." Hmmmm. Do I forgive those who have offended me? Do I forgive the clerk that overcharged me? Have I forgiven the person that said some words that hurt me?
Those are small things compared to the stories we hear about the father who forgave the man who killed his daughter, and there have been many other similar stories in the news, and we wonder how they could possible forgive someone for such a heinous crime against them. And yet they do. They do with the help of God. And the grace they extend to the guilty often has amazing results and we see a changed person. He still must pay for the crime, but he knows he has received a great gift of grace. So why do I hold a grudge for something so small as a few hurtful words?
On another page I marked this paragraph -- "Grace makes its appearance in so many forms that I have trouble defining it. I am ready, though, to attempt something like a definition of grace in relation to God. Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more -- no amount of spiritual calisthenics and renunciations, no amount of knowledge gained from seminaries and divinity schools, no amount of crusading on behalf of righteous causes. And grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us less -- no amount of racism or pride or pornography or adultery or even murder. Grace means that God already loves us as much as an infinite God can possible love." (italics - Philips, underlines are mine)
Grace means there is nothing we can do to make God love us more, and nothing we can do to make God love us less. There is nothing I can do to earn that grace, and nothing I can do for God to take it away. "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so." All little children know that song, but it is the adults who request that song more than any other. It is all I need to know. Jesus loves me. Jesus loves me, warts and all, when I am at my worst, while I am a sinner and not a saint. Jesus loves me. How do I know? Because the Bible tells me so.
Another page says this, "Tony Campolo sometimes asks students at secular universities what they know about Jesus. Can they recall anything Jesus said? By clear consensus they reply, "Love your enemies." More than any other teaching of Christ, that one stands out to an unbeliever. Such an attitude is unnatural, perhaps downright suicidal. It's hard enough to forgive your rotten brothers, as Joseph did, but your enemies? The gang of thugs down the block? Iraqis? The drug dealers poisoning our nation?
Most ethicists would agree instead with the philosopher Immanuel Kant, who argued that a person should be forgiven only if he deserves it. But the very word forgive contains the word "give" (just as the word pardon contains donum, or gift). Like grace, forgiveness has about it the maddening quality of being undeserved, unmerited, unfair."
And other statement, "One day I discovered this admonition from the apostle Paul tucked in among many other admonitions in Romans 12. Hate evil, Be joyful, Live in harmony, Do not be conceited -- the list goes on and on. Then appears this verse, "Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God's wrath, for it is written: 'It is mine to avenge; I will repay.' says the Lord."
At last I understood: in the final analysis, forgiveness is an act of faith. By forgiving another, I am trusting that God is a better justice-maker than I am. By forgiving, I release my own right to get even and leave all issues of fairness for God to work out. I leave in God's hands the scales that must balance justice and mercy."
In another place Philip says, "First, forgiveness alone can halt the cycle of blame and pain, breaking the chain of ungrace. In the New Testament the most common Greek word for forgiveness means, literally, to release, to hurl away, to free yourself."
I like that thought - to release, to hurl away, to free yourself. That is what forgiveness does. It does not condone the bad behavior or wrong done to us, nor is it done for the person who committed the offense. But forgiveness is for ourselves. We are releasing it, freeing ourselves, hurling it away. Hurling. To me that means throwing it as far as we can throw it. Of course, the trick it to not run after it and pick it up again! I can be pretty good at that sometimes. Philip goes on to say that he readily admits that forgiveness is unfair.
Moving on, Philip talks about legalism and trying to attain to ideal perfection, and I like this statement - "A man who professes an external law is like someone standing in the light of a lantern fixed to a post. It is light all around him, but there is nowhere further for him to walk. A man who professes the teaching of Christ is like a man carrying a lantern before him on a long, or not so long, pole: the light is in front of him, always lighting up fresh ground and always encouraging him to walk further.
In other words, the proof of spiritual maturity is not how "pure" you are but awareness of your impurity. That very awareness opens the door to grace." (underlining mine)
Further on in the book, Philip gets back to who is my enemy. "The abortionist? The Hollywood producer polluting our culture? The politician threatening my moral principles? The drug lord ruling my inner city? If my activism, however well-motivated, drives out love, then I have misunderstood Jesus' gospel. I am stuck with law, not the gospel of grace."
In his last chapter he states - " Having begun with questions -- What's so amazing about grace and why don't Christians show more of it? -- I now end with a final question: What does a grace-full Christian look like?
Perhaps I should rephrase the question, How does a grace-full Christan look? The Christian life, I believe, does not primarily center on ethics or rules but rather involves a new way of seeing. I escape the force of spiritual "gravity" when I begin to see myself as a sinner who cannot please God by any method of self-improvement or self-enlargement. Only then can I turn to God for outside help -- for grace-- and to my amazement I learn that a holy God already loves me despite my defects. I escape the force of gravity again when I recognize my neighbors also as sinners, loved by God. A grace-full Christian is one who looks at the world through "grace-tinted lenses." "
The following I think is a neat picture --
"Strangely, God is closer to sinners than to "saints." (By saints I mean those people renowned for their piety--true saints never lose sight of their sinfulness.) As one lecturer in spirituality explains it, "God in heaven holds each person by a string. When you sin, you cut the string. Then God ties it up again, making a knot--and thereby bringing you a little closer to him. Again and again your sins cut the string--and with each further knot God keeps drawing you closer and closer." "
One final thought -- "Once my view of myself changed, I began to see the church in a different light too: as a community of people thirsty for grace."
There is so much more in the book that is worth reading. I encourage you to find a copy and read it. I would love to hear what caught your attention and your thoughts on it. I know it has made me appreciate God's grace all the more, and to remember to offer grace to others.