Longing for the Divine

Understanding Grace

Grace is a word I’ve heard since I was young. I was taught the following definition: unmerited or undeserved favor. To be honest, this notion of grace has never resonated with me, as it is more a spiritual abstraction than an essential definition. I was told that I was utterly unworthy of divine favor but that God bestowed it on me anyway. All I needed to do was subscribe to a short list of beliefs about Jesus, and God’s grace would regard me as good. Such grace is like finding a place with God through a willingness to believe in the saving merits of Jesus.

The notion that God does not save us based on what we do raises doubts about the role of effort and good works, leading some to worry about how people will behave. Ironically, some who claim salvation by grace alone are not very gracious individuals themselves. What does it mean to believe in grace alone while leaving good works for liberals to do? Didn’t Esther find grace in the public square and merit the king’s approval (Esther 2:17; 5:8)? Esther’s attitude was marked by treating others kindly, earning her grace in their sight. Grace can’t be a dismissal of benevolence, as its proper conduct has as much to do with how we treat others as with what we receive from God. God surely does not despise graceful lives or grace-filled actions. What if grace is necessary for structuring relationships, families, businesses, and societies as well as for sharing with non-human creation to reveal God’s grace-filled heavenly kingdom on earth?

It’s simply not true that God’s grace has no relationship to effort. As the Bible says, “Noah found grace in the sight of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8, KJV). Noah was favored because he was righteous. Such grace goes beyond undeserved favor. God’s grace has the power to transform individuals into grace-giving people. Theologies of grace alone, which are interpreted as critiques on actions, are often imposed onto the Bible as if only unmerited favor bestowed on us through Jesus’ merits mattered—as if all our puny efforts were sinful attempts to save ourselves. However, Esther and Noah present a problem for such theology. Following the way of grace and becoming a person of grace are desirable and good.

What resonates with me is that God describes His own character and nature as gracious (Exodus 34:6). The existence of grace requires someone who is gracious first. When God pours out His grace, it appears generously benevolent and beautiful. We all need such extravagant grace from God. I fully believe that redemption and restoration are achieved completely by grace alone because humans could never choose God on their own apart from God’s help to choose Him. God’s grace is so beautiful to me; it’s like a compassionate father running to welcome his prodigal son home and wrapping him in arms of uncondemning love, where willfulness and shame disappear. To me, grace is like shade in the scorching sun or a bubbling brook in a parched wasteland. Its presence is precious, protecting and comforting those in distress. Grace is like spring rain gently falling on a desert to change the arid landscape, which soaks up the rain and blossoms like a rose, becoming resilient and beautiful.

I don’t have to make myself worthy of God’s gift of grace. I don’t have to earn His approval. God already deems me worthy of His grace. God already loves and accepts me because of His character, not mine. I find God’s favor not by what I do but by trusting in the nail-pierced hands that revealed God to be full of grace. God’s grace helps me fulfill the potential I was created for. At creation, God made me good and chose me to bear His loving image. I was declared good and deemed worthy of His love. Although I have strayed from this goodness, even in my brokenness and lostness, I can be restored to my original loveliness by the power of His grace. I need not choose good behavior to receive this grace because it has already found me. God longs to be gracious to me and waits on high to have compassion for me (Isaiah 30:18). He loved me before I ever chose Him, and His grace will transform my life if I allow it. God continues to help me by His grace. He is gracious and altogether lovely, and my responses are credited to His grace alone.

It seems to me that the Bible presents an idea of grace that goes beyond the standard theological notions that I grew up with. Undeserved favor is as real as deserved favor. Noah obeyed God’s commands and was a person of integrity who was precious in God’s sight (Genesis 6:22). If I become a grace-filled person who finds favor in God’s sight, He will brag about my faithfulness as He did about that of Noah and others. Some may deny that grace is ever related to faithfulness, arguing that God disregards our goodness—which is small compared to His—and thus only bestows undeserved favor.

I believe that good works do not make me acceptable to God because I am already accepted and loved. I know that God always remains gracious and that this has an enormous impact on me. I find God’s favor by trusting that He is full of grace. This is why faithfulness is about grace. I know that I live under the certainty of His kindness and that I can never fall out of His loving embrace, but my loving deeds do not oppose grace, for grace shapes my willpower and effort. My only fear is that I may stop caring about receiving God’s grace and no longer respond to His grace alone, which would be the end of grace for me. Such persuasive grace will never coerce me, for such love and acceptance can’t be forced. So, I pray that I remain in divine grace and receive more, which will persuade me to continue responding to God’s matchless grace so that I can become a grace-filled person that is precious in His sight.

Craig Ashton Jr.

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