All of us Christians blab about ‘grace’. In English, the word usually refers to fluidity in physical movements, like the graceful ballerina, or he ran that obstacle course with grace. Grace and beauty have a lot in common, in this sense. But when the bible talks about grace, it is talking about something much less polished and – sometimes – downright ugly.
If you were crushed with work – at whatever job – and I came to help you and in fact gave you a day off, and then got you so far ahead that you wouldn’t have to work for a month, you would want to pay me. Or you would search through an inventory of things that you have done for me in the past, so as to deduce if you actually deserved my assistance. If you concluded that you are in my debt, you would insist on payment. But then what if I said your money was no good, and I would accept no payment. First, you would smile. Then, you would get nervous. What does this mean? Your conscious brain is thankful that you reap all these benefits. Your unconscious brain is furious that your currency has no value.
It is this initial rejection of God’s grace that gives it an ugly hue. We are bound to resist this unconditional grace. Adam and Eve in the garden would have preferred to cover their shameful nakedness with the fig-leaf-garments of their own making, rather than God’s sufficient clothing given freely and with no ability to set the record straight. That is ugly. Here is the problem with God, the second you accept a gift from someone that needs nothing in return, that same second you must put to death your score-keeping. Otherwise, trying to match God gift-for-gift (like we all do with our family at the holidays) will put you to death. Maybe literally. Deluding yourself into thinking your church-attendance, or prayer-commitment, or penance, is taking a dent out of God’s gift in Jesus Christ’s sacrifice on your behalf – that, my friends – is absurd. You can’t match God gift for gift. He is God.
What does this mean? Should we just give up, and sin all the more that grace may abound? I doubt it. Maybe it just means we should repent of our score-keeping ways. Recognize that God has given us something that we can’t pay back. We can understand how offensive and blasphemous it is to pretend our gifts are as worthy as God’s. Martin Luther once said, “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.”
This Christmas season, let the unique gift-giving God have his way with you. Give up your attempts to get him off your back. Let the unconditionality of God’s love scare you to death, until you actually start believing it. Then love God and do whatever you will.
Karl Barth writes:
Grace means Emmanuel, God with us, in such a way that we men … are not given over and left to ourselves, to our misery, even to our own inclinations. Grace, which asks not a word about what we are, what we have, what we bring along with us; grace, which leaves us no other hope than in that which is undeserved, God’s free grace accepts us men, just as God’s Word has accepted flesh, our flesh. It has accepted us already in Jesus Christ, long before we in turn could think of accepting it.