Grace

The word grace has been described as “the last best word” because it seems to be the only theological term that hasn’t been spoiled.1 Words like gracious, grateful, and gratuity hint at its meaning along with expressions like saying grace, grace period, and grace notes.

I’ve heard many definitions of grace. The simplest biblical definition is the unmerited favor of God. This minimal definition, though, doesn’t begin to capture the full meaning and impact of grace. Grace in its most powerful form is the supernatural thing by which a follower of Jesus Christ receives eternal salvation/life. This “saving grace” is mind-blowing stuff, and is captured beautifully in the following Bible verse.

God saved you by his grace when you believed [in Jesus’ sacrifice]. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.2

Saving grace has nothing to do with how good a person is and everything to do with the ultimate expression of God’s perfect love for us.

There are also other more common forms of grace, as we touched on in the first paragraph above. The
Bible shows how God expresses grace when he gives sunlight and rain to both the evil and the good,3 vision to both the poor and the oppressor,4 and food for everyone to enjoy.5 People also express this grace when they extend love, service, forgiveness, kindness, and sacrifice to those who can’t earn it or don’t deserve it. We are capable of such grace because we are made in God’s image.6 These common forms of grace are often referred to simply as “common grace.”

Some people have gone as far as to describe grace as shocking and scandalous7 given how incredibly counter it is to human nature and our notions of what God should be like. Grace leads a person to forgive others despite unspeakable crimes.8 It leads one person to keep forgiving another for repeating the same offense countless times.9 It leads us to love our enemies, to pray for them, and do good to them.10 And above all, it’s what led God to send his Son to earth in human form to live a sinless life filled with suffering and persecution, and die horribly and unjustly at our hands so that we might have eternal life.11

The last statement is pretty amazing. The Bible describes a God who loves us so deeply that, despite the fact that we repeatedly choose to turn our backs on him, he would sacrifice his only Son to have a relationship with us. I don’t know of any faith that describes such a personal God, one who reaches down to mankind rather than requiring us to reach up via our own efforts.

The Bible is a love story, one describing a father’s (God’s) incredible love for his children (his creation), and it’s filled with examples of God’s grace towards us – all of us. Throughout history, God has expressed his love for people who would be considered scoundrels by society and used them in his service. God took an adulterer and murderer (King David) and molded him into someone who many consider to be the greatest king in Old Testament times. He also took a murderer and torturer (the apostle Paul) and changed him into the greatest missionary of all time. Paul himself wrote:

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners – and I am the worst of them all. But God had mercy on me so that Christ Jesus could use me as a prime example of his great patience with even the worst sinners. Then others will realize that they, too, can believe in him and receive eternal life.12

Jesus was all about grace. He had a reputation for hanging out with people society judged as sinners and outcasts – lepers, prostitutes, foreigners and tax collectors (among others). He told grace stories like the one describing a father’s outrageous love and forgiveness for his son who took an early withdrawal of his inheritance and blew it on partying and prostitutes.13 He acted gracefully, like when he deftly prevented a mob from stoning a woman caught in adultery.14 And he talked about how a celebration breaks out in heaven whenever a single sinner repents.15

While I saw and was moved by examples of grace in the world and the Bible over the years, I didn’t come to truly understand its power and importance until I experienced it on a deep, personal level.  My transformation began back in April, 2008, when my wife informed me that she wanted a divorce after well over 20 years of marriage.  I cannot put into words how stunned and devastated I was.  I knew we had our problems and had admittedly grown apart over the years, but we weren’t dealing with issues like extramarital affairs, drug use, physical abuse or bankruptcy.  I soon came to realize, though, that there were far more serious things at work, things that would force me to take the hardest look ever at my heart, behavior, beliefs and priorities.

As I worked through the initial shock, I had a number of major revelations.  The biggest one was that I had slowly come to live in a state of perpetual “ungrace” in my marriage.  Among other things, I had become angry, selfish, impatient, grumpy and sometimes downright mean.  I wanted my wife to do the things that were important to me and tried to get her to do them by increasingly showing my displeasure with her.  I kept a record of her wrongs, often grumbled and cursed with displeasure, and could barely offer up a smile when around her.  Of course, she wasn’t perfect either, but I realized that the only person I could change was me, and that acting ungracefully had brought me to the brink of divorce.

I began to think seriously about the example Jesus Christ set as recorded in the Bible.  What I saw was truly amazing.  I saw how badly Christ was treated throughout his life by so many people he came into contact with, and how he was eventually beaten and crucified.  I realized he accepted all of this without lashing out at people and using his power to force them to change.  Instead, he traveled around the countryside caring for people, teaching and healing them, and was often moved with compassion and tears when he saw suffering.  This made me realize how badly I was behaving.  Instead of accepting my wife’s differences and appreciating them, and using them to help me change and mature, I was continually exerting pressure on her to change.

So I decided to do a number of things.  I committed to start seeing my wife through God’s graceful, loving eyes and not my own selfish ones.  I also committed to treating her with grace no matter what happened.  I simply did not want to get into the tit-for-tat downward spiral that characterizes so many divorces (and the world in general).  Finally, I realized that the only person I could change was me.  So I decided to focus on identifying the things that God wanted me to change in myself, and not the things I wanted my wife to change about herself.

What I’ve been through since has been a remarkable combination of pain, joy, revelation, and growth. I’ve seen the realness, practicality, and power of grace first hand, and it’s simply astounding. While the details of how I followed up on my commitments are in the Changed Lives section below, I’ll include some nuggets of wisdom I gained from the experience here.

First and foremost, grace is the only way to go, and until you have and seize the opportunity to act counter to the world and express grace in the face of conflict and difficulty, you’ll never really “get it.” You also won’t experience true healing and freedom in these situations until you decide to forgive and love those who have hurt you. I have a friend who went through a divorce at the same time as me. For years, every time he interacted with his ex-wife he was bitter, could barely look at her, and said things he would regret for days if not weeks. He simply would not allow himself to forgive her for what she did and let grace bring peace into his life. He was an unhappy prisoner of ungrace.

Second, my relationship with my ex-wife is as good as it’s been in ages despite all we’ve been through, and it’s all due to grace.  Once I decided to break the cycle of ungrace that had gripped me and begin behaving with unconditional forgiveness and love, an amazing thing started to happen.  My ex-wife’s heart began to slowly soften and she began to talk with me more freely and let her hostilities melt away.  We have a much healthier relationship than the other divorced people I know (and there are lots of them) despite the deep sadness and pain that accompanied the divorce.  It’s also been a wonderful example for our daughter and made dealing with the situation far easier for her.  And lest you think I’m patting myself on the back, I acknowledge that I simply couldn’t have done this without God’s help.16  It’s God’s grace that I’m expressing, not my own.

Third, the more I realized how much I screwed up and needed forgiveness, the more willing I was to extend grace and forgive others.  In the words of C. S. Lewis, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”17 My increasing awareness of how flawed I was opened the door to unimaginable grace in my life.  It was only when I realized and focused on my mistakes and sin that I began to yearn to serve my ex-wife and extend grace and forgiveness no matter what.

Fourth, the world is filled with ungrace.  Everywhere I turned over the past several years I was greeted by someone encouraging me to behave ungracefully.  Nearly everyone I talked to had advice for how to handle my wife or the situation – and it was mostly mean spirited.  In the world, every bad act deserves an equal or greater bad reaction.  Many people actually got mad at me or expressed frustration with me for treating my wife with grace after she left.  Yet the wonderful things that came from my decision now stand as a testament to grace.  A few people have actually come to me and acknowledged that their advice was wrong.  Many more people have simply marveled at the relationship I now have with my ex-wife.  I often wonder what my neighbors think when they see my ex-wife and I occasionally giving each other a tender goodbye hug in our driveway when she stops by to pick up our daughter.  I hope that grace is touching their hearts.

In summary, the Bible’s concept of grace is not only unique to Christianity, but I believe it’s the only force powerful enough to overcome the spirit of ungrace that is so prevalent in the world.  This amazing grace is Christianity’s greatest contribution to the world, and dispensing it should be our highest priority.18  The good news of grace is that God loves us deeply, and there’s nothing we can do good or bad to change that.

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  1. Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997, Page 12.
  2. Ephesians 2:8-9, NIV.
  3. See Matthew 5:45.
  4. See Proverbs 29:13.
  5. See Acts 14:16-17.
  6. Genesis 1:27.
  7. Philip Yancey, What’s So Amazing About Grace? Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997.
  8. See Acts 7:60.
  9. See Matthew 18:22.
  10. See Matthew 5:44-47.
  11. See John 3:16 and Philippians 2:5-8.
  12. 1 Timothy 1:15-16, NLT.
  13. Luke 15:11-32.
  14. John 8:1-11.
  15. Luke 15:3-7.
  16. Matthew 19:26.
  17. 14 C. S. Lewis, “On Forgiveness,” in The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, New York, NY: Collier Books/Macmillan, 1980, pg 125.
  18. John 13:35.