By Bill Beausay
We hate that we can’t earn grace and we hate that others worse than us don’t have to earn it. We want to work for it, and we want others to work for it too. But that’s not God’s math.
OK, here’s my promise: By the time you finish reading this, you’ll have an easy formula for understanding God’s grace. But first we need to talk. After all, the theology of grace is complicated, right? People with large brains and capital letters behind their names teach college courses on expiation, conduct scholarly cage fights on propitiation, and spend valuable time hotly debating reconciliation and redemption. My computer’s spell checker doesn’t even recognize some of this stuff! The concept of grace is a mind-bender.
Thankfully, passing a theology exam isn’t a requirement for heaven. What is required for heaven is following what Jesus said. But surprisingly, Jesus never mentioned the word grace. Rather, He lived it in a complete and world-changing way. And therein lies the key to understanding this crazy idea of God’s grace.
The Grace Card, a thoughtful movie about the true meaning of grace, hit the big screen this year. The entire plot pivots on a scene between pure-hearted cop Sam Wright and his wise grandfather, George, played by Academy Award-winner Lou Gossett Jr. In the scene, George is counseling his grandson about Sam’s intense
desire to leave law enforcement and become a full-time pastor. George produces an old Bible given to his grandfather, Wendell Wright, on his 8th birthday. The Bible is dated 1884.
Young Wendell was given the Bible by John Esque, his former owner. Not long before, Esque had stood before all his slaves, hat in hand, and asked their forgiveness for what he’d done. He also asked them to forgive all slave owners who’d done so many bad things, whether they deserved forgiveness or not.
“You can never underestimate the power of grace,” George told Sam. “It’s powerful. One act of grace can change the world. That’s the point.”
Then George reached into the old Bible and removed a tattered note. It was written by young Wendell to his former owner who became his close friend and simply said, “I promise to pray for you every day, ask for your forgiveness and grant you the same, and be your friend always.”
The words of that note changed the course of Sam’s life and the lives of many others. Grandfather George was right: Grace is powerful and it can change the world.
But as Sam later stated in a sermon, grace is easy to swallow, but harder to follow. Let me offer you case in point. For 10 minutes — just 10 minutes — take a seat in a mall and in your mind make yourself love everyone who walks by. It’s OK to have natural judgments about them, but love them all equally anyway. Will yourself to feel love for them as if they were your children. If you see a tattooed biker, feel so much love for that individual that you could embrace him or her. If you see bratty kids, impatient mothers, sloppy husbands, and teens with bad attitudes, love them all intensely anyway. Go ahead, give it a try.
So how did you do? If you’re like me, the exercise could’ve lasted 10 seconds and I would’ve flunked. I figure I can be full of grace for about 6.8 seconds at a time.
As it turns out the word grace isn’t used uniformly throughout Scripture. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word chen denotes gracefulness or beauty (Proverbs 22:11; 31:30) but is most often used to describe God’s behavior of “unmerited kindness and favor” toward us. The word could literally be interpreted as “stooping in kindness to an inferior.”
In the New Testament, the Greek word charis occurs approximately 150 times. It denotes a pleasant external appearance, “loveliness,” “agreeableness,” or “acceptableness” (Luke 4:22; Colossians 4:6). But a more prominent meaning of the word is “favor” or “goodwill” (Luke 1:30; Acts 2:47; 7:46). It might also suggest an emotional awakening in the heart of the recipient in the form of gratitude or thankfulness. But in most of the passages, it signifies the unmerited occupation of God in the heart of man.
Though Jesus never used the word grace, the basic idea was present in nearly everything He said. Think of the pardon of sin, unmerited forgiveness, the thirst for righteousness, the inexhaustible extent of God’s love, and more. As John said, “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). And it was given to us as a free gift.
This seems pretty straightforward. So why do we seem to wrestle with the concept of grace so much? Maybe because it goes against the way sin has rewired us. Deep down we hate that we can’t earn grace and we hate that others worse than us don’t have to earn it. We want to work for it, and we want others to work for it too. We want to earn things, and we want others to qualify. It just doesn’t feel fair to receive grace without doing something.
But that’s not God’s math. And though it defies our senses, everyone gets a shot at the gift, no matter how good or bad. We don’t earn grace; we just reach up and take it. And we have to learn to accept that, especially as it pertains to others.
I like the words of Andy Stanley in his book The Grace of God (Thomas Nelson): “Grace is what I crave most when my guilt is exposed. But it is the very thing I am hesitant to extend when I’m confronted with the guilt of others … when we are on the receiving end, grace is refreshing. When it’s required of us, it’s often disturbing. But when correctly applied, it seems to solve just about everything.”
Jesus never mentioned the word grace. Rather, He lived it in a complete and world-changing way.
5 Keys to Everyday Grace
- Connect daily with God, the source of strength and grace, through Scripture study and prayer. God built us for connection. There’s no need to go it alone.
- Seek out those in need. It’s typical to wait until God throws someone in your path to minister kindness and mercy. Don’t wait. Look around you.
- Do the little things — smile more, encourage more, give more, forgive more.
- Focus on what you have to give, not on what you don’t have. God can work with the feeblest effort from the emptiest people. Make yourself available.
- Live lightly. Always remember that the gift of grace is a good, inspiring, motivating, and weight-lifting thing. Seek ways to live lightly in the presence of God and love everyone.
We’re all tasked with communicating God’s grace, love, and forgiveness. This sounds difficult until we remember that the grace of God is found not in the figuring out and strategizing, but in the doing. Extending grace is actually a lot of work until it becomes a fully functioning, unconscious part of the way you and I relate with others. In other words, if it still seems hard, we’re still learning.
How do we begin learning? In whatever humbled, bumbled, halting, amateurish, fall-on-your-face way, we need to stop talking and theologizing and start simply looking out for and loving everyone without exception. We need to comfort the widow, feed the hungry, direct a lost and lonely child, visit the prisoner, comfort the sick and dying, and start loving people who turn our stomachs. This isn’t easy, but there’s learning in it.
At the beginning of the article I promised a formula for grace. I think you’re ready for it: Grace = Love Everyone.
Today, let’s start the grace walk by doing two things: asking God to change our hearts, and then gifting others with grace whether we feel it or not. My guess is that pretty soon we’ll discover we’re acting in ways that surprise us. That’s called owning it. And it’s the path to finding ourselves squarely in God’s will.
In whatever humbled, bumbled, halting, amateurish, fall-on-your-face way, we need to stop talking and theologizing and start simply looking out for and loving everyone without exception.
on Grace & Service
“Abuntoo … It’s an African word that means family. The spirit of the word is that our Creator made us for one another. When we help someone, we help all of us. When we hurt one, we hurt us all.”
These are the hopeful words of Academy Award-winning actor Lou Gossett Jr.’s character, George, at the beginning of Sony Pictures/Provident Films The Grace Card.
“I was tired 10 years ago,” says Gossett, 75. “But I’m here to do something. It’s God’s power, not mine … I’m just the servant.”
Though not necessarily known as a Christian actor, Gossett is serious about the impact this film can have on our society.
“This movie is life … it’s real. In our country, the age of racism and inequality is coming to a dramatic close. The age of exploitation is over. It’s time we care for one another,” Gossett says. “The question we should all be asking is, ‘How can I help?’ My answer is this: When you pray, mean it. Take care of those in your sphere. Teach kids responsibility, to take care of their family, to take responsibility for their own education. Teach them about healing, grace, and dignity. In this way we can all become fully involved, 3-D Americans.”
Gossett, who has won major awards as a screen, television, and Broadway star, walks his talk. He gives back to kids through his foundation, Eracism (louisgossett.com), and encourages the lessons taught in The Grace Card to everyone he meets.
Where did this energy for goodness and kindness come from?
“My grandmother. Once when I was winning awards on Broadway and I had a girl on each arm and life by the tail, she came to me with some advice I’ve never forgotten: ‘God was here long before you arrived and will be here long after you’re gone,’ she said, ‘so come down here off that pedestal now and get busy and make your life count.’”
Sounds like Grandma knew a thing or two about grace.
Bill Beausay is a popular speaker and author of nearly 20 books. Visit him at beausay.com.
This article originally appeared in the July, 2011 issue of HomeLife. To subscribe, click here or on the magazine cover.