I’m constantly amazed at how much we resist grace. Not in receiving grace, though there is some of that. There are some people whose guilt is so great that they just can’t handle grace. They feel so bad about themselves that can’t conceive that they are worthy to receive grace, to receive forgiveness as a gift, free and clear, without them having to do anything. They would feel much better if they could somehow earn forgiveness; then forgiveness would be justified. But they never feel justified because by definition no one is worthy of grace. Forgiveness that comes as a result of the recipient’s worthiness is not grace. The person has in a sense earned the forgiveness because they are worthy of it.
And that’s not grace. This is not to say, however, that a person receiving grace is not a person of worth. This is a mistake that many evangelicals have made all the way back to at least the time of the Reformation: in saying that salvation is by grace and is not earned means ipso facto we humans are worthless, we are utterly depraved, sinners in the hands of an angry God, lower than worms.
In my opinion, that’s nonsense. Our worth as persons was never based on our actions; it’s based on our creation. Each person is created in the image of God, and that creation imago dei is a fact, a fact which sin cannot change. Our sin is not greater than God’s creative power. Nor is it greater than his love or his grace.
But most people don’t have much of a problem receiving grace. But showing grace and giving grace, that’s another story. We’re hard on each other.
When a person hurts us, well, it hurts. And no one likes to hurt. We want the hurt to go away, and we don’t want it to come back again. And the longer the hurt lingers, the harder we tend to work to make sure that it never happens again.
Usually that takes the form of some kind of punishment for the person who hurt us. Harsh words, a raised voice, yelling and screaming and other forms of non-physical violence become our first refuge. Sometimes it escalates into physical violence.
If we are unwilling—or simply unable—to use these methods, we will punish by withdrawal. We’ll stop talking, or our conversation will be void of any emotional and relational content. Or we’ll withdraw physically—we’ll just avoid the person who hurt us. While these may be seen as merely self-protective measures, there is no doubt that there is a punitive aspect to them, even if unintentional. But as anyone who has been on the receiving end of “the silent treatment”—and who hasn’t?—withdrawal is definitely punitive, and it’s usually consciously so.
But so what? If someone hurts you, they deserve to be punished, otherwise they’ll just keep doing it and doing it. You’re actually doing them a favor by punishing them and leading them to change their behavior.
And that’s the rub that most of us have with grace: it feels like we’re just letting the other person get away with bad behavior; not only that, but we’re enabling the bad behavior. Grace feels like we’re rewarding the bad behavior and guaranteeing that it will be repeated, not just with us but with others.
But to equate grace with permissiveness is to fundamentally misunderstand grace. True grace doesn’t ignore the gravity of the sin or the reality of the hurt caused; it doesn’t give permission, it doesn’t enable, it doesn’t look the other way. But it also doesn’t seek to attack or to withdraw. Just the opposite: grace confronts, but without violence. Grace not only seeks to change the behavior, but to fundamentally change the attitude behind the behavior as well. More than anything, grace seeks to maintain the relationship. Punishment can and often does change the behavior, but often hardens the attitude as well. It certainly affects the relationship. Grace changes behavior and attitudes better than punishment. Neither is foolproof; if that’s what you’re searching for, good luck. Even God couldn’t find a foolproof way to change the human heart. Even after offering his son, many hearts remain hardened.
So giving grace is not permissiveness, and confusing the two often leads to people forsaking grace. But the real reason grace is so often left untried is that it’s hard. Real hard.
The punishment route is actually easier than the grace route for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it is the most natural. And what comes naturally is always easier. The harsh words just flow out, and it’s hard work to keep them in. “Count to ten” is done to keep from saying harsh things. Withdrawal is easier than grace-full engagement. Working toward reconciliation so that the behavior is not repeated, forgiveness is given, and the relationship is maintained is hard work. Anyone who thinks otherwise has never really considered the meaning of the cross.
Grace is hard, but it’s worth it. Because reconciliation is always better than revenge.