Sunday, 7 February 2016

Grace and its opposite

A few years ago I stopped using the word "deserve". The concept no longer has much value to me. Sure, there are some cases where perhaps an athlete running way out in front of a race is hit by a water bottle thrown by someone in the audience just seconds before the finish line. They stumble and end up coming 5th – we might say quite truly that they deserved to win.

But it wouldn't be so true to say that some kind but very poor person deserved to win the lottery. Or that a school student deserved to get a better grade because they had tried so hard. Or that someone deserved to be raped because they dressed provocatively. Or that someone deserved HIV/AIDS because they were a promiscuous homosexual.

No one deserves AIDS. No one deserves to win the lottery. No one deserves heaven. No one deserves hell.*

This is not the desert I mean!!!
Grace is the opposite of desert.**

Grace does not say "I'll be nice to you even though you don’t deserve it". Grace denies any sense of what someone deserves, and surprises people with blessings anyway.

When we ran The Omega Course, one of the videos we discussed was a snippet from Marcus Borg about the key themes in the Bible.*** He suggested that there are three meta-narratives (he calls them "macro-stories") of salvation:
  • The story of bondage and slavery, the solution to which is liberation. The central example is Israel's exodus from Egypt, but it also includes the slavery many feel through addictions, victimisation, and poverty.
  • The story of exile, the solution to which is a journey of return to home. The Hebrew exile in Babylon is a central prototype, but there is sense of alienation most humans feel and which is reflected in the early Biblical story about being expelled from Eden.
  • The story of sin and impurity, the solution to which is forgiveness and cleansing.
People may feel the weight of each of these to differing extents and at different points in their lives. But in my experience of churches within Australia, the USA and South Africa – even ignoring the preaching of guilt and damnation – the preaching of grace is limited to the third of those story-lines. The remedy of all three aspects of the human condition, however, depend on grace.  Salvation, whether by liberation, a return home, or forgiveness, always springs from grace.

As long as we are stuck in the mire of what people deserve, we cannot fully appreciate the grace of God. The Biblical God seeks to restore all things (Acts 3:21), wishes that all would be saved (1 Timothy 2:4), sends sunshine and rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:45), and has no favourites (Acts 10:34, Romans 2:11). This is a God whose grace extends to all, regardless of any reward or punishment they may seem to deserve. A God who releases the oppressed (Luke 4:18), who creates a home for us (John 14:1-4, Hebrews 11:16), and who forgives even those who would prefer that God was dead (Luke 23:34).

Grace is not a stand-alone concept but exists within an ecology that includes love, mercy and forgiveness. Grace is not blind to evil nor does it condone the harm we do to ourselves, each other and our world, but continually undermines evil by enabling a better alternative. Nevertheless, grace is not irresistible: if people could not refuse grace it would not be grace but another form of oppression. That is part of the reason – though only part of it – why we continue in bondage, exile and sin.

"From [Jesus'] fullness we have all received, grace upon grace" (John 1:16). It is this grace that says "there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female" (Galatians 3:28). There is no "us and them". There is no deserving nor undeserving. God's grace is extended to all irrespective of any category.

May we show the same grace as God, blind to any labels, blind to any cultural or religious notion of what people deserve.

* This scepticism about what people "deserve" is a third of the reason I no longer believe in the value of retribution, the other two-thirds being that I'm trying to model my life on One who eschewed retribution, and it doesn't achieve the effect people hope for anyway.
** I wish I could make a clever word-play here … something about a meal starting with grace and ending with dessert, but of course "getting just dessert" is something completely different than "getting your just deserts"!
*** The video came from the Living the Questions series, but the same can be found in Borg's The Heart of Christianity, p. 175 in the edition I have.