God’s Grace: What is it?
In my last article titled “Prayer: What is it?” I said that I’m a critic of religious statements that sound great but make no sense to me. Anything, if you expect people to believe in it and pass it on, needs to make sense. In the realm of religion this is particularly true because we are talking about ideas concerning God, our relationship with God, and how that relationship has changed over a period of time. Also, remember that all of these ideas are coming from our perspective: what we understand God to want from us, what we think God is saying to us, and particularly, what we think God has done and is doing in this world.
I suggested in that article that I did not believe it to be sensible to be asking God to intervene in our lives or events happening in history because it is clearly not happening. Either God is not there (the atheist position), he is not listening or it is not his real nature to “pop in and out” of actual events in history. The truth is that people create war and also peace, people hurt lives and save lives, people are responsible for their lives or irresponsible.
Do I believe in prayer? Yes. And when I pray I believe that God hears my prayers, but more importantly I hear my prayers and I’m then able to focus on the action needed to make things happen.
What is God’s grace? In my book The Happy Heretic I write the following:
The theology of God’s grace has a history that involves the idea that mankind is “fallen” and that we are inherently sinful creatures wholly incapable of doing anything good without God’s grace. This teaching was in part the result of Saint Augustine, who famously said, “Give me what you command and command what you will” (2012, p. 29).
This has prompted a theological response to life that suggests everything that happens occurs as God’ will. God is in charge; we need forever remain in the passenger seat. I am sober, happy, prosperous, and alive only through God’s grace. We are who we are and where we are only through God’s grace.
This theological response to life and the world can also become extremely elitist and arrogant when we consider the following: let’s say we see a blind man or person with a serious limp and we say to a friend, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Really? Are we seriously saying that we are not blind or having a limp because of God’s grace and sadly those unfortunates did not get the blessing of God’s grace?
Or let’s say we are walking down the street and see a pathetic drunk and—because we are in recovery—think to ourselves, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I’ve even heard people who are watching a documentary of India or Africa, where millions are living in poverty, say, “Let’s thank God’s grace that we were not born in such a country.”
This is surely not intelligent or spiritual thinking. And what kind of God is this theology revealing to us? Surely not a God that most of us reading this magazine would or could believe in.
In The Happy Heretic I wrote the following:
I believe that God is involved in everything and, using traditional language, His grace abounds. However, I believe that we play an essential role in the living of our lives. We are able to live the good life when we know, on a spiritual level, that we make life worth living. Our decisions and choices determine success or tragedy. God doesn’t make anyone happy, sad, successful or loving. That’s our job (2012, p. 21–2).
The history of the Reformation in the Western World needs to continue and seriously confront and present a better theology than the above. I’ve in past articles criticized ISIS for wanting to take us back to the seventh century; we also need to revise our theological understanding of God’s grace.
A New Understanding
What if grace is not something that descends upon us but has been given to us at birth? God’s grace becomes akin to our reasoning powers, our ability to think and make choices, and our ability to take responsibility for our lives and what is happening in our world.
We utilize God’s grace when we see clearly the many disabilities that affect mankind and we use our brains to figure out ways to prevent sickness. God’s grace is working through doctors and scientists.
We see God’s grace in the work of recovering alcoholics throughout the world who make the choice to stop drinking and then stay sober. They begin to clear the wreckage of their past and embrace a spirituality that is both positive and creative.
We see God’s grace at work in countries that are slowly working their way out of poverty and developing economic employment for their citizens. God’s grace is never favoritism, rather is it knowing and massaging a gift that has been given to every human being.
This understanding of grace makes more sense to me.
Booth, L. (2012). The happy heretic: Seven spiritual insights for healing religious codependency. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.