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The Trouble with Grace

Is grace the fast food of a spiritual diet?

Could undeserved kindness be the junk food of slackers?

By definition, grace is “the unmerited favor” by which God shows us the kindness we don’t deserve. It is closely related to His mercy by which He withholds the punishment we have earned.

The trouble with grace is that it can be misunderstood and misused to bring out the worst in us.

• Grace can be taken advantage of by those who think they are entitled to benefits they have not earned.

• It can be regarded as a safety net by those who do wrong with the intention of asking for forgiveness later.

There is, however, another side of grace that all of the misuse and bad press in the world has not changed.

The good thing about grace is that it can bring out the best in us, more than any moral threat, challenge, or education ever could. More than any drug, dream, or good fortune, grace can lift the spirits and character of anyone who discovers how much they need it, how free it is for the asking, and how ready God is to give it to those who humble themselves before Him (James 4:6).

One of the most wonderful revelations of the Bible is that we don’t have to wonder whether the existence of such undeserved kindness is too good to be true. According to the life-changing wisdom of the Bible and our own experience, we already owe our lives and eternal gratitude to what theologians call the common grace of God.

Common grace refers to the countless, undeserved, taken-for-granted gifts of God that make our lives comfortable, or even possible.

Jesus talked about this kind of grace when He said that God gives sunshine and rain to all of us, whether we are grateful friends of God or not (Matthew 5:43-45; Luke 6:35).

The apostle Paul was referring to common grace when he wrote, “In the past [God] permitted all the nations to go their own ways, but He never left Himself without evidence of Himself and His goodness. For instance, He sends you rain and good crops and gives you food and joyful hearts” (Acts 14:16-17 NLT).

We are so dependent on common grace that we could not even reach up to God with an open hand, or a clenched fist, apart from the life and strength that we’ve been given.

Common grace, however, is only the beginning of God’s undeserved kindness to us. According to the apostle Paul, the mercies of God that our lives depend on are meant to lead us to a more personal kind of grace (Romans 2:4).

Theologians speak of a second expression of God’s undeserved kindness that is given to us on the condition of faith.

Saving grace refers to all that God is ready to do for those who trust His free offer of rescue in Christ.

The apostle Paul had God’s saving grace in mind when he wrote, “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ: by whom also we have access by faith into this grace wherein we stand, and rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2 KJV).

If we really understood what was behind those ancient inspired words, I’m convinced that we wouldn’t be able to contain our joy and sense of wonder.

If we really understood grace, we would probably sing, dance, shout to the point of exhaustion, and then slump into the most serene, peaceful, and grateful state of mind, before getting back on the road of this amazing journey of faith.

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of saving grace. Nothing is worth more than the freely offered relationship with Christ that none of us deserve, and could never pay for.

But this is also where we need to take another step on the road of realism. As generous as God is with His common and saving grace, He is too wise and too good to suspend the law of social consequence in the process.

As unthinkable as it would be to live in a world without grace, it would be even worse to live in a world without consequence. Without fear of consequences, we would be even more inclined to want blood for blood from those who, after harming us, now need our help.

One of the wonders of grace is that it can move into the most broken of lives with a kindness that is as wise as it is good. Because the wisdom of grace comes from beyond ourselves, it enables us to balance the unmerited favor of God with the best-case justice of consequence.

Grace and consequence. Grace that forgives remorseful financial officers for embezzling funds will not leave them in charge of company funds. Undeserved kindness may offer terms of restitution as a means of getting past wrongs that were done.

Grace that forgives a brokenhearted pedophile will not allow that person to mingle freely with children without supervision. Undeserved kindness will offer acceptance and reasonable boundaries as a way of redeeming a lost life.

Grace that shows mercy to an employee who has repeatedly failed to fulfill the requirements of the job does not require the ongoing employment of that person. Undeserved kindness may work toward a fair severance and help in finding work that is a better fit for the person’s skills and present needs.

Grace that forgives a marriage partner of abuse, adultery, or abandonment may not mean remaining in the marriage. Undeserved kindness will work for an appropriate relationship that is not marked by bitterness and anger.

In each of these examples, grace finds a way to reflect an undeserved kindness that is consistent with God’s common and saving grace. While not ignoring the past, such grace redeems the future.

Father in heaven, together we acknowledge that You’ve shown us this kind of grace in the price Your Son paid for our rescue. Forgive us for regarding the grace He bought for us as if it were fast food. Once again we lift our hands to Your unmerited favor, even as we pray, “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors . . .” —Mart De Haan

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