Grace Changes Everything

May 21st, 2013

les-miserables-jean-valjean-hugh-jackman-candlesticksBono, of U2 fame and warrior for solutions to global poverty said, “The most powerful idea that’s entered the world in the last few thousand years— is the idea of grace.” I tend to agree. Its one of the religious ideas of my past that stays with me, even with new meaning. What is grace?

I was stuck in traffic and arrived late to return a rental car. I was sure I would have to pay extra for the delay, maybe even a full day’s rental. Feeling annoyed, I handed the keys over and was surprised to find that there was no extra charge. The man behind the counter said, “You’re all clear. You’re still in the grace period.” The grace period! I guess that means that they turn a blind eye to me being late. It means that even though they have a right to charge me, they won’t. Grace turns your expectations of fairness on their head.

Grace is by definition unfair. And that’s what I love about it. The world generally operates according to a state of nongrace (or disgrace). An eye for an eye, you bomb me and I bomb you, pay what you owe or we take your house, give people health care according to their ability to pay for it, prove your worth, take what you can etc etc etc……….

Grace is subversive. It’s a whole new mindset. It disrupts your expectations of fairness and invites you to be more generous than even seems wise. After all, people might take advantage of you.

There’s a beautiful example of grace in Les Mis. Jean Valjean, or as I like to think of him, Hugh Jackman, steals the silver from the church. He is caught and dragged before Bishop Bienvenu who shows him incredible grace. The Bishop tells the authorities that he gave the silver to him because he needs it. After all, he said, the silver is intended for the poor and Valjean was clearly poor. Not only did he pardon Valjean but gave him the silver. The only condition he put on his grace was to pay the kindness forward.

He said, “Long ago, Jean, I learned that life is to give, not to take. Let me give. And in return, promise me that you will give, also.”

Grace is disruptive both because it has no conditions AND because it makes the greatest demand of all. Once you’ve been touched by grace, your whole mindset changes and the only appropriate response is to show grace to others. As Anne Lamott said, “the amazing thing about grace is that it meets you where you are, but doesn’t leave you there.”

Grace is the most powerful idea, and it’s an incredibly challenging virtue.

Author Flannery O’Connor who had the most earthy, sometimes dark descriptions of grace, said this

All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.

Grace makes no promises of happy endings or safe passage. People will inevitably take advantage of your grace. In the next article, I will write about the relationship between boundaries and grace, protection and generosity. But for now, stay with grace which is so easily forgotten in our dog eat dog world.

When I was first taught about grace, I was told that God showed grace by allowing Jesus to take the penalty that we all deserved. I don’t see that as grace any more. I see that as a form of abuse. And it’s the same vengeful view of fairness (justice) that rules the world. Why does anyone HAVE to suffer to affect grace? Grace is forgiving, not violent. Grace doesn’t need suffering. William Paul Young wrote about grace in the context of awful tragedy in his book The Shack. He made an important distinction about the role of suffering in grace. He said this,

Grace doesn’t depend on suffering to exist, but where there is suffering you will find grace in many facets and colors.

In other words, I don’t need someone else to suffer to bring me grace, but someone’s suffering may teach me about grace. This is how I now interpret the suffering of Jesus. He didn’t suffer FOR grace. I believe he suffered BECAUSE of grace. He suffered because he dared to live with grace in a world that demanded retribution and survival of the fittest. The grace that Jesus lived with was subversive and they killed him to squash the threat.

I learn a LOT from that. Grace is just as threatening today, and just as liberating. People have always suffered for subverting the status quo, and still do today. It’s not an easy path, but consider the end point of the alternative.  We’ll eat each other alive.

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  1. Susan says:

    Sounds like you have been reading Borg 🙂 

  2. Virginia Urbach says:

    If I may, Ian, continue with the story of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman). His saving grace was to rescue the man that his beloved Cosette loved knowing that had he not, Marius would surely perish. In his paying kindness forward he restored his grace, his soul intact for he had done his job and now can relinquish his loving duty to the new man that would now replace him. If ever there was a story of “grace”, Les Miserables  would be or should be on the top of that list. Thank you for helping us recognize our grace and as always igniting our soul.

  3. Sue says:

    Having just gone through a difficult family ordeal, where relationships were mightily strained, I found this column particularly helpful.

  4. ian says:

    Glad to know Sue- be well.Love and strength to you.

  5. Very whammyful. Thank you for that hit of real. Our culture has an absurd habit of taking the inverse of grace and calling it grace – taking a psychological protective mechanism for things to be fair and convoluting it into a worldview we desperately want to heal us, but that keeps hurting us.More and more people are ready for your voice, for this message. They just need to keep hearing it. Thanks for being a constant force for Real in the world.

  6. Lisa says:

    This article touched me, moved me to tears, thanks Ian <3So many good references too, I could relate.God bless.

  7. ian says:

    thanks Lisa. Be well

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