I am finding Jesus increasingly inconvenient. I’ve been trying to hang around with Him for quite a few years now, and I consistently find that He and His ways play merry havoc with my views on all sorts of things. Grace is the lens through which this is usually refracted; it messes up my views on all sorts of things like politics, myself, sexuality, church, other people, social media, money, parenting, marriage, sport, and plenty of other things in between.
Christians are meant to be good at grace (if that’s not a contradiction in terms), but the reality is we’re rubbish at it. We’re constantly giving ourselves, each other and other people either too much or too little (usually the former). I’ve been off sick this week, and I’ve been terrible at grace – even though my doctor and my wife told me I had to rest and I do as little as possible. I’ve been sending myself on guilt trips, telling myself I should at least stay on top of my e-mail, wondering if people will think I’ve been faking it or am being too soft.
As you do when you’re sick and unable to do much, I let my mind wonder down a number of different paths to distract myself from the intense pain I was experiencing. Many of these were half-formed paths of previous sleepless nights, but with hours to fill and having reached the head-spinning season finale of The Walking Dead, I had to find something on which to focus my customarily over-active internal monologue. I thought about how graceless I am – as husband, father, disciple, leader, citizen and social media user. I thought of my capacity to correct error, to point out hypocrisy, to accentuate the negative. I felt pretty rubbish about myself after that.
I thought of the curious lack of grace on display in the way some of us (myself included) use social media. We who trumpet grace (can you trumpet grace or is that a contradiction in terms?) are quick to expose flaws in others; we seem to expect of others and ourselves that our use of social media shouldn’t reflect the fact that we are sinners. I’ve judged people, badly, on social media; people have done the same to me. Offline, people judge how I act online; I do the same of others. It seems that we Christians have such a low understanding of grace that we expect ourselves to come across as perfect to the world. I fear we’ve missed the point.
Then I think about our political discourse. I think of the cries agains corruption in South Africa and tax avoidance in the UK, people – many of them Christians – demanding adherence to the law and transparency … all the while sending text messages whilst driving, parking illegally ‘just for a few minutes, so it’s ok’, downloading TV shows illegally and opting out of accountable relationships themselves. Surely grace should insist we apply at least the same – if not gentler – standards to others as we apply to ourselves?
What is it we don’t get about grace? Why so slippery? We know it when we see it. It seems to perform a strange kind of trick on me, simultaneously boosting my self-esteem and giving me a slap in the face for being such a legalistic, hard-hearted bastard. Try to explain grace and you usually fall into theological error – for which, of course, there’s little grace in the church. As Philip Yancey expressed at the outset of the wonderful What’s so amazing about grace?, it’s something that’s better portrayed than explained. Explaining takes the wonder away; it’s not that there isn’t a place for explaining – it just needs to stay in that place. Jesus doesn’t try to parse grace into manageable points of a doctrinal statement; instead he tells some stories, gives some guidance on how to live then plunges me headlong into grace by willingly dying. It’s best to be immersed in grace rather than draw a diagram analysing it.
I think that I’ve very rarely experienced true grace. I think the closest I’ve got to it was when someone asked to listen to my story of being a victim of bullying (as an adult); having listened, he got angry at what I experienced; took on representative responsibility for what had happened to me because the bully was never going to take it himself; and point by point apologised to me, representatively. That’s a kind of grace, I think – not the whole picture, but quite a large chunk of it.
I think – no, I know – that I’ve very rarely expressed true grace. I may have flirted it with it (probably by accident) a few times, but those are pitiful examples, a child’s hacked out Chopsticks on an out of tune piano next to a master’s concert hall rendition of the Goldberg Variations.
The truth is none of us can find grace’s script; we are the monkeys trapped in a room with a thousand keyboards, told to reproduce Shakespeare’s works and occasionally accidentally managing “2 b or not 2 b”. Shakespeare, but only if you look at it in a certain light.
So grace slakes my thirst, and leaves me thirsty for more – in myself, for me, from me, in the world around me. You see it and you long for more; it meets all hopes and dreams and simultaneously tells me I won’t see anything like it again until the end of history, when there’ll be so much I won’t know what to do with it except bathe in its depths and exalt in its previously unheard melodies. It pushes me closer to the only Source of grace, and makes me wish I was closer still, pulling with gravitational irresistibility. It makes a mockery of my self-defence and carefully constructed self-righteousness; it heals me wounds and slaps my face so hard I see things in new dimensions.
Back to the sick-bed, then.