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Redefining Grace

To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 2 Corinthians 12.7-9.

This post is in the nature of a follow-on from my post of four days ago entitled “God’s Handiwork.” There, I began by noting that, while we in the Western church tend to define “grace” in terms of “the unmerited favour of God,” our brothers and sisters in the Eastern Orthodox church would regard that as more of a description of God’s mercy than of his grace. I said then that “grace,” in their understanding of the term, means something far more active and dynamic than a mere benign stance or attitude  – that, in short, for them it nothing less than “the empowering presence of God” in a person, event or situation.

Well, this morning, I want to share a further thought or two on this topic for the sake of those who may not have been wholly convinced by what I said in the earlier post.

My starting point is the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10.3-37.) We are all very familiar with the story. After a man travelling from Jerusalem to Jericho has been ambushed by thieves and robbed, beaten and left for dead, two Jewish clergymen pass by on the other side and choose to ignore him … “But a Samaritan, as he travelled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, took him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two silver coins and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’ ”

Now just what was it, I want to ask, that the Samaritan showed to the man who was robbed? He was good and loving to him even though the man had done nothing to deserve such love and had no means of repaying the Samaritan and was someone who (if he had been conscious) would, in fact, have wanted nothing to do with his benefactor. Well, when God treats us in the way the Samaritan treated the man in the story, we have no hesitation in calling it “grace;” but that is not what the man to whom Jesus was telling the parable called it. “[Jesus asked,] ‘Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?’ The expert in the law replied, ‘The one who had mercy on him.'”

“The one who had mercy on him;” not “the one who showed him grace.” We really do get grace and mercy mixed up and then tie ourselves in knots trying to explain the difference between them. Mercy, we say,  is God withholding from us what we do deserve (that is, judgment and condemnation) while grace is God giving to us what we don’t deserve (that is, love and forgiveness.) But the parable we’ve just been looking at shows that that distinction is simply not true. Mercy is not a negative version of grace.

So what is grace? The passage in 2 Corinthians with which I began this post is probably the most illuminating commentary on grace that we possess. Paul has what he calls a “thorn in the flesh.” He doesn’t explain what it is, but it is something that causes him pain and limitation. He wants rid of it; so he prays for it to be taken away. But it doesn’t go, so he prays again … and again. At which point God tells him: “My grace is sufficient for you.” Now what did God mean? My unmerited and undeserved favour is sufficient for you? If that was what he meant, then I think Paul would have been quick to reply: “So how is that sufficient? How does that help me to put up with the pain I’m experiencing.” But no – God himself then explains what grace means. “My power is made perfect in weakness.” And Paul fully understands that that is what grace means. Indeed, he then spells it out in the clearest possible terms. It is “Christ’s power resting on me.” And is that not just another way of expressing the definition of grace that I borrowed from the Eastern Orthodox tradition in my earlier post – “the empowering presence of God.”

It is so important that we give words their proper meaning. They are the labels we put on thoughts and ideas. If we get the labels mixed up in the medicine cabinet, the results can be fatal. If we get them mixed up in the pantry, the results can be mere unpleasant (salt/sugar?). And if we get them mixed up in theology? Well, the results will not be fatal or even unpleasant but they may be impoverishing. They may rob us of some of the riches that would otherwise come to us. And is that not what happens when we put the “grace” label on the idea of mercy instead of on the idea of God’s empowering presence?

You’ll see what I mean, I think, if I end with “the Grace” from 2 Corinthians 13.14 – “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

What was Paul praying would be “with” the Christians at Corinth once they received “the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ?” (Please note that this reception of grace by his fellow believers was so important to Paul that he also prayed the same prayer for the Christians in Rome – Romans 16.20, Galatia – Galatians 6.18, Ephesus – Ephesians 6.24, Philippi – Philippians 4.23, and Thessalonica – 1 Thessalonians 5.28.) Did he merely want them to enjoy God’s unmerited favour? I don’t think so. They were all enjoying that already. I believe he wanted them to know the empowering presence of God in their daily lives. I believe he was praying that the power of Christ would be at work in them and through them.

Now wouldn’t it be great if we could start to put the “grace” label on that thought when we “say the grace” to one another? For that indeed is where I believe it truly belongs.

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