We often treat God’s grace as a very lofty subject. Indeed, it is lofty, for it pertains to our matchless and perfect God. Yet it is something we must both understand and take hold of in order to truly live out grace-filled lives.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)
The first part of God’s grace that most people embrace is His mercy – His not giving us what we deserve for our transgressions. But as we grow we need to learn to live our lives with a bigger view of God’s grace.
In the parable of the prodigal son (it’s a fairly well-known one, so I won’t go into all the details, but you can check out the passage in Luke 15 to refresh your memory), the prodigal realized his mistake in trying to “do his own thing” and decided to return to his father and seek mercy.
And mercy he received.
But had it only been mercy, the son would have been set up in the position of lowly servant – which was all he wanted, all he really hoped for. Instead, the father threw his arms about the man and called him “son,” lavishing gifts upon him. That is grace – the full-blown, unadulterated grace of our loving heavenly Father. “How great is the love the Father has lavished upon us, that we should be called children of God!” (1 John 3:1). The mercy of God we can almost wrap our minds around – almost – but the grace of God blows us away. When we are faced with God’s grace, our minds scream, “Unworthy, unworthy! This could not be for me! I do not deserve it!” And that is the great scandal of grace – unmerited favor, worthiness for the worthless, beauty for ashes. (Just in case this isn’t quite clear, “unmerited,” by definition, means “unearned”; you didn’t say or do anything that made it your right to receive the favor you have been shown.)
We all have times where we are prodigal sons and daughters, and we all have to return to God to seek His mercy. Being our loving Father, God awaits us with open arms and the fullness of not only mercy but grace. We have three primary reactions to this gift of grace:
- First of all, we can reject God’s grace by telling Him, “Lord, I am not worthy of this yet, but someday I shall be; I will do my very best to earn it!” This usually stems from a desire to please God (or rather, do what we think will be pleasing to God) and be “good enough” for the great things He offers us.
- A second way we respond to God’s grace is to reject it by refusing to believe that He would or could really be offering it to us. This comes from a lack of self-worth: “This can never be for me. I have been too bad.” (In that case, I would like to point out that the King of the universe died on a cross because of love for you! If that doesn’t change your opinion of your value, I don’t know what will.) In the end, though, neither those who won’t believe they can have grace nor those who are busy trying to earn it are in the right. God’s grace cannot be earned. You can never, ever be so good that you deserve it, and you can never, ever be so horrible that you cannot receive it. If either of those things were true, Jesus Christ would have died for nothing. (Take a moment to let that sink in.)
- The third main response we give to the grace of God is to simply say, “Thank you. You are so good to me, your child.” Sadly, this response often comes after we have already lived out one of the other two responses. However, this thankful acceptance is really the only response God wants us to give Him. He does not give so that we must repay Him (as though He needed something from us), but rather He gives to us for two reasons. Firstly, it reveals His goodness in our lives, and therefore brings Him glory. Secondly, He delights in giving us good things. He is, after all, our Father.
All this is very good. However, in the story of the prodigal son, the father had not one son but two sons. The elder son can give us just as much to consider as his younger counterpart can. The elder son was not at all pleased with the grace lavished upon his little brother – it wasn’t fair! If his father had shown only mercy and simply put the prodigal brother into a position of utter humility as a slave or servant, the elder brother would not likely have raised a fuss. It was the fullness of the grace, of the wholly undeserved acceptance, that bothered him. The elder son was furious. After all, it was he, not his errant sibling, who had faithfully tended his father’s business. Why, then, should he not be the one receiving the honor? When he had voiced his complaint to his father, his father gently rebuked him, saying that he could have had anything he wanted had he simply asked for it.
The reaction of the elder son should give us pause. He was, though a faithful son, clearly not living in the fullness of his father’s grace and, because of that, was unwilling that anyone else – especially his obviously undeserving brother – should live in it either. This “elder brother” reaction is something painfully common in the church, though we pretend it is not. We see others receiving God’s grace and we feel resentful. We stomp our feet and cross our arms (in spirit, of course) and say, “But God, what about me?!” (Can you hear that whining voice?) “When are you going to do something for me?” This mindset can only be uprooted when we learn to walk in God’s grace in every part of our lives.
As brothers and sisters in Christ, then, let us embrace God’s grace – a grace we do not deserve but are surrounded with daily. Mercy is for the dying; grace is for the living. As we are brought from death to life, we must learn to live in the fullness of God’s grace. As much as we like to hold on to our humble and self-sacrificing, do-without ways because they make us feel as though we are deserving of God’s love, God wants us to remember that His grace is our gift. After all, a gift left unopened can’t be of much pleasure or use, can it? I for one refuse to put my Gift on a shelf and let it collect dust; I’m tearing the package wide open. If a life overflowing with the grace of my King is scandalous, then may I live to be the most scandalously grace-full woman of all time.