Redefining Grace

This post is looking to shed light on a word that is used very often in Christian circles, but needs to be reinterpreted and understood afresh. I will present two ‘fresh’ conceptions of grace that will be termed “Tenacious Grace” and “Costly Grace”. The latter is a term I borrow from Bonhoeffer.

To be sure, I’m not rejecting conception of grace as something that is a gift from God – perhaps best understood as used in Eph 2:8 – “For it is by grace you have been saved…” But I am wanting to blow open our boxes regarding this word. Ultimately, I believe our conception of this word has affected the way we have understood the precious and glorious message of the Gospel, but that will become clear as we proceed.

Tenacious Grace

Grace is a gift from God, yes, but it is never something that causes you to be passive. True grace, having found its recipient, generates a co-operation, leading to righteousness and “good works” (see 1 Cor 3:10, 15:15, Tit 2:11-14). Interestingly, the eastern tradition of grace never separates grace and human freedom. Grace is not a question of merit, but of cooperation, of a synergy of two wills, divine and human. Grace is a presence of God within us that demands constant effort on our part. 

What if a passive conception of grace has allowed a passivity into our gospel and into church culture? The gospel has become very easy, and also very boring. It has been made attractive to our individualistic, consumerist hearts.

Let us conceive of grace as a strand of two cords – both in existence and in full operation, and full effect without ‘balance’ or a diminishing of each other. Let us conceive of grace as a free gift to be received, but at the same time, a free gift that invites and necessitates cooperation and obedience. And as we do so, we may find that we have an answer for our apathy, and boredom. May we be a church that recovers a tenacity, and a responsibility and a vibrancy.

 

Costly Grace

To flip the conception of grace as a free gift on it’s head, here is an understanding of it that Bonhoeffer makes perfectly clear. I could do no better than simply quoting him:

“Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

I used to think about the Sermon on the Mount and Jesus’ teachings as a standard that could not be attained to and so therefore ‘grace’ became an EXCUSE to not attain to the standard. Whereas I believe now, that we are to labour to attain to the fullness of what Jesus taught and ‘grace’ is the POWER to attain to that standard. This is the way Paul uses it time and time again – Rom 1:5, Tit 2:11 are 2 great examples.

To Conclude…

The way these truths hit the ground is beautiful indeed. We are called to be a people who by grace, freely receive the lavish riches of God. This mindset is one that begets peace and rest. And yet we are called to be a people who by grace, are invited to full participation and cooperation in activity. This mindset is one that begets tenacity and responsibility. We are called to be a people who give up our lives daily, to receive true life that can be received no other way. Such conceptions are not at odds in a human being, such is the beauty and paradoxical nature of the Christian life.

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Beware the Shopping Centre

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship, And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess of the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” – David Foster Wallace

Beware shopping centres…seriously
We must be a people that see and realise the deeply liturgical and formative nature of the shopping centre or the ‘mall’. If we are spending time in shopping malls, our minds and hearts are inevitably being shifted towards a picture of the life that is being portrayed in these places. It is well known that marketing and advertising companies employ powerful psychology to sell their products, to influence the consumer in ways deeper than the conscious.

Spending time doing these activities (shopping, watching movies and TV) will inevitably lead to them shaping our desires (some of these intentionally, some not). In so doing, our identities are shaped. Ultimately they are after nothing less than our hearts, and they want to determine what we ultimately love. Which would be okay if it were good things we are taught to love, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Shopping malls are an integral cog in the capitalist world machine that says life is about consuming and having. It’s a world-view that values above all else what you have and how you look. It is a machine that is built upon manipulating people to buy what they do not need to keep a system going that is fundamentally selfish, unsustainable, wasteful and superficial and ultimately meaningless. I’m not exaggerating, the second part of that statement is my own observation, but the first is fact and history (just watch ‘The Century of Self‘ – parts 1 and 2). The capitalist machine is an all consuming, top down system, that forces itself upon the disadvantaged. It imposes itself horribly in a system of privilege and exploitation, and it does so blindly and hypocritically. We live in society already insane with an uncontrollable lust for things and status, very quickly descending into depression and suicide because of the loss of meaning. All the while deeply insecure because it draws its identity from sources wholly external to who a person is.

There is less and less room for neutrality in today’s society. And I actually have great respect for people who claim to not believe in God and yet maintain a life of integrity and selflessness in today’s world. They are much better people than I. Much, much better.

‘Salt’ and ‘Light’
As people of the Kingdom, called to be “in but not of the world”, this perspective does not lead to an interaction with the world that is lofty and removed. It is definitely not aceticism. The incarnation couldn’t be further from acetic in nature. But it is a beautiful, earthy embrace of acceptance and then redemption.

Practically, all of us will find that being ‘radical’ can alienate you from people who are not –  Christian or otherwise. And this is a matter in which we must be incredibly clear. The zeal of the Pharisees and scribes was alienating. It was a form of religion born of a pride and legalism that judges others to feel good about itself. Whereas Jesus’ taught a zeal/lifestyle that was ‘radically’ different and yet overwhelmingly embracing and accepting of those who didn’t live the same way. Jesus demonstrates to us ‘radical’ Christianity in it’s purest – a form of religion born of humility and selfless love.

And I think ‘radical’ looks like a lifestyle that is remarkably simple and incredibly generous. It has an extravagant abundance that is not based on having or doing, but being and loving and being loved. A reality that is based upon the internal and the earthy. I believe that this is what it means to be a beautiful society, and beautiful people, a kingdom people. A people called to bring the two realities of heaven and earth closer and closer together.

The reality is…
To some extent we all get sucked in to the capitalist world machine
. No one is completely free, but there is a way forward. And we have a way forward to being a beautiful people. And it involves spending less and less time in shopping malls, less and less time watching TV and movies. We need to redefine and reboot the way we view ‘entertainment’. And begin to fill our vision with one who sits on the throne, not television. To cause our minds to be filled with the word of God, instead what we are going to consume next. This needs to happen not over an afternoon, but over a much longer period of time.

I’m not saying that we must avoid shopping centres altogether, but to begin to have the perspective of purchasing things out of function rather than aesthetics or consumption. Not so focused on the external we become internally and deeply beautiful people, instead of empty glamorous shells.

The Bridegroom is coming!
And Jesus will not come back to find a distracted, apathetic and adulterous bride
, insecure in who she is and what she is getting herself into. She will have prepared herself, and will be wearing a spotless white wedding-gown.

She will be equally-yoked in love, her eyes fixed on one thing, and one thing alone. The man with the eyes of fire will look upon his beloved and find her eyes ablaze, they will marked with desire. Her heart will be marked with a spotless purity, and her hands found clean.

Of only such a perfect bride, our bridegroom is worthy. And He will do it.

P.S. – This post is an amalgamation of ideas that have sources in a few different fantastic books I would recommend heartily: “Desiring the Kingdom” and “Imagining the Kingdom” both by James KA Smith and “Thinking, fast and slow” by Daniel Kahneman.

P.P.S – This post is part of a series on what it means to be ‘radical

Radical

“The heart is a “love pump” or a desire factory. It never stops producing or pumping out desire. But it cannot just land. You cannot just desire. You must desire something. What distinguishes us is not whether we love, but what we love.” – James Smith in ‘Desiring the Kingdom’

For every human being, life must be lived from a fountain of our choosing. Just as we must choose the kind of food to put into our bodies for a physical daily refueling, we must choose daily the kind of fountain we live our lives from. We must choose daily from where will we draw meaning, and for what reality are we living for.

If we do not answer this question, then the default answer and the default fountain we drink from will be that of our surroundings – the western world, until we get consumed by its selfishness, superficiality and meaninglessness. Or worse yet, we will live for ourselves, continually inflating our empty egos, until we are unapproachable and unlikeable, blind and narrow-minded, critical and miserable. There is no neutral ground for the human being.

And so from this perspective the seemingly far-flung statements of Jesus to “lose your life” and to “sell everything and give to the poor” are actually simple calls to freedom, to life, and to meaning.

Radical Christianity is actually a simple issue of life and death. Critically, we fail to see this because we fail to see the radical depravity of our hearts and of the world in which we live, so accustomed are we to our own cesspool. Am I being too dramatic? Not according David Foster Wallace, an atheist writer who perhaps understood human nature better than many of us who call ourselves Christians:

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is no such thing as atheism. There is no such this as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship, And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual type thing to worship – be it JC or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess of the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles – is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.” -David Foster Wallace

 

And If this all sounds rather daunting, then let’s remember that call for everything is given by the one who has given his all to us. He is the most generous and gracious man alive, and he only asks for one step at a time. So go ahead, bargain with God.  Talk with him about it, don’t run in fear because you feel you can’t live up to a standard. We misunderstand anyway because it was never about the standard, it’s about relationship – and that’s all that matters. But be warned, it’s a relationship in which you may be stripped of everything, lovingly. And in that place of ‘poverty’, where every fickle and empty thing you once had placed your hope in has been taken away, you will stand empty-handed before the throne, naked.

In that place, he gives you himself.

And all of a sudden, nothing matters anymore. Not the doubts in your mind, or the darkness of your heart, not the thoughts of people around you, not the size of your bank account, not the roof over your head, not your job or your vocation, not your health or your situation. Because you are his, and he is yours.

And for the first time perhaps, you feel truly alive. And for the first time perhaps, you are free.

Another ‘radical’ post: Redefining ‘Entertainment’

The coming generation

“I see a generation, rising up to take their place, with selfless faith.” – Hosanna by Brooke Fraser

A generation of young people are being raised up from rags and brokenness,  from drinking from the broken cisterns of materialism and consumerism finding that they could not possibly satisfy. This is generation who know deeply who God is through the testimonies and scars in their lives that give evidence to God’s goodness, faithfulness and love in all circumstances. Such knowledge does not cause a blind idealism that cannot deal with the realities of a suffering and evil world, but equips them to redeem and restore and love those in the trenches.

They are a generation that will be known for their remarkable levels of freedom. Freedom not found in owning or purchasing or satisfying their cravings, but a freedom to live in a simplicity and purity and authencity that comes from the knowledge that their home is not of this world.

They are a generation who will follow Jesus at any personal cost. And yet remarkably they will see following Jesus as easy and burdenless, for the rewards far outweigh the costs if it could still be called as such when things are seen in the right perspective.

They are a generation who understand that they are weak. They understand humanity’s weakness, and of the need to keep truth up front in daily consciousness. They understand that any progress in life and spirituality is made by putting one foot in front of the other.

They are the Psalm 24 generation. Like no other before them.

 

Radical as the new Normal

WHAT IF we stopped theologizing away the teachings of Jesus?

WHAT IF we read them and followed them literally?

WHAT IF we stopped making excuses for why it isn’t possible?

WHAT IF we began to see that everything that Jesus calls his people to walk into is for the sake of our freedom and peace and joy and nothing less?

WHAT IF we understood discipline and obedience as pathways to freedom?

And I suppose what I have presented before you appears a mountain so high it cannot be possibly be climbed.

But as with every journey – it begins with the first step.

And at every step there is a river of grace and mercy that finds us and enables us to take the next

And in fact after a ways on such a journey one might look back and realise that we have been carried all the way thus far.

And so it will be for a generation with

Clean hands and

Pure hearts,

Ascending,

The hill of the Lord.

Follow up to The Gospel and the Church/Men: The Costly yet Restful Gospel

What I wrote was a critique of the condition of the church and of men in the church in the west, but the critique and the solution is equally true for all people everywhere, anytime. The task of surrendering to the Lordship of Christ is a necessity for all people everywhere, anytime.

The human condition does not change over time, and we are essentially a drifting and fickle-hearted race. The problem of the wandering heart of Israel, in the face of the conspicuous faithfulness and goodness of God, that we see in the Old Testament is the same problem in our own hearts. And hence the call to return and surrender to the truths and the goodness of God expressed in the gospel is one that is pertinent to all people everywhere, anytime. It applies to pastors, it applies to so called “men of God”, it applies to churches, it applies to lawyers, and it applies to dentists. It applies to them in the morning, it applies to them at church, it applies to them in their prayer time, it applies in bed.

No matter the perceived/actual ‘spirituality’ or ‘holiness’, the chasm between a human being and a perfect, righteous, saving God from whom the gospel flows is infinite. Cf Isaiah 6.

Here is the critical point: the immensity and impossibility of the task is not something to despair at. The beautiful paradox is that there is grace at every moment, and hope at every dead-end. It is Christ who gently helps us surrender, and Christ who leads us to himself. And the seemingly impossible task of self-denial and complete submission is made possible by the equally vast rivers of grace and mercy that flow from the righteous and eternal being who tells us uncompromisingly to “be holy, and I am holy”. In a sense: the costly price the gospel demands can only be attained through rest and dependence.

As an aside: I am not talking about a ‘works’ gospel. Here let me borrow some words from Bonhoeffer on ‘costly grace’:

  “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.”

And so we see the beauty of the Christian walk. There should never be boredom, and there should never be exhaustion. There is something to seek and attain to that takes our everything right now, and that will take wholly the rest of our lives. Yet there is constant help along the way. He meets us in our weakness and inability, always right where we are at. Here, we can put together two statements of Jesus, that, to me, exist in perfect synergy:

      “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Matthew 11:28-30

       “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. Matthew 16:24-25

My final point is: what the gospel creates is the freedom for tenacity and responsibility without the usual accompanying side effects of anxiety and being burnt out – for there is also perfect rest and constant help.  What is important to note also is that the gospel creates this freedom for us spiritually, but also physically in our practical day to day living. I should elaborate, but this is perhaps another post another time.

It is never easy, but this daily dying and living, resting and striving, feels to me, incredibly like how we were supposed to live, and how we were created to function. And here we have another glorious paradox in the Christian life: fullness of tenacity, fullness of industry, fullness of responsibility, and fullness of rest.

Now that is freedom, and that is what a generation will be called into – when the gospel is adhered to in all its glorious fullness – then the world will see a generation unlike any this world has seen. It will be the most productive and industrial and responsible, yet humble, and rested and joyful generation to ever exist.