How grace works

October 7th, 2020

I’ve been thinking about power lately. About how it can heal and how it can destroy. About how it can raise people up and how it can diminish them. Grace is one sort of power. Violence is another.

The late Norman Maclean’s lovely story A River Runs Through It inspired my reflections. When he writes about fly fishing, he is also writing about grace. “All good things … come by grace; and grace comes by art; and art does not come easy.”

Casting a fly rod is an art learned gradually. As the Presbyterian-preacher father repeatedly tells his two sons, “Remember, [casting] is an art performed on a four-count rhythm between ten and two o’clock.” He even uses a metronome to instill in his boys a reliable tempo.

If we cast hurriedly from our narrowly focused desire to reel in a big fish for ourselves, we will loudly slap the water in front of us with a tangled mass of line and chase away any nearby trout.

We exercise the power of grace when we align ourselves, as best as we can, with the rhythm of God’s patient, steadfast love. That love aims always for the common good. Not a lowest denominator good. But an extravagant abundance.

And yet, that love also remembers that we are dealing with other souls, with other free wills, with other people worthy of our respect. Even and especially when they are different from us.

If we yield to our self-centered impulse to secure a better place for ourselves on this planet without concern for others, it becomes all too easy for us to justify using force to impose our will.

Sadly, even if we happen to enrich or empower ourselves for a season this way, we cause injury and antagonism. We do violence. We diminish the good for others and, ironically, undermine the security and stability of our own situation.

Here on planet Earth, we are not all alike. We do not understand each other perfectly. But Jesus repeatedly taught us that, in McLean’s words, “We can love completely what we cannot completely understand.” And when we do, the Kingdom of God has drawn closer. This is the power of grace.

On one occasion, shortly after he had arrived in Jerusalem, Jesus had been engaged in an extended confrontation with his antagonists in the religious establishment. They see him as a threat, so they’ve questioned his authority, his orthodoxy, and his motives in an effort to undermine him.

In response, Jesus tells a parable that many call The Parable of the Wicked Tenants. (Matthew 21:33-46) It goes like this.

A landowner set up a vineyard and leased it to some tenants. When harvest time came, the landowner sent members of his staff to collect his share of the produce as payment for the lease. Instead of paying up, the tenants brutally assaulted his staff, wounding some and killing others.

The landowner then sent another group to collect, and they received the same violent treatment. Finally, he decided to send his son, reasoning that a family member’s status would be enough to bring these tenants to their senses. But they killed the son and claimed the vineyard for themselves.

At this point in the telling, Jesus turns to his detractors and asks, “So what do you think that vineyard owner will do to these tenants?”

They answer, “He will crush them and toss them aside like the garbage they are.”

Jesus knew that they would draw an analogy between the vineyard owner and God. But Jesus was drawing no such analogy. Instead, he was setting them up to reveal that they had made God in their own coercive, control-obsessed image.

It’s as if they had blurted out, “If I were God, then this is what I would do.” Jesus’s response amounts to something like this: “Well, then, aren’t we glad you’re not God!”

Jesus’s point is that applying coercive, violent power never brings about the good we imagine it will. The famous 20th century psychologist Alfred Adler put it this way:

“To prevail through violence appears to many as an obvious thought. And we admit: the simplest way to attain everything that is good and promises happiness … seems to be by means of [coercive] power. But where in the life of men or in the history of mankind has such an attempt ever succeeded?”

Only love can heal this world and secure the common good for every last one of us.

So, at this point, I need to make a confession. I can’t fly fish. My early efforts were an embarrassing failure, so I quit trying.

And when it comes to exercising the power of grace, I am nowhere near mastering it. Honestly, most of the time I still feel like a beginner. But I’m not giving up.

An invitation

You’re invited to join me for a series of in-person Zoom conversations called “A Love Shaped Life” Thursdays (6:00 p.m. CDT) in October. This coming Thursday (Oct. 8) we’ll be talking about owning our past and growing beyond yet.

Missed last week’s session? No worries. Each conversation stands on its own. Hope to see you there!

There’s no charge. No registration. All you need to do on Thursday is click this link:

All talks are based on my book A Resurrection Shape Life.

This essay originally appeared at Looking for God in Messy Places. Reprinted with permission.

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