A Radical Understanding of Grace

From Maki Ashe Van Steenwyk, executive director of The Center for Prophetic Imagination

I find myself increasingly drawn to a particular understanding of “grace.”

Perhaps the most dominant theological definition of grace is “unmerited favor.” Often, this is understood in contrast to merited judgement or punishment. We are so messed up, mired in sin, and rebellious against God that we have earned wrath…either in the form of judgement in this life or in the life to come (hell). Yet, God chooses not to punish his children, because of God’s great love.

Most of us know that this logic applied to our own children is cruel. Imagine telling a child that they deserve to live on the streets without food or care, but because of our own great benevolence, we offer them food and lodging.

Such a wretched understanding of “grace” is made more perplexing when we recognize that it isn’t applied universally. That some are chosen (while others are not) to receive it or that some have participated in a ritual (whether baptism or a special prayer) to receive it, while others have not. 

Understanding grace through the lens of averting wrath or being blessed with insider status (as opposed to those who don’t escape wrath or are outsiders) is a poor starting point for understanding divine grace. 

Grace is the gift of divine presence without us having to secure it. The more one’s spirituality or theology or practice is rooted in a sense of “have to” or “ought” or “must” or “certainty” the less grace-centered it is.

Yet such an understanding is prevalent because the primary lens by which many perceive our relationship with God is one of obedience. Obedience to the Divine Authority. And since we are frail and messy creatures, we fall short. 

But what if our understanding of God were inverted? Not as the forbearance of a Supreme Hierarch who is “above” us, but as the abundance nature of a loving friend who dwells among us?  

To play this out further compare the two ways of framing it. This is, at least as I understand it, the conventional way of understanding the nature of divine grace:

God is the ultimate Authority.

Our proper relationship with God is obedience.

In order to obey God, he must reveal his will to us. And we must follow it.

But we fall short, and so God forgives us (though perhaps certain conditions must be met).

The church exists to demonstrate who God is to all of humanity and to call them to obedience.

In order for us to demonstrate who God is, we have to live obediently and interpret Scripture rightly.

And then we proclaim the Gospel so that all others might be drawn into obedience.

Compare that with this reframing…one that is not as common, but far from novel:

God is the creator and author of life who dwells among us.  As Paul wrote, “in [God] we live, and move, and have our being.” God sustains us.

Our relationship with God is one of abiding.

Jesus reminds us that if we have an idea like obedience it should point to love. And if we have any idea like “law” it should point to the Spirit. Jesus calls us friends. But we struggle to love and discern well.

Thankfully, God is faithful to us and is always present. The Spirit is always at work making a new way possible.

The church is a community that tries to live into that reality and remind the world that another world is possible…in fact, it is here, among us.

In order for us to remind the world of that, we are invited to let go of our desire for power and control and choose the path of compassion and co-creation. The Bible reminds us how challenging that can be.

The Gospel, still, remains: we can turn from the old way of doing things and enter into life with the Spirit.

Will we, then, abide with this God who invites us to co-create this new world? Will we embrace the radical Grace of the creator? Or will be stubbornly thwart it by embracing what bell hooks (of blessed memory) calls “white supremacist capitalist patriarchal values?” 

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