When grace is just a doctrine

Flowers blurphoto © 2009 Slawek Puklo | more info (via: Wylio)

Grace is my middle name.


I was born Rachel Grace Held—named after my great-grandmother, Grace Burleson, who taught school in rural Appalachia during the Depression and who, when I was young and she was old, used to pull me onto her lap to tell me stories about the ghost that lived in the hen house at the old farm. 

Grace is a good name, a gentle name, one I’d like to pass down to my own daughter someday.

In addition to that, grace is something that Christians really like to talk about. Indeed one could argue that grace is the thing that separates Christianity from all other faiths. This idea that God does not withhold his love from us, that he gives it freely in spite of our sin and rebellion, that it is ours to receive without condition or merit is indeed very good news. 

And yet Christians have a bad habit of letting grace get stuck in our heads. It becomes a doctrine we defend rather than a virtue we exhibit; an idea around which we rally rather than the animating force behind how we live. Interestingly enough, Elizabeth Gilbert gets the essence of grace just right in Eat, Pray, Love when she describes a conversation she had with her sister: 

A family in my sister’s neighborhood was recently stricken with a double tragedy, when both the young mother and her three-year-old son were diagnosed with cancer. When Catherine told me about this, I could only say, shocked, “Dear God, that family needs grace.” She replied firmly, “That family needs casseroles,” and then proceeded to organize the entire neighborhood into bringing that family dinner, in shifts, every single night, for an entire year. I do not know if my sister fully recognizes that this is grace.

I realized when I read this  just how rarely I thought about grace as way of life, and how tragic it is that grace is often reduced to a proposition, a mere religious idea.

Now we could get into a rather ungraceful argument about the true meaning of grace, but as I see it, grace is about giving without expecting anything in return. It’s about cutting ourselves and one another some slack. It’s about letting go of grudges and extending love when it is not deserved. It’s about acknowledging all the brokenness within us and around us…and loving in spite of it. 

The ultimate denial of grace, then, is not to misunderstand it theologically, but to withhold it. The minute we withhold grace because of some prejudice or fear on our part, it becomes nothing more than a doctrine. 

Grace is just a doctrine when we withhold it from ourselves. 

Grace is just a doctrine when we withhold it from one another.

Grace is just a doctrine when we withhold it from the world.  

When I look ahead to my thirties, the quality I most want to nurture is grace—for myself, for the people around me, and for this planet I call home. I want to be less judgmental and more open. I want to be quicker to forgive myself when I make a mistake. I want to look for the divine under every stone, down every forgotten street, and in every puddle of rain. I want to give others the benefit of the doubt. I want to make more casseroles and give more time.  I want to listen better to those who live differently than me. I want to forgive. I want to let go.  I want to relax a little and let my guard down and not take things quite so seriously.  

I want grace to move from my head into my heart and my hands, so that I live up to my name. 


Do you find yourself reducing grace to an idea rather than a lifestyle? Do you see this happening in the Church? In what ways have you given or received grace within the past day or two—I’d love to hear some stories!



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Love is not weak

Love is powerfulphoto © 2008 hyoin min | more info (via: Wylio)

"Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (I John 4:7-8) 

The problem with love is that it can’t be systematized. 

It can’t be explained, controlled, regulated, or legislated. 

It’s something you know, but can’t exactly teach; something you experience but can’t contain. 

Love both inhabits and transcends our religious categories.  It’s wild and unpredictable and prone to showing up in places we’d rather it not be. 

Love defies expectations. 

I think perhaps that’s why I keep bumping into theologians and religious leaders who turn their noses up at the suggestion that love is the most fundamental element of Christianity. “Well what do you mean by love?” they demand. “Because it’s not very loving to let people walk around with bad theology, now is it?” 

I encounter such people at conferences and in radio interviews, in local churches and online, and I understand their concerns. They are worried that a new generation of Christians is slipping into a sort of feel-good faith devoid of conviction, reason, and doctrine. 

In some cases their fears are justified, but in most I think they’ve just confused the idea of love with the idea of niceness. They seem to think that because love is so elusive and hard to define, it must be weak— the ideological crutch for those who don’t want to offend. 

But when I consider the love that Jesus showed and that I am commanded to imitate, the last words to come to my mind are “nice” or “weak.” 

To love as Jesus loved requires more strength and conviction than a human being without the Spirit can muster.  It requires giving without expecting anything in return, forgiving enemies, witholding judgment, assuming the position of a servant, looking after the forgotten, and caring for neighbors. It requires living counter-culturally by resisting the temptations of indulgent wealth and self-serving power. The kind of love that Jesus taught and exemplified crystallizes on the cross, where looking down on those who had put him there Jesus said, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do."

That. Is. Not. Weak. 

Love is good theology because God is love. According to both John and Paul, a life devoid of love is a life devoid of good theology. Without love, we are clanging cymbals, useless noise. Without love, all our carefully-crafted apologetic arguments mean nothing. 

That said, I hope that those of us who keep talking about love avoid sabotaging our efforts by failing to embody it, both among the “least of these” and among our brothers and sisters who raise thoughtful concerns about how all this talk of love will affect our doctrine. 

...I think sometimes we just forget that we’re actually talking about the same thing.



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Rachel, the Very Worst Pacifist

Peace in B&Wphoto © 2008 Deana | more info (via: Wylio)

The title of today’s post is inspired by my friend Jamie, the Very Worst Missionary, who I’m pretty sure is not actually the very worst missionary since that title should belong to the friar who threw a Bible at King Atahaullpa back in 1532 and then gave the conquistadors permission to slaughter the Incan people because their king didn’t know how to read it. 

I’m against that sort of thing because I’m a pacifist…or at least I’m trying to be.

I realized just how miserably I was failing at my newfound commitment to nonviolence the other day when I found myself asking the television set, “Can’t we just take this Gadhafi clown out?” (And I didn’t mean take him out to dinner to share with him the good news Jesus.)

This most recent slip is one in a long line of utter failures that typically begin after I suggest to friends that perhaps Jesus wasn’t simply referring to annoying coworkers when he said “love your enemies,” that maybe he had a radical way of life in mind, and am then pelted with questions to which I don’t have good answers. 

What about the Holocaust? Should we have stood by and let that happen? 

If someone attacks you in the parking lot at Wal Mart, are you seriously not going to fight back? 

Don’t you support our troops? 

I never know what to say because honest answers to these questions would reveal what a terrible pacifist I am. 

That’s because my commitment to nonviolence, ironically enough, is a perfectly safe one. It’s something I can mention at parties in order to sound interesting, something I can intellectually espouse in order to feel morally superior, something I can claim with confidence because it will likely never be tested.  

I have no direct influence over the intricate workings of foreign policy or world affairs, so it’s easy for me to support peace. I don’t live in a violent part of town, so safety is not a real concern. I’ve never been so profoundly wronged by someone that violent retribution seems like a good idea. I can’t shoot a gun to save my life, and I’ll probably never have to. 

And secretly, I’m glad. 

Because non-violence is perhaps the hardest and most important part of Christ’s teachings, and the truth is, I’m just not sure I can follow Him all the way to the cross. 

So what do I do? 

In Jesus for President, Shane Claiborne writes: 

When we talk about peacemaking and the ‘third way of Jesus,’ people inevitably ask bizarre situational questions like, ‘If someone broke into your house and was raping your grandmother, what would you do?’ We can’t exhaustively troubleshoot every situation with a nonviolent ‘strategy,’ but what we can do is internalize the character and spirit of Jesus. We can meditate daily on the fruit of the Spirit and pray that they take root in us. Then we can trust when we encounter a bad situation, we will act like Jesus…

‘Leaving things in God’s hands’ should rather be used to mean ‘do what Jesus did.’ Follow Jesus’ example without regard for whether you are effectively ‘changing the world.’ Jesus demonstrated what it means to leave things in God’s hands. So if we want to know what it means for us to trust in Jesus, we should ask what it meant for Jesus to trust in God.

So I guess there are a few things I can do while I’m waiting to become a better pacifist. 

  • I can meditate on the teachings of Jesus.
  • I can refuse to be violent with my words. 
  • I can study the imaginative work of peaceful activists like Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King Jr. 
  • I can strive to internalize and exhibit the fruit of the spirit. 
  • I can pray for our nation’s enemies. 
  • I can educate myself on foreign policy. 
  • I can practice being a peacemaker in small conflicts in order to prepare for larger ones. 
  • I can control my temper. 
  • I can love the people in my life that it is hardest for me to love, so that maybe one day I will be prepared to love actual enemies. 
  • (And I can be grateful that, for now, I don’t really have any. )

I can be faithful in the small things in case one day I am trusted with something bigger. 

I may be the very worst pacifist, but perhaps with time I’ll become a better one…or at least one who doesn’t shout at the TV. 


What are your thoughts on this whole Libya thing? Has it tested some of your ideals? What are your thoughts on non-violence?



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Letter to a Young Calvinist (from a young Arminian)

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I hope this letter finds you growing in love and chasing after Jesus, brimming with all the questions, ideas, and passions that make young people like us a force to be reckoned with in the Church. 

I’ve been reading with interest the many books, articles, and blog posts dissecting what has been called “The New Calvinism”— a movement so prevalent in conservative evangelicalism that TIME magazine called it “one of the 10 ideas changing the world.”  Leaders like Mark Driscoll, John Piper, and Al Mohler insist this movement is fueled by young adults like you who are rediscovering Reformed Theology and sharing it with their friends.  In fact it is James K.A. Smith’s popular book, Letters to a Young Calvinist, that inspired this letter of my own. 

There is much that I appreciate about the Reformed tradition—its emphasis on the undeserved grace of God, its commitment to the authority of Scripture, its appreciation of art, literature, and philosophy. I value these things as well, and have learned much from Calvinists about how to better articulate and nurture them.


My reasons for not embracing Calvinism are of course varied and complex and too detailed to fit into this letter. At the center of my Arminianism is the conviction that nothing is beyond the reach of God’s love, that God does not create hopeless people or hopeless situations. I believe that God can be in control without controlling and that he desires a relationship with his creation that involves some degree of freedom. I feel that Scripture, reason, experience, and intuition support these conclusions, but I realize there’s a chance I am wrong. In fact, I’ve yet to be convinced that we can’t both be right on some things! 

I’m not really interested in convincing young Calvinists not to be Calvinists.  If you believe Reformed Theology represents the most faithful interpretation of Scripture, then by all means, study it and celebrate it.  Raise your family in that tradition and teach others about it. Be the best Calvinist you can be. 

But please be kind. 

For whatever reason, there seems to be a tendency in some Calvinist circles to use theology as a weapon. Smith writes, “Now is as good a time as any to warn you about one of the foremost temptations that accompanies Reformed theology: pride. And the worst kind of pride: religious pride(one of Screwtape’s letters speaks quite eloquently about this). This is an infection that often quickly contaminates those who discover the Reformed tradition, and it can be deadly: a kind of West Nile virus.”

 Now let me say right away that I have met some truly wonderful Calvinists through the years who showed no signs of such pride and who exhibited only gentleness, compassion, and warmth. To say that all Calvinists…(or all Arminians)…are this way or that is unfair and irresponsible.

But I think it’s important for me to honestly tell you that my experience with Calvinism has left me so bruised and wounded that simply writing this letter triggered a fresh wave of tears. Having spoken publicly about my theological views, I should of course expect disagreements and corrections, but time and again the criticisms from Calvinists have gotten deeply, painfully personal.  

It was a Calvinist who questioned whether I would be a fit mother as an Arminian, a Calvinist who called me a “cotton-candy Christian,” a Calvinist who publically humiliated a family member for disagreeing with her pastor, a Calvinist who suggested that my theological positions were the result of sin in my life, a Calvinist who said I would never live up to my writing potential until I embraced Reformed Theology. I have been the subject of gossip at churches I don’t even attend, and at times my views have been so grossly misrepresented I’m not entirely sure how the rumors even started.  My commitment to Scripture has been questioned because of my interpretation of it, my love for Jesus because of subtle differences in my views of his atonement. 

In turn, I’ve grown defensive and fearful. I’ve made assumptions and started rumors of my own. I am guilty of dismissing a person as soon as I learn that he or she is a Calvinist, and (as you may have noticed) I tend to employ a generous amount of sarcasm when I write blog posts about Mark Driscoll.   I criticize Calvinists for lacking compassion when I have left room in my heart for everyone except them. I write them off for writing me off, and the vicious cycle continues. 

It’s all rather ugly and sad. 

I share this with you not to pick a fight but to plead for a truce. As a new generation preparing to tackle the age-old debate about predestination and free will, our positions don’t have to change but our attitudes can. We can criticize one another’s interpretations of the Bible without assuming motive. We can point out the inconsistencies in certain faith traditions without attacking the people in them. We can talk about our disagreements knowing that what we have in common far outweighs our differences, for together we can affirm that Christ has died, Christ has risen, and Christ will come again! 

We are the future of the Church and we have an opportunity here to change the tone. 

For me this means forgiving the Calvinists who have wronged me, resisting the temptation to paint with a broad brush, listening better, and loving more. For you it may mean associating with Christians of various theological persuasions and honoring their commitment to Jesus Christ over their commitment to Augustine, Calvin, Wesley, Yoder, or Wright. For all of us, it means doing what we can to live in peace with one another so that we might make the prayer of Jesus a reality—“that they may be brought to complete unity.”

We don’t have to agree to be unified. We don’t have to think exactly alike to be of the same mind. We don’t have to share a systematic theology to follow Jesus together.

So semper reformanda! Let’s keep reforming! Let’s do a better job than any previous generation in keeping the debate lively while loving one another. 

With sincerity and goodwill, 

Rachel E.



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