When grace is just a doctrine

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

Grace is my middle name.

Literally. 

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. 

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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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