Amazing Grace, How Hard the Sound

I have a problem with grace. It offends me, it messes with my head, and I don’t like it.

So here is my confession: I talk about grace often, love it, and look forward to spending my life preaching about it. But on a practical level, when I actually run into it in real life, it scares me. It’s difficult to process. It doesn’t make sense. It’s too much.

Grace robs me of control. It strips away my ability to do anything other than say “thank you.” It refuses to give me what I deserve, what I’ve earned: death and destruction. Instead, it gives me what the giver wants to give: life and love. That’s the hard thing about relationship with God: When we meet Him, we realize we’ve earned death, and we don’t want to be there anymore. So we set about trying to earn life. But grace won’t let us. It will give us life, sure, but not as a payment for our reformed behavior. It flows to us directly out of the sacrifice of Jesus for us, which is wholly outside of us and all our best efforts.

Grace destroys our notions of control. Grace puts Jesus in charge, while ripping the steering wheel permanently out of our hands. Grace gives us every reason to want to hide, even as it removes our need to do so. In that sense, it directly attacks our human instinct to do everything we can to secure ourselves, to keep ourselves safe. The irony is that it does all this by making us…safe.

One of my favorite bands has a song called “I Kneel.” The first line of the chorus says: “I kneel in awkward acceptance of a gift I can’t deserve.” I so wish I could deserve it. I can’t. But it’s so awkward accepting it. Just taking it, with no hope of ever earning it.

And yet…there Jesus stands, delighting to give me grace. There He is, stubbornly refusing to let me impress Him with all my goodness, or scare Him away with all of my badness. He stands there, just loving me.

In Luke 15, Jesus tells us a story about a man who had two sons. One of them runs away and promptly sets about destroying his life. He eventually decides to come back to his father, and so he begins rehearsing what he’ll say: I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”‘

This is a good speech. Confession of sin-check. Confession of brokenness in relationship to the father-check. Intention to work hard to make things right-check.

But look at what happens when they meet: “And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.”

Notice how far the son got? Right up to the spot where he was going to outline what he could do for his father. Right up to the spot where he was going to explain what he could do to make things right. And the father interrupts him. “Things are already right,” he says. “You don’t have to work to make things ok between us. I’ve already done the work. You were dead, and now you’re alive, and I can love you-and that’s all I’ve ever wanted from you. I don’t need anything from you-I just want to be with you. Now sit down and rest.”

Grace is good-it will take a wasteful person who has destroyed their entire life and welcome them back with open arms. But grace is hard-it will do all that without ever asking that person to pay for it. Harder still, it will do all that without letting that person pay for it.

And this causes problems. I think I’m a lot like the older brother in the story. When I see this kind of grace poured out, even poured out on myself, it irks me. “Shouldn’t it be harder than all that? Shouldn’t I have to prove I really mean it first?”

“No,” the Father says. “Just sit down. I’m throwing you a party.” And that’s hard. I want to be better, to do better, to prove I deserve it. As Martin Luther said, “If God were willing to sell His grace, we would accept it more quickly and gladly than when He offers it for nothing.” Yes, grace will change us. Yes, grace will reform our lives. But not until it strips us of the notion that we can reform ourselves. We need what Luther called an “alien righteousness”-a righteousness that comes to us from outside of us, generated by Jesus’ work on the cross, not our work on ourselves.

Grace humbles us, because it tells us we can never make ourselves ok. Grace rescues us, though, because in setting us free from our notions of self-salvation, it puts us on the road to healing and wholeness.

So the challenge for us is to learn how to accept this grace. How to let it happen to us. Perhaps we can start by sitting down, and enjoying the party the Father is throwing:

The LORD your God is in your midst,
a mighty one who will save;
he will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing. I will gather those of you who mourn
for the festival,
so that you will no longer suffer reproach.
Behold, at that time I will deal
with all your oppressors.
I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.

-Zephaniah 3:17-19

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