Today I'll post the first section on my experiential understanding of grace.
So this morning I’m going to start by tackling what we mean by “grace,” then add in the contemplative part. We’re going to look at everyday grace as I’ve noticed it in my life, then some word studies from the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures, and then we’ll look at some recent research on contemplative topics. Finally, we’ll finish with some thoughts about what all this means for me personally and for us as a community of Friends.
The problem with the way we often talk about grace in Christianity is that it almost feels like we first have to feel guilt and shame in order to receive grace. The problem with that is that grace is a free gift. I don't have to do ANYTHING--even feel guilty--in order to receive it. It's just offered to me. It’s just so abundantly above and beyond anything I can ever feel like I deserve that it feels like grace regardless of whether I feel guilty or ashamed.
The problem comes in because we think that in order to understand God’s grace, we have to think of ourselves as utterly depraved. I have a really hard time with the concept of complete human depravity. I don’t think it’s in the Bible. Yes, we’re all “sinners,” in that we all choose to walk away from God at various points in our lives (OK, every day, if you're anything like me), but I don’t think we’re at heart completely evil. It seems like Friends have generally had a fairly optimistic view of human nature: there is that of God in each of us—we’re created in the image of God. God speaks to and through each person. Everyone has the chance to respond to God.
When I was at a Reformed seminary I just could never get on board with this idea of complete human depravity, and I realized this optimism isn’t necessarily common to all Christians. But I feel like we still have a tendency to get stuck there in this idea that we’re so evil that God had to come save us—or worse, that Jesus the Son had to come save us from God, the angry child-abusing capricious Father-deity who was willing to watch his own son die. We heap guilt on ourselves, but this distances us from God in an unhealthy way. Why should I be grateful for the grace of this God? This isn’t grace. It’s a fear-tactic. It’s holding something scary over our heads until we buckle under the pressure of our own depravity and plead with him to not be thrown in a lake of fire. This is not the kind of grace we see in the Bible, if we really look.
The overarching theme of the Bible pictures a God who comes to people again and again to build relationship. People draw together as a community, struggling to figure out what it looks like to live in right relationship with God and each other. They make laws to try to codify what the perfect community would look like, but that doesn’t work so well. They notice that the really important part of faith is breaking down the systems (that always seem to crop up) that benefit the powerful by taking advantage of the poor or disadvantaged. Over and over again we see, starting with the law of Moses, that people are instructed to do what is right by the lowest in their society: the widows, the orphans, the foreigners. This is how their commitment to their faith is to be measured.
Stay tuned for parts 2 and 3: a word study on the Greek and Hebrew terms for "grace" and some of the scientific research that relates to the topic of "contemplating grace."