I recently enjoyed Philip Yancey’s “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” He’s steering me back to the God I knew before I moved to the Bible Belt — the God who is, in the words of one person Yancey quotes, “very fond of me.”
The Bible Belt and its own peculiar version of Christianity isn’t entirely to blame for moving me so far from God’s grace. I became convinced I’d done something that set me far enough outside God’s will that I had ceased to be of use to God. And then, people being people, a great many of God’s people did their best — perhaps with good intentions — to convince me I was right.
In the last few months, I’ve been rediscovering that there is always Grace, that we are always loved, that we can never stray so far from the path that the Shepherd forgets us or allows us to wander unsupervised into hazardous territory until we “learn our lesson.”
Here are a few of the things I’ve learned over these last nearly 20 years:
Grace is, as Yancey puts it, the knowledge that there is nothing you can do to make God love you more or love you less. God loves you. Wildly. Desperately. Through the best and worst of your living. God loves you enough to give the very best that he has: his own Son, sacrificed in a bloody, deadly battle against the forces of evil that darken this world. Because God loves you and me and all of us that much, we can follow God in God’s victory and live in God’s light.
Grace isn’t the “cheap grace,” as Dietrich Bonhoeffer called it, that we tend to live out in our American congregations. Grace isn’t a word to invoke when it is hard to do the right thing: “Don’t lay that on me; I’m under Grace, not Law.” It isn’t a word to use with a smirk when describing people we prefer to exclude: “He’s ‘extra Grace required.’ ” Grace isn’t a substitute for an apology when we’ve injured another: “I guess you’ll just have to extend Grace to me for that!”
We misunderstand Grace, treating it as a sloppy parody of the astonishing gift it is. As a result of misunderstanding the God’s Love given to us as Grace, we misunderstand what it means for us to love God and each other as God intends.
God gives Grace to us because of God’s Love for us. We give Love to God because of God’s Grace to us. And part of giving Love to God is giving Love to God’s Body here on earth.
God gave us many instructions for what loving God and loving other people looks like. In our passion for Grace, we like to call that Book (or collection of books) a “love letter from God.” Speaking for a moment as a writer considerably less accomplished than God, who lives in a time when we place a high value on conciseness, I have to say that if the Bible is God’s “love letter” to us, God is a really wordy writer who spends a lot of time on tangents. And happily, because God is very fond of me, he is smiling at my flippant mis-characterization of the Book he wrote.
But if the Bible is something more than a love letter — not just a picture of God’s love for us and God’s rescue of us and God’s grace toward us, but also God’s guidance for how we can love God and love other people — then those 66 books have a lot of useful things to say.
When we read the Bible from this perspective, we can see that God has been teaching us, from the beginning of God’s teaching us, that to love others is a way to love God:
“Do not take advantage of each other, but fear your God. I am the LORD your God.” Lev. 25:17
“If anyone sins and is unfaithful to the Lord by deceiving a neighbor about something entrusted to them or left in their care or about something stolen, or if they cheat their neighbor, or if they find lost property and lie about it, or if they swear falsely about any such sin that people may commit — when they sin in any of these ways and realize their guilt, they must return what they have stolen or taken by extortion, or what was entrusted to them, or the lost property they found, or whatever it was they swore falsely about. They must make restitution in full, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the owner …” Lev. 6:2-5
“… love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” Lev. 19:18
“Masters, provide your servants with what is right and fair, because you know that you too have a Master in heaven.” Col. 4:1
“Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord.” Lev. 19:16
” … love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.” Luke 6:35
“Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience.” Col. 3:12
Yes, we live under Grace. But the only reasonable response to Grace is Love.
God calls us to respond in love to God, and each of us finds ways that suit the character God has placed in us: silent meditation, praise songs, traditional hymns, hours of intercession, prayer while walking … Over many centuries, we have learned many ways to express our love to God.
But God also calls us to express our love of God through concrete acts of love toward those in our faith community, other neighbors, and even our enemies. God teaches many ways to express love to other people. We grow in our love for God and each other when we practice Love as it is taught in the hundreds of lines of guidance God gives us in the big Book.
That’s why I love my compulsive, idiosyncratic habit of collecting the commands God gives us. I’m not God’s best (most obedient!) child by a long shot. But I know God is “very fond of me.” And I want to make God very proud of how I reflect the character of the family God has gathered.