The grace of God is courtesy.- Hilaire Belloc
The most ubiquitous Christian song was confounding for me as a child.
You know it.
Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.
The grace described in the song always sounded, well, amazing.
But that second line.
How could I be wretched?!?!
It was stultifying.
Oh, the blessed ignorance of youth.
But it’s not only the wee ones who balk at the idea of associating themselves with some of the more sullied tendencies of human nature.
I recently helped conduct interviews for incoming college students who were competing for a scholarship. We gave them a scenario and asked them to select from a list of patients in need of heart transplant. They had to decide whose life they would choose to save. There was no correct answer. It was a test to see their collaboration skills.
The list summarized a person’s whole life into two or three sentences. This was the sum total of information that they had to decide who should live.
So, I was absolutely blown away, when one of the students repeatedly lambasted many of the people listed for their personal failings and felt that it made them “unworthy” to save.
That used to make sense to me. I used to think that there were people who made mistakes and other people who “walked the straight and narrow” line.
This is problematic, and not just because of the heteronormativity of the use of “straight” in this context.
I’m almost thirty now and I’ve learned that you can be meticulous, you can be scrupulous, you can be well-intentioned and still never be perfect.
The “straight and narrow” we’re taught to aspire to as children and the repeated admonishments to “be good” rings in our ears. It makes sense that we want to put our best foot forward, but sometimes we create a paranoid sense of dissociation.
People cast stones at the teenage mother, forgetting the times that they may have unprotected sex themselves, because they didn’t end up “knocked-up.”
Or they may praise the person who made straight A’s, but used less-than truthful means to keep their GPA pristine, because they were never found guilty of plagiarism.
There are those whose “sins” are more public and those whose are carried in their souls. But we all have them.
So why do we try to encase people in shame?
What if Dr. Martin Luther King was on that list and it said: ordained minister who doesn’t serve the needs of his home congregation due to frequent travel. A known adulterer, he also faces allegations of plagiarizing his academic work.
Would the student before me have selected his life to save?
There is an inherent complexity to what makes our lives valuable and our stories laudable, but one thing for sure, the summation of who we are should not simply be our shortcomings.
What I learned that day at the interview is that God’s grace is amazing, because it saves me (which I believe as a Christian), but also because it reorients what it means to live a truly exalted life – from a life of purely outward piety to a life of striving and reconciling to embody compassion and humility.
Think about it.
The men Jesus picked to tell His story were clearly flawed.
When Judas betrayed Jesus he hung himself, because he could not live with the truth of what he had done himself, although God had forgiven him.
When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself (Matthew 27: 3-5).
And Jesus was executed not only under the authority of the Roman government, but the cries for blood from the very people He was trying to save.
But with loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed. So Pilate decided to grant their demand (Luke 23: 23-24).
Among the last words Jesus ever uttered were:
Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing (Luke 23:34). And He did so while the men guarded him bet on who would get the clothes He was wearing once He was dead.
And that is why grace is amazing and God’s grace is profound.
Because at its core it reveals that grace is compassion in action; that the most human of needs is to receive it; and the most noble of acts is to extend it – to others and yourself.
You certainly cannot “earn” it.