“There is something in us that is always suspicious of or rebels against the gift.” -Gerhard Forde(1)
I sometimes feel like my entire life has been a war against grace, and so far, I've lost every battle. Round after round I've gotten into the ring and been knocked down. But again and again, I rise to fight tooth and nail against the gift and the gift-giver who has the audacity to think I can't pay for something myself. "Over my dead body," I say as I stagger to my feet again, "Let's go! Double or nothing!"
One story, in particular, keeps returning to me.
When I was in high school, I mowed the lawn at my dad’s feed plant. At the time, the only mower available was an old push mower. It was big. It was heavy. And it took an ungodly effort just to get the wheels in motion. I pushed and shoved and sweat and strained for all I was worth, forcing that behemoth to do my bidding. It felt good to do a hard day’s labor and to have something to show for it. About halfway through the summer, though, Dad casually mentioned to me, “By the way, you know that mower is self-propelled, right?” Translation: No more pushing required! Over the next few weeks, my life was radically transformed as I allowed the machine to perform the work I had previously been doing with my own two hands. It felt glorious! The burden was lifted! I was free! But there was one problem. After a while, I began to feel guilty. “This is way too easy,” I thought. “I’m not sweating enough. I’m not working hard enough. I haven’t really earned my paycheck.” So, from time to time—when no one was looking—I switched the self-propelled feature OFF and went back to my old ways of pushing and shoving. I chaffed under the weight of NOT having a load to bear. The free gift was just too much for me to take.
With every bone in our bodies, we declare war on grace. We declare war on the gift. We may speak of grace in glowing terms, but our attitude shifts when we realize that we too must become its recipient. Sure, it may be more blessed to give than to receive, but it takes so much more humility be on the receiving end of a transaction. In a world with no free lunches, we feel the need to continually prove we can stand on our own to legs. “Don’t worry,” we say. “I’ve got this.” But we clearly don’t.
Recently, I served Communion to an elderly, bed-ridden shut-in, who has suffered from various health issues for decades. "This is the blood of Jesus Christ, shed for you,” I said as I placed the cup in his hands. He grasped it shakily and started to bring it toward his lips. His wife, foreseeing how far the cup had yet to traverse, graciously reached her hand forward and offered, “Here, let me help you.” He immediately rebuffed her off with a brusque, “No. I’ve got this.” But he didn’t. The cup continued to tip, the liquid making its way toward the edge until finally—with a deep sigh—he surrendered and allowed his wife to intercede, bringing the cup the final few inches to his lips. Any objective observer would have perceived this as a beautiful picture of grace, but what he felt was personal defeat; he couldn’t do it himself. Even at the Communion rail, we feel we have something to prove.
What Robert Capon calls “the divine lark of grace”(2) is foreign to human nature. It’s not in our blood. It’s contrary to reason. In fact, it’s utterly scandalous. What’s all this nonsense about “free-ness?” We’re supposed to have to pay our own way. We’re supposed to have to earn it. And we—not someone else—are supposed to be the ones doing the earning! The default paradigm of the human heart has no category for gifts given; only wages earned. Whether it’s grace directly from the Heavenly Banquet or grace in earthly relationships, the thought of a gift makes us very, very nervous.
Being a new Father has done little to quell those nerves. God has blessed me with an immensely wise & godly wife, and in the dark watches of the night when she awakes to feed the baby, I often slumber right on through. Yet, the next day, I am wracked with feelings of guilt and immediately seeking pardon. Shouldn’t I at least have gotten up with her? She’s tired, so shouldn’t I be tired too? I should be feeling more pain. It’s too easy for me. And even hearing the “absolution” pronounced from her lips (“Honey, there’s no sense in both of us being exhausted. I hold nothing against you,”) doesn’t always bring the peace I’m after. The free gift of a good night’s sleep is just too much for me to take.
The divine lark continues to evade me.
I don’t know where I’m going with this. What is the answer? What is the cure for a disease that’s in every capillary, vein, and molecule of our blood? How do we call a cease-fire on our battle with grace?
I’m not sure. At least, not entirely.
But maybe the answer isn’t the same one we give to everything else: Try harder. Try harder to receive grace. Try harder to take the gift. Try harder to soften your own heart toward God.
Maybe our obsession with trying harder is at the root of the problem. Perhaps grace is the one thing in the world that precludes any human trying at all. And maybe that’s the best news we could ever imagine. This is why the Apostle Paul says: "It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy." (Romans 9:16)
Grace is not something we do. It’s something we believe. It’s something we trust, as Paul says earlier in Romans 4:4-5: "Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness."
So, no—maybe we’ll never capture the divine lark of grace. But perhaps we can learn to fight it less. And maybe we can learn to be people who embody it more.
After all, who knows?
Maybe—just maybe—we might discover that we actually enjoy the gift.