We use the word “grace” a lot and we do our best to define it. I think our definitions always come up short, though.
We say things like “God’s unmerited favor” and we all “oooh” and “aaah” at such a notion. It sounds good, but it’s still confusing.
We say that grace is a gift, which is accurate. We tell people, “you can’t earn a gift.” But deep down we know we can. In fact, we know we have earned gifts.
When we were little our parents would leave us with a sitter and tell us, “Now, you be good and I’ll bring you a present.” A present is a gift, right? We did our best. We may not have been all that good, but we were close. When they got home we asked where our present was and we received a gift. It was a reward for being good.
Let’s just admit it, that’s how gifts work. That’s how birthdays work, it’s how Christmas works. Just ask any kid who has been threatened with a stocking full of coal. It was in the words of our Christmas anthem. “He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good. So be good, for goodness sake!”
And so we grow up with this understanding that if we’re good we will get a gift. Then we come to church and we’re told that we are saved by grace “through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:8, 9 ESV)” We sing the songs that tells us we were a wretch and were lost but we know that somehow we caught God’s attention and he gave us a gift. If years of gift-receiving has taught us anything it’s that we must have been good.
Maybe our problem isn’t with the definition of grace, though. Maybe the problem is with our identification with the receiver of a gift.
My wife and I named our youngest daughter “Grace” because we realized we had been the recipients of God’s grace. However, I think it’s my son Connor who has taught me more about what it means to receive grace from God. As I’ve written before, Connor is profoundly autistic. He is non-verbal (but noisy) and he is very much controlled by his own desire for sensory input and stimulus. If he weren’t so cute you would think he was a self-centered little jerk.
Connor’s birthday is October 3rd and the truth is he doesn’t care. To him it’s just another day. Connor doesn’t have a calendar where he marks off the days until his birthday. He doesn’t start dropping hints about what he wants around the middle of September. There are no sleepless nights in anticipation of what he will receive the next day.
Every year my wife asks me, “what are we getting Connor for his birthday?” And there are times when I have answered, “Does it matter?” We could get him a cardboard box and he would be happy. He doesn’t know it’s his birthday. He doesn’t understand the fuss (though he likes the cake). And most importantly, Connor doesn’t know how to be good so he will get a present. So does he still get a present?
You bet he does!
Connor gets a present because we love him. He gets a present because we consider him worth celebrating. We give him presents because his weakness, his lack of understanding, does not change the fact that I am his daddy and he is my son.
One of Connor’s favorite gifts is a green stuffed animal named “Scout.” In fact, Connor has received three of them over the years and will probably receive a fourth this October (Scouts tends to get loved so much the Velveteen Rabbit would be green with envy). Connor cherishes Scout, but he doesn’t boast about his gift. He doesn’t tell other people about what a good boy he was to receive such a gift–he just enjoys it. He hugs Scout, plays with it and falls asleep next to it. And on his birthday when Scout suddenly becomes stain-free and re-fluffed he will simply go on loving his gift.
Now, how do you receive the grace of God?