Zelophehad’s Daughters

Glimmers of Grace

Posted by Lynnette

From the beginning of my studies in theology, I’ve been fascinated by the doctrine of grace. As with many questions in this field, I’m particularly interested in what it actually means for lived experience. If grace is something real, I keep asking, what concrete difference does that make in how I live? What does it mean to wake up in the morning to a world of grace?

I remember as a teenager furtively reading evangelical pamphlets which encouraged me to say the Sinner’s Prayer and be saved, and feeling intensely drawn to that possibility. Though I disagree with various aspects of the overall evangelical outlook, I think there is something deeply powerful in that basic idea that you can approach God even from the wreckage of your life and he won’t turn you away, that you don’t have to live up to some minimum standard before you can ask for his help. I love the story of Alma’s conversion, how in Alma 36:18 he cries, “O Jesus, thou Son of God, have mercy on me” and then in verse 19, he reports, “I could remember my pains no more.” I’m always struck by how there is no verse 18.5 in which the Lord says, “Well, I might think about forgiving you, but only if you devote the rest of your life to becoming a great missionary.”

On perhaps a similar note, the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich makes the case that repentance is actually the result of forgiveness, rather than the other way around. Last fall I read a book by the Orthodox author Olivier Clement, in which he comments, “the awareness of being loved and the response that it unlocks are the only criterion of repentance.” I’ve found such observations helpful in coming to re-think repentance not so much as something which you endure in order to re-gain God’s favor or appease his anger, but the desire to change which is sparked by sensing God’s radical acceptance of you. Several twentieth century theologians have pointed out that grace isn’t some kind of substance which can be bottled and analyzed; rather, grace is a relationship. It is God’s steadfast willingness to be in relation with us, a relationship which if we will allow it can be transformative of who we are.

Yet I often struggle to believe in that possibility, go through times when life feels empty and dark and I wonder why, if grace is everywhere, I am so unable to see it. I’ve come to believe more and more that grace tends to be mediated through other things, that it is not an abstract force “out there” somewhere but rather a part of the fabric of my everyday life, and that if I’m going to find it, it will be in those quotidian details. I often glimpse it in literature or poetry or theology or music. Most of all, I encounter it in the people in my life who are patient and forgiving and don’t give up on me even when I make serious mistakes. It is through the experience of such relationships that I’ve gradually come to develop more trust in a God who is not seeking to condemn, but who is “full of grace, equity, and truth, full of patience, mercy, and long-suffering.” (Alma 9:26) It may be rare that I directly see the workings of grace, but when I look, I am frequently surprised by how many hints I see of something just around the corner, beckoning to me.

5 Responses to “Glimmers of Grace”

  1. 1.

    That’s a fascinating question, Lynnette. I tend to oscillate between seeing the world as full of God’s grace and, in dark moments, being absolutely unable to find it.

    I had an experience a few days ago that made me think about this issue. I’ve been frustrated with one of my professors this semester, sitting in his class and seething at what I saw as his sweeping generalization about religion and the modern world. I had whined to several friends, and I was trying to decide what to do about my frustrations. A few days ago, completely out of the blue, I was invited to a social event, and I was the first person to arrive, while he was the second. It gave us a chance to make a little friendly small talk away from the classroom, and although I’m usually no fan of small talk, in this case, it was exactly what I needed to see him as a human being and to realize that he has no malice toward me. I still don’t agree with what he’s saying in class, but now I have a human context for that disagreement, so it’s merely intellectual, no longer marred by my personal venom. These are the sorts of small and daily encounters that manifest God’s grace in my life. I think of Doctrine and Covenants 59:21: And in nothing doth man offend God, or against none is his wrath kindled, save those who confess not his hand in all things, and obey not his commandments.

    Of course, such acknowledgements come with tough questions about the problem of evil. Why would God intervene in a relatively trivial case of my bad feelings toward someone and not intervene to prevent real atrocities? I really have no idea.

  2. 2.

    I absolutely believe in and embrace the subject of grace. As a twelve stepper, we often talk about “there but for the grace of God go I.”

    For me, grace has meant that God kept me from using illegal drugs or becoming pregnant in high school. And I was so ready for either one.

    I often think about the girls who didn’t experience that and I feel guilty and wonder why. I still don’t know.

    But ultimately I believe that grace and mercy are more important than justice. I think God is infinitely merciful and we will all be so surprised.

    And sometimes when something really good happens, and I feel His spirit, and I know I’m unworthy, I know I’ve been blessed by His grace.

    Grace says, “neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” I love it.

  3. 3.

    Annegb said “But ultimately I believe that grace and mercy are more important than justice.”

    That’s interesting to me. This time through the BoM I saw the verse, somewhere in Alma, I think, that contains the phrase “…mercy overpowereth justice …” While I understand that the demands of justice must be fulfilled, this was the first time I had ever thought of mercy actually being more powerful than justice.

    Lynnette, excellent post. “We love Him because He first loved us.” Lots of wisdom there.

  4. 4.

    A few years ago Elder Holland gave a talk about the great love God has for us. I listened to that talk, and what I learned from it enabled me to turn my life around. I finally understood that God loved me, and thought that I was worth loving. I finally *felt* it. That was when I was able to really repent of the things I had been half-heartedly trying to repent of for months.
    You summed it up very well when you said “I’ve found such observations helpful in coming to re-think repentance not so much as something which you endure in order to re-gain God’s favor or appease his anger, but the desire to change which is sparked by sensing God’s radical acceptance of you.”

  5. 5.

    Eve, thanks for sharing your experience. I’ve wondered a lot too about how the command to acknowledge God in all things connects to the problem of evil. And like you, I seem to go back and forth between seeing grace everywhere, and feeling utterly blind to it.

    Annegb, that’s a great connection to twelve-step programs; from what I know of them, they seem to have grace at their very core in that you are offered help based simply on your need for it. I like that.

    Mark, I’d never really thought about that verse either; thanks for mentioning it.

    Starfoxy, If I’m thinking of the same Elder Holland talk, it’s one that very much affected me as well. I remember his comment that as a parent, as hard as it was to watch his children get into trouble, it would be infinitely more devastating if they wouldn’t talk to him about it or let him help. That’s an observation that’s really stayed with me.

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