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.