How I Learned About Grace and Works from a DBT Group

For much of my life, I have been both intrigued and a little terrified by the idea of grace. Growing up in the church, I rarely heard the term, but I was drawn to the questions it posed. One day when I was an early adolescent, I stumbled across a standard evangelical pamphlet in a Reader’s Digest. I read it clandestinely, because I doubted it was okay for a good Mormon  to be reading such wild things. But I was fascinated by the idea that you could get yourself saved simply by saying a prayer. For someone who felt overwhelmed by the expectations of the church, that seemed way too good to be true.

And to some extent, I’ve been thinking about that question ever since. To put it in more theological language, how do divine action and human action work together in the process of  salvation? What, exactly, is grace, and what does it do? How does it relate to human freedom? In my theological work, I’ve been grappling with those questions for years, both in the context of the LDS church and in the wider world of Christian theology. I’ve written a variety of papers on the subject, and it played a significant role in my dissertation.

But on a personal level, I think I’ve learned the most about grace from a therapy group I was in a couple of years ago. It was a six-month, modified DBT group. (DBT stands for dialectical behavior therapy—you can google it for more info, but for purposes of this post, I’ll just say that it has you work on skills related to things like mindfulness and emotional regulation.) I really like DBT, which has helped me a lot. And the combination of DBT skills and the style of this particular group made me clue into things that I hadn’t really understood before, at least not on an experiential level.

For one thing, what mattered with the group was that you showed up and were honest. If you hadn’t done your homework, or you’d slipped into self-destructive behavior that week, that was simply something to talk about—not something to get you in trouble. The idea was that you looked at what had happened not with judgment, but with curiosity, with a compassionate attitude of wanting to understand what had happened, and the idea that you could  make different choices in the future.

In addition, you didn’t have to earn the privilege of being in the group through good behavior. It wasn’t as if you didn’t have to make any effort—because if you didn’t come, or you didn’t talk honestly about what was going on, the group couldn’t help you. If you weren’t ready for it, that was okay; you could try it again in the future. But if you came, people were there to help—not to judge.

I also appreciated the emphasis on a basic DBT skill called “radical acceptance,” which means accepting where you are right now, and going from there. It doesn’t mean you have to like the situation—the point is that you don’t waste your energy wishing it were different. Since I have a strong tendency to beat myself up when things go wrong, I’ve found this skill particularly challenging, but also surprisingly helpful when I’ve managed to put it into practice.

I’ve been in a couple of DBT groups since then, and while they’ve been useful, they’ve made me appreciate just how good my first group was. We had a group of people who came regularly, and as we got to know each other, we developed some pretty close friendships. There’s something powerful about an environment in which you can be honest, sometimes brutally so, about what’s really going on in your life.

All of this made me think a lot about my religious practice. I like the idea that you’re not at church to endlessly re-hash mistakes, but to focus on where you are going next—that church shouldn’t be a place to make you feel horrible about your imperfections, but to give you space to take account of where you are at the moment, and to encourage you to keep going.

And on a more personal note, I’ve thought a lot about this in the context of my relationship with God. I find it very easy to start avoiding things like prayer when I’m feeling guilty or angry. It’s hard to trust that this isn’t a relationship that I have to earn, or that’s contingent on my being on my best behavior. Rather, it’s something constant (though admittedly it doesn’t always feel that way). It’s not going to help, it’s not going to make any difference in my life, if I avoid it. But no matter how often I run, God stubbornly refuses to give up on me. And that, I believe, is grace.


  1. Beautifully written! I love the concept of radical acceptance and have found that to be a very healing, comforting practice. If we were to practice that principle in our Church and homes, surely we would experience greater peace, healing, and oneness. As we access the power of God’s infinite, unconditional, incomprehensible love, we recognize that we are His beloved children and that He loves us just as we are and longs to help us return to live eternally with Him. The power of His grace cannot be taught too much in the Church and needs to be the foundation of every talk given and lesson taught.

  2. Lynette,

    Thanks for writing this beautiful post. I have also come to believe in the power of radical acceptance. I have felt this radical acceptance more strongly following meditative practice. When I pray after meditating, the spiritual prompting I always feel is, “You’re OK. You’re OK. You don’t need to be different to be OK.” What an awesome message! When I feel that message in my bones it makes me want to jump up and down with excitement, and to get up and go do nice things for others. Grace gives me the ability to change and be more like the person I want to become.

    Recently I taught a high priests’ lesson about grace using as a text Brad Wilcox’s BYU devotional. Although I don’t know if I completely believe the model of the atonement that he uses, I think it’s a beautiful talk.

    But I must admit, we hardly seem to hear about grace at church. And when we do hear it, it seems that the obligatory disclaimers must accompany it, i.e., there is no free lunch. I think this is unfortunate because “works” doesn’t seem to work, whereas grace changes us inside so that the works flow more naturally and powerfully. I think we need to have “Grace Month” at Church (although that’s probably what other Christian churches call Easter 🙂 )

  3. I really like this, Lynnette. I think this is an excellent takeaway point:

    “church shouldn’t be a place to make you feel horrible about your imperfections”

    If I may be permitted a tangent, I wonder if the Church hasn’t become a place that’s so guilt and works focused because it’s largely run by successful businessmen who are good at thinking about problem solving but bad at thinking about psychology. I mean they see problems–we all sin–and they think the way to solve them is to hammer on them over and over and over and over and over. Witness their discussion of porn, for example. And maybe that works in business. I don’t know; I have no business sense. But when you’re trying to lift people up, a more grace-focused approach, like you described–accepting people first–might actually work better.

  4. I love the concept of grace, Lynette and I so appreciate your posts. They echo my experience and struggle as I deal with my “other-ness” in the context of my membership in the church.

    I’ve never heard of that group; I don’t think they have that here, but it sounds valuable.

    I’ve noticed that when someone has the courage to share, honestly, in our church meetings the fragile emotions or real experiences of their lives, everyone loves it and the meeting opens up. In talks, too, have you noticed?

    It’s hard to do, though.

  5. Per your last paragraph: “For it is after all grace, his blessed grace, if we come at all, if we do after all have supper at his table, if we only come, if we only drag ourselves to him, we who are dreary, bent, weary, and burdened. He welcomes us even if he does not find in our eyes radiant joy at his presence. For he has of course descended into all the abysses of this earth; it does not offend him to have to enter the dull narrowness of our hearts . . .” Karl Rahner

  6. Yes! I’ve had these exact thoughts over the past year as I was given the opportunity to co lead a DBT group. As I’ve learned how to begin to accept myself, I’ve witnessed just how powerful acceptance ( which to me is nearly the same as grace) can be. And it’s led me to seriously wonder why the church doesn’t push this concept. As a kid I actually thought that grace was a ” bad” thing. So funny. Anyway, I just wish people could believe that they are just fine, just as they are.

  7. Love (III)

    Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
    Guilty of dust and sin.
    But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
    From my first entrance in,
    Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
    If I lacked any thing.

    A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
    Love said, You shall be he.
    I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
    I cannot look on thee.
    Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
    Who made the eyes but I?

    Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
    Go where it doth deserve.
    And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
    My dear, then I will serve.
    You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
    So I did sit and eat.

    –George Herbert


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