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.