Unpleasant Grace

One evening years ago, I babysat my three sons, which meant I read a book upstairs as they wrestled each other downstairs. A shriek rang out and I raced down to find David, my five-year-old son, holding his head as blood gushed through his fingers.

One of his brothers had pushed him off the sofa, and he hit his head against the corner of an end table. It opened an inch-long gash on the side of his temple. As blood pulsed freely, he sobbed uncontrollably.

Without thinking, I said, “David, I think that gash is going to give you a scar.”

He instantly stopped crying, ran to a mirror, and began to examine his wound. He pushed aside his hair and pulled apart the two sides of the torn skin. As blood spurted out of his widened wound, he exclaimed,

“I think you’re right. I’m gonna get a scar!”

Self-glory as Self-medication

I began this article with a dozen failed attempts, because I couldn’t figure out how to introduce its topic. My turmoil began when I overheard a Christian woman in a nearby restaurant booth defend herself from her husband’s comments: he had just told her she is harsh and grouchy.

She countered, “I am doing the very best I can. I’m learning that in my core, I am a loveable being, and when you criticize me, you don’t honor my inner, innate worth as a person.”

That woman, like my son (heck, like all of us), grasped for self-glory to sedate an inner pain.

Why Does God Love?

Many Christians today believe that God loves us because we are worthwhile and loveable. But that isn’t what Christianity itself teaches, as C. S. Lewis wrote,

The infinite value of each human soul is not a Christian doctrine. God did not die for man because of some value He perceived in him. The value of each human soul, out of relation to God, is zero. As St. Paul writes, to have died for valuable men would have been, not divine, but merely heroic; but God died for sinners.

He loved us, not because we were lovable, but because He is love.

This is what makes grace so uncomfortable: we get no praise. Human love is awakened by something attractive in the object of love: beauty, kindness, smarts, or success. When humans love us, we like ourselves, because someone else saw something good in us.

To the Roman world of early Christianity, and to our modern world, the two most appalling declarations of the gospel were and are: Agape-love and Grace. That God loves us because of his goodness not ours; that his love for us is not merely undeserved but directly contrary to merit.

Receiving grace requires the embrace of humility, the willingness to let God’s love glorify his name over ours. To receive human love feeds self-glory; but to receive his love glorifies his beauty: he is such a Being that he explodes with love, even for creatures who reject his ways, criticize his commands, and constantly grasp and claw for our own glory.

God doesn’t love us because we are loveable or good; he loves us because he himself is love and goodness. The Father’s agape turns our hearts to God-praise. Can we live with that?

Besides, it’s only when we (the unworthy) receive grace-love that we can begin to grant love to the seemingly unlovable: our grouchy spouse or our irritable (and irritating) colleague.

Because We All Grasp for Glory

When my three sons would get caught fighting, they always blamed a brother for causing it. But not the fight that resulted David’s scar. Both unscarred boys claimed (and claim to this day) that they are the one who shoved David off the sofa and gave him that life-long legacy.

For a boy, the only glory better than wearing a scar, is the splendor of bestowing one.

Sam

P. S. To  nurture connection with God through grace, and to develop a conversational relationship with your Father, I suggest you read Hearing God in Conversation.

After all, what did God save us for? To know him personally.

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What do YOU think?

11 thoughts on “Unpleasant Grace

  1. I love your columns – especially today. I received “Unpleasant Grace” I agree with virtually everything you had to say, but you capped it all off with a line that should eat into the heart of everyone who claims to believe, who yearns o serve Him and is constantly searching for the more perfect way.

    You expressed it this way – “After all, what did Gd save us for? TO KNOW HIM, PERSONALLY”

    I have volumes on the subject of Grace – none say it more accurately.

  2. Sam,
    I hear your main point, that God loves us not because we’re lovable but
    because it is his nature to love, and I agree, theologically.

    And yet, I wonder about the illustration of the woman’s self defense.
    As a (retired) psychotherapist, that concept of being lovable and capable as
    components of self esteem resonate with me. In an everyday, walking around
    sense, we are as “lovable” as anyone else. However, I also get that our
    only enduring sense of self value has to be the sacrifice of Jesus.
    Our security and significance rest in who He is, not who we are.

    So, a better defense to her husband might be. “Please love me like Jesus loves
    me. I’d appreciate more kindness when you tell me truths about myself.” True?

    I guess I’m thinking you might want to explore this topic further. I’d hate for
    your sensitive readers to walk away with heads hanging even lower.

    And if you are their father, are you really “babysitting?” Aren’t you solo
    parenting? That struck me, it might not strike others. 😂

    I feel like we are kindred spirits and you will welcome this feedback, whether
    you agree or find it helpful or not. Correct me if I’m wrong. 😀

    Blessings,
    Karen

    • Hi Karen,

      I LOVE your feedback and your thought provoking challenges. (I disagree with myself all the time.)

      To be honest, it was a difficult article. Because on one hand, there is something valuable in us: God made us in his image. That’s pretty good! The thing is, all that is good in us is a gift from God, so we can’t take credit (or get self-glory) even for the “good” in us.

      In addition, if God loves us, then, somehow, we can’t be totally unlovable. It’s just that God’s love should make me worship him instead of myself.

      My “babysitting” remark is sort of a private joke at myself. I really used to think I was babysitting them; it drove my wife NUTS!!!!!!! And she was 100% right (as are you). Putting it the blog is a my way of admitting to the world: I can be such a jerk.

      Thanks,

      Sam

  3. I have two lines of thinking this morning after reading your column. First, ouch. In April I was diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer (at age 54 I am learning to live with the fact that I will never be cured, never give blood, cannot donate organs, etc.). The treatment has been unpleasant, but not what I would consider agonizing. In fact, one-third of the way through the projected treatment, I’ve responded really well so far, and my doctors are extremely pleased (and so am I). The “ouch” I am feeling this morning is because, while all this is for God’s glory, I have finally admitted to myself that I enjoy the attention. I enjoy getting out of tiresome meetings because of my diminished capacity to sit for two hours and pay attention (husband calls it “playing the cancer card,” I call it chemo-brain). Your writing has reminded me that it isn’t about me: I have no merit aside from God’s love for me and for the praying friends who are asking him for my healing. It’s all about him. His mercy. His glory. His love.

    Second, your overheard-dialog between husband and wife: The chord it rang in me was that she wasn’t owning her piece of the pie. We listen to Andy Stanley a lot, and I’ve listened several times to his sermon about taking responsibility (called “Let the Blames Begin” but here is a concise summary: http://www.preachingtoday.com/illustrations/2011/october/2101711.html). While what the woman says may (may! I’m not a huge fan of navel-gazing) be true, what the husband said is also true, and her response to him is blame-shifting. I personally don’t see what “I’m learning that in my core, I am a lovable being” has to do with treating the people around you badly. Spousal conflict is complicated, and I am not offering counseling advice, but the lesson we can learn from the illustration is easy: take responsibility for your own actions, and remember that most of… everything …is not about you. “It’s not about me” helps me think a moment more, focus on the other person in the relationship, give instead of take. In every relationship, from the cat to the kid, to the spouse, to the Creator.

    • Hi Jenny,

      I love your personal sharing. It’s sharing like yours that opens up others to be personally (and brutally 🙂 ) honest ourselves.

      I agree that the wife’s self-defense (“I’m learning in my core that I’m a lovable being”) is just plain odd. It offers no excuse being harsh with others. But I probably use self-centered responses all the time to shift blame away from me.

      I think there is a better rest in God when his love for me is based on him and his love. In that way, I can be sure that “nothing in the world can separate me/us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”

      Thanks for being personal.