“♫ Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me ♪” We sing about it all the time. “♪ Grace, grace, God’s grace. Grace that is greater than all my sin ♫” We talk about it. “By grace alone you have been saved.” And we offer it to each other. “Grace to you.” It is one of the most prominent messages in the church. But do we really know what it means?
The Greek word for grace, χάρις (charis), is most often defined as “favor” and sometimes as “kindness.” It has the implication of favor that is freely extended – and thus often defined as “unmerited favor.”
So if God really favors you a lot that should make us really feel good right? But do we?
Last week, blogger and former evangelical Christian turned atheist, Neil Carter, tweeted:
I have never heard more hatred spoken toward being human than I have heard in the lyrics of Christian music. The negativity is overpowering.
— Neil Carter (@godlessindixie) September 13, 2015
He followed that with an article on his “Godless in Dixie” blog titled “Evangelical Christianity and Low Self Esteem” in which he shares how we are shaped by the messages we continually hear, and the overall messages received through much of Christian music is learning to hate ourselves. He goes on to say that such a message is consistent with Christian thinking, stating:
“In order to sell this concept [the need for salvation] you have to magnify the flaws of your listeners, causing them to feel so very, very bad about themselves that they’d even be willing to swallow something like an eternal condemnation.”
While I obviously do not agree with everything Neil says in his blogs, I think he makes some good points here and this should at least give us pause. And while he does not specifically address the word “grace,” shouldn’t such a prominent theme of God’s favor give us a different message than self-hate? After all, aren’t we supposed to think that God’s point of view of us (which we are told is favor) is truer than our own self-perception?
But the general narrative of grace is this:
God really liked us in the beginning, but then humankind really screwed up and God has been pissed off at us ever since. Fortunately, because of what his son Jesus did on the cross, this God who needed some kind of blood payment to be happy, was appeased enough to favor any humans who trust in Jesus. Of course, even though God has promised to eternally put up with you, you wretched souls still need to continually ask for forgiveness and do things right; otherwise, you risk the possibility of falling out of his favor.
After all, you might be saved from hell, but you need to continually merit that unmerited favor in order to be liked. Yippee! Doesn’t that just make your heart go tingly and give you an overwhelming sense of joy?
Of course, it is understood where that comes from. In order to emphasize the “unmerited” side of grace, we often make sure to tie it with something we have done wrong first. After all, it is not until you see how utterly undeserved you are that you can really appreciate the favor God offers you in spite of you.
Many plead for God’s grace to fall down on them, as if it is something he might withhold if we don’t continually ask for it.
But is that really what grace is about? Do we have an accurate definition?
2 Timothy 1:9 states, “This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time” (NIV). The Greek for “the beginning of time” here actually is πρὸ χρόνων αἰωνίων (pro chronōn aiōniōn) which translates literally as “before time eternal.”
Did you hear that? Before time eternal. Which means before creation. Which means before the fall of humankind…before the fall of anything.
Grace was given outside of anyone having done anything wrong first.
Sure, an omniscient God, would certainly know that eventually humankind was going to do something wrong; but this verse indicates that favor was something that God desired to give beforehand. It also indicates that grace is a part of God’s eternal character – it’s something that has always existed, currently exists and will always exist as part of his character?
Could this even mean that, since it was before the creation of anything, when there was only the Holy Trinity, that God the Father may have even offered it to the Son and the Holy Spirit? Blapheme! For they never did anything wrong. But this gets at the very misunderstanding of our definition of grace.
When we say “unmerited favor” it is not that one must do something wrong first, thus unmeriting themselves, before undeserved favor is offered; instead, it is favor given that never had to be merited in the first place.
The difference seems subtle, but it is absolutely huge. We have wrongly used “unmerited” to define grace when instead it should be used only as a characteristic of it. It’s not a matter of God putting up with us, regardless of our rebellion or mistakes; it’s a matter of God favoring or liking us from the get go with nothing that could change that.
However, this is not what is most often taught or believed. Many Christians live as though they are on the “edge” of grace, thinking they can easily fall out of it at any moment. All too often when we talk of grace it is referenced in the context of failure and sin. We overemphasize the “unmerited” part over the “favor” part and the result is a dose of uplifting favor mixed together with an often more powerful dose of down casting shame.
To do this is the equivalent of a parent telling their child, “I really love you. You’re actually quite an obnoxious pain to raise and don’t deserve my love, but I choose to love you anyway.” Or someone telling their date, “You have a beautiful smile. In actuality it’s quite ugly, but I simply choose to think of it as beautiful.” Which part of those sentences do you think the recipient will remember the most?
And yet, this is essentially the same message that gets preached from our pulpits and the message we most often believe: “God likes you. You really suck and there’s nothing really likable about you, but God puts up with and loves you anyway.” Our songs are the equivalent of “♪ Oh, how God really loves me, even though I am such a worm ♫” In the end, many Christians end up living schizophrenically in a sort of miserable joy.
This kind of message ignores the kind of cry that emanates from everyone’s heart, starting from early childhood. “Does anyone like me? Am I loved? Do I matter? Am I okay as I am?” Shame sets in enough on its own without the messages of religion constantly reminding us of the inadequate failures we are. Yet while “favor” is meant to be the primary message that is taught by the church, “unmerited” is the part most often told. Soon enough, people begin to turn to other drastic means to feel “favored” from promiscuous love to searches for power to desperate means to fit in to forms of escape.
And as the cry to “favor me” becomes all the more desperate, the church shouts “unmerited, unmerited, unmerited!” all the more. And when the plea to be favored ultimately gets unmet, people begin to leave the church, and leave God.
In my book Rethinking God: Because God is Bigger, Closer and More Real Than You Think I share how the things that bring about true order (against the chaos) to our world and our universe are reflections of the very character of God. Freely given favor to others is one of those things that bring about order. As shown by the fact God offered grace since before time eternal, God was not suddenly surprised by sin. He didn’t go, “Oh, no, I guess I better come up with this grace thing!”
Instead grace was built into the very fabric of our universe – like cracks built into sidewalks – to allow space where things would go wrong. God has patiently “put up” with humankind for a very long time. I think he views humans and their potential far more favorably than we know. And don’t you think our attitudes should match?
Now don’t get me wrong, God’s unending favor toward us in no way undermines the significance of the cross. Far from it. That Christ’s death on the cross and subsequent resurrection was essential for the restoration of relationship between humankind and God is absolutely true. But it was God’s favor toward all of us that motivated such a sacrifice in the first place. And it is God’s forgiveness offered through the cross that enables us to see God’s favor, as opposed to the unnecessary shame that we often carry which blinds us.
In addition, while God always favors us, it does not mean that God always favors our actions. In fact it is his very favor toward us that often causes him to interfere in our actions.
My wife and I have favored each of our four children since the moment they were conceived. I shared in a previous post how a few years ago our eldest son lived in rebellion and we had to make the difficult decision of “tough loving” him out of the home for several months. He had been living in direct opposition to us and there was a lot of tension in the home at that time, but never once did our son lose favor with us. We favored him before the rebellion, we favored him during, and we will continue to favor him all the days of his life. In fact it was our very favor towards him that motivated our asking him to leave the home in the first place – all with hopes that he would turn his life around from self-destructive behaviors and ultimately make good choices for his own future.
Now some may argue that emphasizing the favor over the unmerited part amounts to “easy grace” and does nothing to move a person away from their sins. Yet it is the very realization of favor that helps one to avoid sin in the first place. It was because Adam and Eve did not fully believe in God’s favor toward them that they ate the fruit. They believed (as the serpent suggested to them) that God was somehow withholding something. Truly believing that God has favor towards you also means believing that his rules for you are in your favor.
When our eldest rebelled it was because he did not see our favor toward him in our rules. It was only after he learned that his own ways were not so good that he finally began to see the favor we had toward him and he returned home. In addition, prior to that he had been unable to see our favor toward him as a person. He struggled with feelings of shame and low self-esteem – the types of things that the “unmerited” message only tend to enhance. Had he seen himself as the valuable, desired, and loved person that he is, I am convinced he never would have headed down a self-destructive path to begin with. Fortunately now, he has seen his worth and value and his completely turned his life around.
Nowhere is the need to emphasize “favor” over “unmerited” better illustrated than in Jesus’ addressing of the woman caught in adultery. He did not need to remind her of her sin (she already knew). Instead he showed her favor by, first, helping her to see that she was not alone and, second, letting her know she was accepted and not condemned (even though he was the one person who could condemn her). It was only after that was clear to her that, out of favor for her, he told her to stop continuing in her self-destructive behaviors.
As Jesus demonstrates, showing grace does not mean that one’s failures are never addressed. But it does mean that one must know they are favored first and primary. True grace does not say, “You have an ugly smile but I choose to think of it differently.” True grace says, “You have a beautiful smile, but I wish you would show me that smile like you knew you did.”
True grace does not say, “God loves you, but you suck.” True grace says, “God loves you and he wishes you lived in a way that shows how much you knew that.” True grace is what ultimately brings us much closer to God.
Do we always need to maintain a sobering perspective of our sinful, and sometimes even wretched, behavior in relation to God? Sure. But we are all mostly well aware of it and don’t always need to be reminded. And it is only when we realize that when God looks at us he does not see “wretch,” but instead sees “beautiful child” that we can see his grace as truly amazing.
So to whomever is reading this let me say this to you:
God favors you.
Which means he really, really likes you. He is crazy about and adores you.
He even adores those crazy quirks about you.
When you see unlovable, he sees lovable.
When you see screw-up, he sees potential.
When you see ugly, he sees beautiful.
When you see weak, he sees strong.
When you see worthless, he sees priceless.
As the Psalmist proclaims, “For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime” (Psalm 30:5a, NIV). You are one of his favorites.