It’s just not natural!  – a theology of grace

I’ve been captivated by a book.  Six years ago Episcopal priest Paul Zahl committed to paper what he has been teaching for the 30 years as a pastor.  Grace in Practice, A Theology of Everyday Life (2007) is changing me.

Very quickly he demonstrates how humans consistently fail to give each other grace. Yet each of us longs desperately to receive grace.  What is grace? –one-way love, the kind of love we crave because it’s freely given with no strings attached.  If there is an expectation on the part of the dispenser of grace, then it’s not grace, but manipulation.  And we are born with an innate ability to sniff out this kind of hypocrisy.

Christ is the ultimate example of grace. There is nothing we can do to earn salvation.  We can’t be good enough; we can’t manipulate our way into heaven,   “For when we were still sinners, Christ died for us” Romans 5:8

Lest you think that some people get by fine without grace due to their skill, hard work & maybe a bit of luck and that only down–and-out folk need grace, Zahl shatters that illusion right from the start.  How? –by explaining 3 givens that are true about every human that has ever lived:

a)   We are all guilty & inadequate to meet God’s standard due to original sin.  We live under an objective sentence of guilt and inside we FEEL this guilt.

b)   We are worse than we think; actually we are TOTALLY depraved which Zahl explains means that there is no part of the human condition that escapes depravity.

c)    No one has free will; free will is a myth we can’t shake. We’ve drunk the Kool-aid.

Read the book to follow his very convincing explanations and illustrations.

Because of the above givens, we crave grace.  But those we live with or work for don’t give us grace.  Instead they try to change us with exhortations (or worse, with commands or manipulative advice) to do better.  He calls that the Law.  No one ever gets better by the Law.

To be fair, Zahl makes an interesting distinction between what he calls necessary or natural law, the kind of law that protects us, but has no moral (read:  guilt-producing) baggage.

That kind of ‘first’ law maintains safety among groups of people.  It has nothing to do with self-improvement, relief from guilt or a thousand other problems we have.  When moral law (you should call your mother more often, you should do your homework consistently, you should stop drinking)  is applied, not only does it not help us, but often we dig our heels in further and do just the opposite of what the Law intends. Amazingly we do get better when grace is given.

In order to communicate what he means by grace, Zahl widens the theological term, ‘imputation’ and applies it to phenomena we have all witnessed.  This principle of passing on power through naming originated with God, “God gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were” – Romans 4:17b

Remember the time when your coach might have confidently said to you as an awkward 7th grader, ‘I think you’ll make a mighty fine basketball player’?  The power of that grace-filled imputation summoned your gifts and talents and motivated you to work hard to fulfill that expectation.  You were drawn to the drills and endless work that resulted in your becoming the good basketball player, all because your coach invited you and did not compel you.  Zahl promotes grace not only because it’s biblical, but because it works.

The letter (the Law) kills but the spirit (Grace) gives life” – 2 Cor 3:6

Zahl doesn’t discount the Law. He describes how we need to allow the law to drive us crazy, so that we come to our senses.  I now see how it is necessary to be killed by the Law before Grace is even an option to consider.  We have to exhaust ourselves in trying to satisfy the Law and finally abandon our efforts and die to it before we turn to Grace.

I won’t go any further in describing Zahl’ work, but here are some quotes & paraphrases.  I hope they will whet your appetite enough to order the book.  Each night in December I could not wait to finish the dishes and find my cozy spot and read.  I felt hope rising:  hope and excitement in being able to offer those whom I love this kind of grace that brings out the best in people.

  • Grace is too good to be true.  It’s totally unfair
  • ‘theological anthropology’-takes in original sin, total depravity and our un-free will, our bondage
  • Marriage needs perpetual absolution.  Husbands have to forgive wives for being women. Women have to forgive their husbands for being men.
  • Everyone needs the same amount of love – 100 % unconditional one-way love
  • For grace to be grace there must not be any conditions, no partial role for me.
  • Grace is listening to another person without bringing the conversation back to you.
  • Grace never tries to fix, but trusts God to do this.  Grace listens
  • Grace in the marriage produces grace with the children