Do we grab it or wait for it?
By N. Graham Standish
How God’s grace works is always a paradox. It’s a gift freely given that we have to go and get. And it’s a gift that we often have to sit and wait for. We have to passionately strive for it and patiently wait for it at the same time. Wisdom comes in learning how to do both.
Understanding how grace works is one of the biggest dividing points among all Christian denominations. A lot of Christians believe that it just comes to us as a gift. In other words, God is good all the time, and all the time God is good. Others believe that it’s our deeds that gets grace working in our lives—God helps those who help themselves. The dilemma, the conundrum, is that both are completely right and both are completely wrong. Why?
In a lot of ways God’s grace is like a Picasso painting. Put your hand over the right side and the woman is looking to the left. Put it over the left, and she’s looking down to the right. Step back and she’s looking straight at you. She’s really doing all things at once. Grace doesn’t operate in just one way or another. It operates in innumerable ways.
God’s grace is all around us all the time. It’s like a thousand gifts being handed to us, ready to be opened and to surprise us with all sorts of wonders. Some are small, like a tiny superball surprising us with incredible bounces. Some are huge, like a grove of cherry trees in full bloom under a brilliant blue sky. We can’t tell by their wrappings which ones they are. We only discover them as we open them. But will we open them? Will we even notice them? Or will we walk on by, looking at the ground, complaining that God never answers our prayers? The question grace constantly asks us is will we reach out and grab God’s grace all around us.
Acting in faith is our reaching out and taking these gifts of God, and realizing the more we grab the more we discover.
Acting in faith is our reaching out and taking these gifts of God, and realizing the more we grab the more we discover. There are different names for all the grabbing motions—gratitude, wonder, awe, contemplation, prayer, study, singing, swaying, dancing, laughing, crying … the motions are too many to list. We’re told that we are justified by grace through faith. Grace is the gift. Faith is the grabbing.
Yet… yet… yet… if we grab too greedily, if we start thinking that all of these gifts are all ours, if we become like babies, whining that we only got a thousand presents, not a thousand-and-one, we lose grace. Or worse, we start manufacturing our own false grace where we think that anything we think or feel is evidence of God’s grace. There are so many times where we have to wait patiently for grace. We want God to act, we want God to do something NOW, and nothing happens. If God’s gifts are all around us, why aren’t we being gifted with what we need to be healed, to resolve this relationship, to get a new job or just a job, to get whatever it is we want?
I’ve always thought of God’s grace working like a train on a train track that intersects whatever path we are on … eventually. There’s a grace-filled train steaming our way, running almost parallel to our lives, but it’s many valleys away. It’s coming. It’s chugging our way, but because we can’t see it, we think it’s never coming. It will intersect at some point, but because it’s obscured from our view we doubt. And we angst. And we get irritated with God. The only answer is that we have to wait patiently for it to intersect our lives.
At the same time, we also need to be aware that along the way God is still gracing us with all sorts of other grace-filled gifts: people who care about us in our struggles, insights that help us grow through our struggles, small possibilities that lift our spirits even if they don’t pan out, new possibilities that lead us onto a different track that leads us to intersect with the answer to our prayers.
So we end up in a situation where we are both reaching out for grace, while at the same time waiting patiently for it. Wisdom comes in know when and how to grab, and when to sit and wait.
The Rev. N. Graham Standish, Ph.D., M.S.W. (www.ngrahamstandish.org) is senior pastor of Calvin Presbyterian Church in Zelienople, Pennsylvania (www.calvinchurchzelie.org). He is the author of seven books on spirituality and church transformation, and is an adjunct faculty member of Pittsburgh Theological and Tyndale Seminaries. He also has a background as a spiritual director, and as an individual and family therapist.