September 22, 2009

Further thoughts on Grace

A previous short note on this subject generated a good bit of discussion. I asserted that the catch-phrase "cheap grace" is one of those handy terms that is misleading: grace is always free -- not cheap which implies some bargain-rate cost -- it is a gift, as Paul affirms: if it cost us something it wouldn't be a gift. (It cost the one who gave it everything.) The proper "cost" to us lies in discipleship, which is subsequent to the acceptance of the gift. Perhaps the free gift of grace might be thought of as something like the gift of a craft-kit, a knitting or embroidery project complete with yarn, or thread and canvas, together with a pattern in a neat plastic bag. Work will be required to follow that pattern to produce the final objective, ultimately both a gift from another and the work of one's own hands. Thus, as Paul says, we are saved by grace but also work out our own salvation -- even as we know that it is really God at work in us to empower us to action. (Phil 2:12-13)

Today's morning office reading from 2 Kings seems to me to be a short summary of the personality types who variously fall along the grace / works spectrum. Naaman clearly expects that he will be asked to do something extraordinary both to obtain healing (= salvation) and to give thanks for it. The true prophet demands only the simplest of tasks, and asks no thanks -- and Naaman accepts after a brief protestation on both counts. He represents, I suppose, the normal human who knows -- or thinks -- that important things are costly, but is willing to accept correction, and continues to give thanks and ask forgiveness for any subsequent missteps.

Then there's Gehazi. I can't help but see in him a kind of parsimony as to God's grace; that it really should be more costly. And so, on his own initiative he sets out to wring some profit from the man from whom the true prophet asked none. The ultimate irony is that the ailment of Naaman then falls upon him.

This suddenly reminds me of the themes in Cocteau's La belle et la bête: the cost of the plucked rose, the tedious and irksome discipleship of the magical kingdom where one is waited on hand and foot, La Bête's desire only for freely given love that would transform him -- even as he tries to purchase it with jewels and finery (all rubbish when compared to the surpassing freedom he desires), and the interchange that transforms greedy Avenant into a beast slain by Diana as he assumes the beast's likeness.

Clearly there is a deep taproot of mythic and authentic truth at work in this interplay between freedom and service -- salvation and ministry. May we rejoice always in our salvation, and work with willing hands and hearts to do God's will, as servants and disciples who do not tally cost, but serve as freely as the gift is given, whereby we are empowered to serve.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


R said...


You remind me that a great Christian joy is recognizing that our service is indeed true freedom, just as Christ's self-giving for everyone and everything was an act of perfect freedom.

June Butler said...

Why is it that we are so often stray away from the simplicity of the Good News?

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks R. Mimi, I don't know. I get the feeling part of it is one's own feeling that "it takes more" -- and then this gets projected out onto others (at which point it is, I think, poisonous. I recall that in last year's discussion of the Golden Rule someone argued, "do you really think it's that simple." And of course, I do. This is where a whole elaborate machinery of penance and supererogation comes in.

I was thinking more about that image of the knitting kit, and how at the end of the project we can point to the sweater and say, "I made that." Yet the yarn, the needles, the pattern, were all a gift -- and in the larger sense even the ability to see, to move one's hands, to understand the pattern and follow it are all gifts too. Could it really be that simple? I think so. And Jesus gave us the pattern in the Golden Rule and Summary of the Law. So simple it's hard.

Daniel Weir said...

Thank you.

The Gospel lesson for this coming Sunday is a challenging with its advice that we cut off the hand or foot or pluck out the eye that causes us to stumble. In the face of that challenge, I can only respond: I believe. Help my unbelief! It is grace from start to finish.