Grace Is Opposed To Earning, Not Effort

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Grace is central to the Christian faith. Yet we hold it at arm’s length. Rather than bring it close and wrestle with its implications, we would rather keep it close enough. Why, I don’t know. Maybe we know grace would ask more of us than we’re willing to give.

I do know, however, grace at arm’s length is no grace at all. It’s not.

You can’t cage up grace in your head, in the form of catchy one-liners and acronyms.

Grace, like all eternal virtues, needs freedom to roam the depths of your heart and body, as well as your mind. You must experience grace, in other words. Get it out of your head and into your life.

Until you’ve shown or been shown grace, you’ll never get it. But when grace happens to you (and it only needs to happen once), you change.

I experienced grace for the first time a few years ago. I returned home from a neighborhood run, opened the front door, and saw Tiffani’s face, full of tears and rejection.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

I didn’t need to ask, though. I knew.

She found it. Porn. It found her, really. She wasn’t looking for anything. Tiffani trusted me. After indulging in my decades’ long addiction the night before, I forgot to delete my history.

Part of me felt relief about this discovery. I hated porn. I hated the pretending and the lies. For years, I said I would stop. Addictions don’t deal well with breakups, though. The costs are too high. I knew it would take my life crashing down to break these chains.   

Right there in our living room I could have lost everything: my wife, my family, my future. I was an adulterer, hundreds of times over, not to mention a careful, calculated liar. Not with my words, necessarily (had Tiffani ever asked me point-blank, I probably would have confessed), but with my life (which sounds worse). My whole self was guilty: heart, mind and body.

She had every right to leave. No one would blame her for doing so, especially not this guy. She had no reason, none, to forgive me.

I don’t know what I expected. At the very least, a strong verbal lashing.

I received the only thing I didn’t expect: grace.

Through the pain and tears, she said, “I love you.”

What?! I love you. After everything I’ve done? I deserve worse. You’re not leaving?

This is grace, friends. It’s not a doctrine or a clever arrangement of words. Grace extends a hand of forgiveness while using the other hand to plug the wound you inflicted. Grace is building a bridge when everything in you says build a wall.

Until you experience grace like this, you will never get it.

I was transformed that day. Tiffani refused to stay with me unless I made changes, chief among them was counseling. For years, I stayed away from counseling, though my soul thirsted for it like my body thirsts for water. Pride kept me from going.

Pride, however, melts in the presence of grace. I was ready to change. Any pride or shame about counseling was gone.

So, we don’t get grace, first, because we keep it in our heads. We try to figure it out. And grace don’t roll like that. You must put flesh on it. That’s hard. It’s counter-intuitive. It’s counter-cultural.

But there’s another reason we don’t understand grace. We put it in competition with works. You can either have grace or effort. But not both.

Effort, however, is not grace’s opposite. Grace is opposed to earning, not effort. Don’t miss that.

Effort is action. Earning is attitude.

Grace is everywhere. I experienced grace in the form of my wife. But grace is wherever you are, if you have eyes to see. Grace is God acting to make possible in your life what you can’t make possible on your own. Which is everything. Is anything possible without the action of God in your life, right down to the breath you take?

You see, then, why effort matters. Action gets us out of our head. Action puts us on the ground and in-line with God’s action. Right action, specifically.

Nothing will make you realize your need for God more than taking the next right action. What’s the next right thing you should do? You know what it is. If you say you don’t, you’re not listening. The Spirit in you knows and speaks. Listen.

For Tiffani, the moment she found porn on my computer, her ego told her to leave, to refuse forgiveness. The still small voice in her told her to forgive. The competing voices are always there. The former is louder. But the Spirit’s promptings are alive and well. The question for you and me? Will we listen? More importantly, will we act?

That still, small voice, the Spirit, always leads you towards grace. In every moment, in this moment right now, we can choose grace. It feels uncomfortable, like vulnerability. It feels like pain. But, in the end, right action becomes love.

Grace and peace, friends.

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Frank is a contributing writer and editor for the blog at Bayside church. He is also a husband, father and Jesus-follower. Occasionally he plays golf. Often he drinks coffee.

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