Grace is Hard to Receive

Grace is a hard concept to embrace, and sometimes actual grace given is even harder to receive. Like being offered an extravagant gift – something we couldn’t possibly earn on our own and certainly don’t deserve – it feels uncomfortable to receive “too much” grace.

When I had my last child at 40 years old, I was already the mother in a blended family of five kids whose ages ranged from 4 to 16 years. Being of “advanced maternal age” during this last pregnancy – I really don’t care for that particular medical phrase – I knew I was going to need some help. I readily accepted when a friend of mine offered to coordinate meals to be brought after our baby’s birth.

When I saw the schedule and realized how many weeks of meals our very generous friends were offering to bring, I was overwhelmed and – I’ll be honest – I felt my heart balk. While I loved the idea of “a little help,” receiving this much help made me feel uncomfortable. I felt guilty allowing people to serve me so extravagantly; I didn’t deserve that much of an outpouring. Later on, I had a real desire to try to “pay others back” for the help they’d given me.

Saved by GraceIn one sense, there’s nothing wrong with serving others in their time of need out of a heart of gratitude for all that’s been done for you, but as I look back on my own motivations, I think my desire to make meals for other people following my son’s birth had more to do with wanting to feel as if I had somehow “retro-earned” the generosity that had been poured out on our family, more so than any pure desire to serve others.

I think sometimes God’s grace toward sinners can feel much the same way.

We want to earn it, or at least feel as though “we’ve done enough” to get ourselves over the minimum number of good deeds on God’s chart that tracks those who are worthy enough to enter an eternity of life with Him. (Sounds ridiculous, right? It is.)

As time takes us further from our initial conversion and our habits and behaviors begin to change, our own deceptive hearts can lead us to believe that “we’re doing pretty well” at earning God’s acceptance, too. We get to church nearly every weekend, we give money regularly, and maybe we even serve in Crossing Kids or one of the other Sunday morning teams a couple times a month. It can seem to us that we’re becoming pretty good people!

The trouble is, there’s no way any of us can ever earn the right to have God’s favor poured out for us.

All our church attendance, giving and other good deeds don’t add up to much (Isaiah 64:6). The depth of our sin is such that as soon as our hearts are led – not by us, but by the Holy Spirit – into any act even resembling righteousness, we are right there congratulating ourselves on how great we are, how well we did. It is impossible to keep our motives entirely pure, such is the pervasiveness of the sin nature on our thoughts and actions.

And while I know I am hardly qualified to speak on this topic, I wonder if that’s exactly why grace can be so transforming. Because we cannot earn God’s love but instead receive it entirely as an unmerited gift, it provides a freedom and a power to change.

When we realize how much we fall short of God’s desire for holy perfection, when we begin to see the immeasurable depth of our own sin – your own sin as an individual, all the things you personally have done out of spite, the thoughts you’ve had filled with anger or selfishness, all the me-oriented motives – when you really get how unworthy you are, and see your unworthiness laid bare alongside God’s great love for you that accepts you, through Christ, in spite of all of that, you are (finally) freed from self-exoneration to become the kind of person God wants you to be.

That’s at least partly how I have experienced God’s grace in my life.

For most of my life, I have been strongly influenced by the desire to earn the approval of other people; I want people to think well of me. It’s only by God’s grace that I can be so open with women going through divorce about my own sin, failures and foolishness during my own divorce and years of single-parenting-plus-dating that followed. The things I did, the choices I made…many of them are deeply embarrassing, and clearly show how shallow and selfish I was. Remembering that God loves me just as I am, with all that in my history, I am emboldened to talk about it anyway as I try to help encourage others to avoid the mistakes I made.

I am full of pride to this very day, and it’s still hard for me to quickly admit when I’m wrong. It’s only by God’s grace that, after a fight with my husband, I can confess to him all the angry words, selfish attitudes and irrational thoughts – although that almost never happens – I was having during our argument, and to ask him to forgive me. I sometimes have to wrestle with a desire to hide my ugliness for fear he may not love me if he saw “the real me;” God’s full acceptance of me – as I am today – strengthens me to do the right thing, knowing that even if my husband was dumb enough to walk away from our marriage, Christ Himself will never forsake me (Matthew 28:19-20).

I still struggle to see God’s grace for all that it is, and I’m sure there are more areas of my life where I’m not allowing God’s grace to transform the way I live. It’s a grand, beautiful, horizon-expanding gift that will take me a lifetime to begin to understand. Or maybe an eternity.

But I believe that one of God’s many purposes for raining lavish, undeserved gifts upon us is to give us the freedom to change. I have found that to the extent that I grow in the knowledge of God’s grace for me, I am freed me to be who He calls me to be. Yes, I still need to change, but as I labor alongside His Spirit, I am at peace.

Psalm 131
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
my eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things
too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
from this time forth and forevermore.

Ephesians 2:1-14
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands – remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace…

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