Chuck Colson commented on your book What’s So Amazing About Grace?, “Once again, Yancey has produced a work with something in it to make everybody mad.” How do you react to that?
It’s OK as long as people on both sides of an issue get mad at me. I got a letter from a reader—actually a complimentary letter—who wrote about my book What’s So Annoying About Grace. I’m sure it was a typographical error, but the letter-writer made a good point. Grace is annoying. It’s easy to show grace to people who think just like you do, much harder to show grace to those who offend you or with whom you disagree.
I work hard to ground any controversial material in the Bible. I tell people that I’m not radical—Jesus is, the Gospel is.
Can you define grace?
I don’t even try. Jesus talked a lot about grace, but mainly through stories. I remember once getting stuck in Los Angeles traffic and arriving 58 minutes late at the Hertz rental desk. I walked up in kind of a bad mood, put the keys down and said, “How much do I owe?” The woman says, “Nothing. You’re all clear.” I said I was late and she smiled, “Yes, but there’s a one-hour grace period.” So I asked, “Oh really, what is grace?” And she said, “I don’t know. [They must not cover that in Hertz training classes.] I guess what it means is that even though you’re supposed to pay, you don’t have to.” That’s a good start to a definition.
How good are Christians at conveying this message of grace?
When I ask people, “What is a Christian?” they don’t usually respond with words like love, compassion, grace; usually they describe a person who’s anti-something. Jesus was not primarily known for what he was against. He was known for serving people who had needs, feeding people who were hungry, and giving water to the thirsty. If we the church were known primarily for that, then we could cut through so many divisions.
Wasn’t that Jesus’ point in the story of the Good Samaritan? Someone asked Jesus what he must do to have eternal life and Jesus responded with a story in which he deliberately chose an offensive character—a Samaritan heretic of mixed race—as the hero. God cares about how we live, how you act out your faith, who you care for. The religious people walked right past the broken, bruised person. Even though they may have had all the right doctrine, they did not have the action.
In South Africa a few years ago I met a man who was in line to be the next head of the Dutch Reformed Church, the very church that came up with the racist doctrine of Apartheid. He told me, “When I grew up, apartheid was preached in the pulpit as Biblical. Now that doctrine has formally been declared a heresy we have repented. He went on to say that the church is considering, as an act of compassion and penance, to devote their resources to addressing the huge problems of the nation, such as AIDS and poverty. “We’ve got this institution with some of the best buildings, kitchens, and infrastructure in the country—what if we take the resources that were developed through heresy and turn them over to the cause of good?” That could be a wonderful example of dispensing grace.
What has happened recently that’s led you to laugh out loud at God’s grace?
I met my friend Tom, whom I hadn’t seen in fifteen years. Tom was a hard-drinking, lovable partygoer who stopped going to church soon after college. Last year his live-in girlfriend decided she wanted to attend church because of some crisis she was going through. Tom reluctantly agreed. That morning he sat down and started playing his guitar. Thinking of church, he resurrected three hymns from his distant memory. “Those are beautiful—what’s the music?” his girlfriend asked. Tom explained the words to the hymns.
They chose a church out of the phone book, and to Tom’s utter astonishment, that Sunday the congregation sang all three of those hymns. It so rattled Tom that he completely turned his life around. Listening to him tell the story, I couldn’t help laughing in surprised joy. I have a memory of Tom so drunk that he fell over while trying to roll a ball down a bowling alley; we had to pull him away from the ball return channel. And now here he was, weeping, telling me how God had changed his life. Think of the “coincidence” of those three hymns being played the one Sunday that Tom dropped in to church. Was that a miracle? It was certainly grace.
How did your book on grace get written?
Not long before, I had written the book The Jesus I Never Knew, and Jesus’ approach toward a decadent Roman empire, as well as toward individual sinners who must have offended him deeply, seemed almost the opposite of the self-righteous attitude of many evangelicals. As I studied Jesus’ life, the notion of grace kept hitting me in the face. All his stories made the wrong person the hero: the prodigal son not the responsible older brother, Lazarus not the rich man, the good Samaritan not the Jewish rabbi. And I began to see grace as one of the great, often untapped, powers of the universe that God has asked us to set loose. Human society runs by Ungrace, ranking people, holding them accountable, insisting on reciprocity and fairness. Grace is, by definition, unfair. That intrigued me.
I remember when I mailed the manuscript to the publisher, I said to my wife, “This may well be the last book I write for the evangelical world.” After all, it contains an entire chapter on my friend Mel White, who became a gay activist, and also a chapter on Bill Clinton, not exactly the favored son of American evangelicals. Yet to my surprise, it will probably end up as my best-selling book. Grace has its own power, and people thirsty for grace have responded to my own search.
In the first chapter of What’s So Amazing About Grace you say “As a writer, I play with words all day long. I toy with them, listen for their overtones, crack them open, and try to stuff my thoughts inside.” Reading your works you seem to be a communicator who takes single words, and adds depth, larger concepts and complexity to them.
Writers have a very strange existence. We sit alone in rooms and stare at scratchings on paper or electrons on a computer screen. Like theoretical physicists or pure mathematicians, we live inside our own heads. Most writers are introverts—you’d have to be, to do that all day. And our business is words, so we pick a word and turn it around and take it apart and mull it over, and who knows what will happen. I did that with the word grace. I started noticing forms of the word appearing in all sorts of places: the sports pages (graceful athlete), parking lots (grace period), music scores (grace note). That took me on a journey, because all these uses of the word are positive and appealing, and yet Christians often have a bad reputation. People think of Christians as uptight and judgmental. Odd, I thought, that grace has come to convey the opposite of God’s intent, as it’s lived out through us. From there, the book took shape.
In What’s So Amazing About Grace? you talk about a gospel of grace which may not correspond with how the gospel is preached in many churches, including some fast-growing ones. How do you feel about this? How can this be changed?
It doesn’t surprise me at all to hear of successful “Ungrace” churches. We humans like someone to tell us, “If you just follow these rules and this program, you’ll do the right thing and be accepted by God.” Remember, the Pharisees were very popular in Jesus’ day, yet Jesus reserved his harshest words for these Bible-believing, moral people.
I need to be careful not to say ungracious things about other groups who see things differently. I ended up cutting 150 pages out of my book because it occurred to me I had written about others ungraciously. On the other hand, when the Gospel becomes distorted into a political program or a form of legalism or a hierarchical ranking of insiders and outsiders, then I have to speak up.
I look back on my fundamentalist upbringing with mixed feelings. I learned discipline and a lot of Bible knowledge. As I think about it, I think the very best pattern is to grow up under law and then discover the good news of God’s grace. There’s a risk, though: the risk that many never make it to grace. They simply give up, or get rejected by the church. Casualties fall along the way.
How can this be changed? you ask. As I study the Pharisees, and Jesus’ strong words against them in Luke 11 and Matthew 23, they seem to have one basic problem: they hang around other Pharisees all day. Hence they start competing with each other, focusing on trivialities, missing the broad sweep of God’s love. Probably the best defense for the church is to follow the Great Commission. I’ve found that evangelical Christians who have a homosexual sibling or first cousin look at the issue differently than those who don’t know any gay people. I’ve found that people who actually work in a drug rehab center or homeless shelter see those people differently than people who hear politicians talk about them. We need to go out into the world and get our hands dirty, and if we do so, we’ll see a world thirsty for grace.
By emphasizing grace, though, isn’t there a danger of excusing behavior, of lowering standards and accepting failure?
I challenge anyone to find an example of a person who lives a perfect life, so I’m glad those of us who fail have grace to rescue us. I would add, though, that Jesus deliberately “raises the bar.” If you look at the Sermon on the Mount, he keeps raising the ideal, so high that no one can meet it. You don’t murder—do you get angry with your brother? You don’t commit adultery—do you lust? He raises the bar so high that no one can meet it, and then provides the safety net of grace. We don’t have to gain God’s approval by jumping over the bar. Indeed, when we fail, grace is there to rescue us.
Strangely, the church often takes just the opposite approach. Some lower the standards on various controversial issues over time (divorce, alcohol, homosexuality) while others raise the bar of grace (“We don’t want that kind of person in our church”).
Jesus’ style is not so simple, nor does it promise guaranteed results. If results were guaranteed, there would be no need for grace.
How can we get the right balance between grace and truth?
I doubt anyone could give you a formula that set a kind of boundary between grace and truth. Truth is a defined set of beliefs, a way of seeing the world. Grace is an attitude toward others. It is the one distinctive God has given the church. Others share causes that we believe in: the environment, justice, campaigns against poverty and racism. Grace, however, is a theological concept.
The French philosopher Simone Weil wrote a book called Gravity and Grace which describes two different ways of approach. The world runs by rules like gravity. As Isaac Newton studied the universe, he came up with fixed rules like “Every action deserves an equal and opposite reaction.” Athletics runs that way, as does the economy and politics. Stop making your car or house payments, and the bank repossesses them. Bomb my country and we will bomb you back. Against that pattern comes a strikingly different pattern. From God we deserve anger and we get love; we deserve punishment and we get forgiveness.
Grace should, one would expect, produce people who are cool, relaxed, laid back, you name it. So often you meet the contrary: believers who seem burdened, tense, worried and stressed. What’s wrong with us?
Many Christians understand grace only on the theological, abstract level but have not let it penetrate the soul. Frankly, I first truly understood grace while reading the great novel by Victor Hugo, Les Miserables. When the kindly bishop not only refused to punish Jean Valjean for his theft, but instead lavished gifts on him—in that scene I sensed the stirrings of God’s grace to me, who deserved just the opposite. There’s a good reason why that musical captured the attention of the world. It’s because we hunger for grace. As you say, believers don’t convey a relaxed, buoyant feeling. We need to let it soak in that there is nothing we can do to make God love us more…and nothing we can do to make God love us less. God is love—a noun, not a verb—and cannot help loving. We should walk around humming that tune Amazing Grace all day long.
What is the difference between grace and kindness?
Excellent question. I’ve sometimes heard the difference between grace and mercy defined this way: Mercy is not getting what you deserve while grace is getting what you do not deserve.
Kindness, however—that’s something different. Kindness can be given in a patronizing, paternalistic way. We can be kind to a homeless person, or even an animal, as an act of charity. Grace is different. It elevates the one you are showing grace toward. God’s grace toward us puts us on a whole new level: God now judges us as if we had never sinned, through the filter of his Son Jesus. That’s quite different than God deciding to be kind toward us.
If we could grasp the revolutionary aspect of grace, it would help Christians’ reputation so much. That God loves good people is nothing new—every religion says that. That God loves sinners, that’s grace. While we were sinners, Christ died for us, said Paul, who called himself the chief of sinners. With his background, Paul understood grace.
Are there any limits to grace? Can I run so far away or sink so deep that grace will not reach me?
Well, read the Bible. You’ll read about the great characters of the Old Testament such as Moses, whose foul temper led to murder and rebellion against God, and David, who committed adultery and murder. Then turn to the New Testament where you’ll see the church led by Peter, a former traitor, and Paul, a former “human rights abuser” of Christians. I’d have to say, No. We can never sink so far that God’s grace will not reach us. At the same time, grace does not leave us there. It raises us to new heights.
Many Christians know grace by words and in their head theoretically. But at the same time it seems like grace has not moved from the head into the body. What can help grace a living part of our life?
I know many Christians who have exactly that issue. They claim to be “graced,” and can probably pass a theological exam on the subject, yet they are self-righteous and judgmental toward others. As I like to say, grace is a free gift from God, but to receive a gift you must have open hands. You must sense your own need.
I sense need when I am around needy people, such as alcoholics, the poor, the social outcasts. I would suggest one way to encounter grace personally is to minister to such people, not in a paternalistic way, but as a servant. In this way we follow Jesus’ example, and we also confront our own needs. “Blessed are the poor,” Jesus said. “Blessed are those who mourn.” Blessed are the desperate, is one way of interpreting the Beatitudes. Unless we face into our own failings and weakness and desperation, we may never receive that gift of grace.
Grace implies a risk, the risk that we might abuse it. Yet as I read the Bible, God seems quite willing to take that risk. Remember that Jesus made the “failures” the heroes of his stories. The question isn’t whether God will forgive us in the future, it’s whether we will repent and ask for forgiveness. God’s grace is there for us to receive, if only we hold out open hands.
I love The Pilgrim’s Progress because it gives such a realistic picture of the Christian life. Virtually every time the pilgrim faces a choice, he makes the wrong one! He chooses bad companions and makes bad detours all along the road. The message of grace is that we fall down, and God picks us up and dusts us off. Again, and again…
The critics are right: Grace is unfair. We deserve God’s wrath and get God’s love, deserve punishment and get forgiveness. We don’t get what we deserve. Paul put it ironically, “The wages of sin is death, the gift of God is eternal life.” We work hard for wages, which vanish at death; we do nothing to deserve grace, and get life eternal. If you want fairness, try a religion like Hinduism, which says we may have to go through thousands, even millions of incarnations before paying for all our sins. It’s unfair that a human rights abuser like Saul gets forgiven, or a murderer/adulterer like King David, or a thief hanging on a cross who has a conversion just before death. Yes, it’s unfair—gloriously unfair I would say.
Copyright © 2009 by Philip Yancey