What is grace?

By: Andrew S
September 26, 2012

Around a month ago, I ventured out to ask everyone what they believe faith to be. I prepared for the possibility that the discussion would go downhill very quickly, but to the contrary, the discussion was extremely productive and insightful for me.

Since that conversation went so well, I wanted to ask about something else: grace. What is grace? How does it work, in your experience? What is the “feel” of it — how do you feel when you have experienced grace? If you have “experienced” it (if it is even a thing that is experienced)…when did you experience it? What was it that triggered it (if it is a thing that can be “triggered”?)

The other day I was listening to the Mormon Matters podcast episode on grace, And John and Katie and Dan and Joe were saying really cool stuff, but I can’t be sure because I didn’t really have any idea what they were talking about. I didn’t have a feel for it. The feels, they were unreal.

I guess to explain grace requires an explanation of The Problem, which I’m not entirely sold on either. So, if you want, explain as much background as you need — but I’m also more interested in hearing about your reaction to the various concepts…when did those things “make sense” or “internalize”?

His Grace is Sufficient?

Piano

Anyway, perhaps to provide a framework for discussion (although by no means am I trying to limit the discussion just to this), I’ll paste some things from this BYU devotional message Brad Wilcox delivered:

Christ’s arrangement with us is similar to a mom providing music lessons for her child. Mom pays the piano teacher. How many know what I am talking about? Because Mom pays the debt in full, she can turn to her child and ask for something. What is it? Practice! Does the child’s practice pay the piano teacher? No. Does the child’s practice repay Mom for paying the piano teacher? No. Practicing is how the child shows appreciation for Mom’s incredible gift. It is how he takes advantage of the amazing opportunity Mom is giving him to live his life at a higher level. Mom’s joy is found not in getting repaid but in seeing her gift used—seeing her child improve. And so she continues to call for practice, practice, practice.

If the child sees Mom’s requirement of practice as being too overbearing (“Gosh, Mom, why do I need to practice? None of the other kids have to practice! I’m just going to be a professional baseball player anyway!”), perhaps it is because he doesn’t yet see with mom’s eyes. He doesn’t see how much better his life could be if he would choose to live on a higher plane.

In the same way, because Jesus has paid justice, He can now turn to us and say, “Follow me” (Matthew 4:19), “Keep my commandments” (John 14:15). If we see His requirements as being way too much to ask (“Gosh! None of the other Christians have to pay tithing! None of the other Christians have to go on missions, serve in callings, and do temple work!”), maybe it is because we do not yet see through Christ’s eyes. We have not yet comprehended what He is trying to make of us.

But here’s the problem I see so far: even Wilcox points out that a lot of this will depend on how one sees things. If the child doesn’t see with the mom’s eyes, then he risks missing the point of the piano lessons and even squandering them.

Earning vs. Learning

Wilcox continues:

I have born-again Christian friends who say to me, “You Mormons are trying to earn your way to heaven.”

I say, “No, we are not earning heaven. We are learning heaven. We are preparing for it (see D&C 78:7). We are practicing for it.”

They ask me, “Have you been saved by grace?”

I answer, “Yes. Absolutely, totally, completely, thankfully—yes!”

Then I ask them a question that perhaps they have not fully considered: “Have you been changed by grace?” They are so excited about being saved that maybe they are not thinking enough about what comes next. They are so happy the debt is paid that they may not have considered why the debt existed in the first place. Latter-day Saints know not only what Jesus has saved us from but also what He has saved us for. As my friend Brett Sanders puts it, “A life impacted by grace eventually begins to look like Christ’s life.” As my friend Omar Canals puts it, “While many Christians view Christ’s suffering as only a huge favor He did for us, Latter-day Saints also recognize it as a huge investment He made in us.” As Moroni puts it, grace isn’t just about being saved. It is also about becoming like the Savior (see Moroni 7:48).

The interesting thing is that I have heard the idea of being “changed” by grace more often from non-LDS Christians than from Mormons. After all, in Calvinist traditions, people are stated to be so totally depraved because of a sinful nature that they will not be able to choose righteousness of their own will — it is only grace, irresistible to those it applies to, that can change someone enough to change their will.

That at least makes sense to me. It’s why I named my personal blog the way I named it.

Still, I am stuck at a rudimentary point. When Wilcox says, “They are so happy the debt is paid that they may not have considered why the debt existed in the first place,” I’m at a loss. I’m not “happy” the debt is paid because I don’t feel there is a debt. And what debts I feel do exist, I don’t think are paid off in that way. (That’s the subject of another post I should write soon, but I feel somewhat similarly on this issue to how Kullervo feels in his Aura Salve post at Into the Hills.)

A Want for Wanting

At the risk of derailing my own post before a single comment has been posted, there’s another thing Wilcox states that kinda gets at me:

The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can live after we die but that we can live more abundantly (see John 10:10). The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can be cleansed and consoled but that we can be transformed (see Romans 8). Scriptures make it clear that no unclean thing can dwell with God (see Alma 40:26), but, brothers and sisters, no unchanged thing will even want to.

I know a young man who just got out of prison—again. Each time two roads diverge in a yellow wood, he takes the wrong one—every time. When he was a teenager dealing with every bad habit a teenage boy can have, I said to his father, “We need to get him to EFY.” I have worked with that program since 1985. I know the good it can do.

His dad said, “I can’t afford that.”

I said, “I can’t afford it either, but you put some in, and I’ll put some in, and then we’ll go to my mom, because she is a real softy.”

We finally got the kid to EFY, but how long do you think he lasted? Not even a day. By the end of the first day he called his mother and said, “Get me out of here!” Heaven will not be heaven for those who have not chosen to be heavenly.

In the past I had a picture in my mind of what the final judgment would be like, and it went something like this: Jesus standing there with a clipboard and Brad standing on the other side of the room nervously looking at Jesus.

Jesus checks His clipboard and says, “Oh, shoot, Brad. You missed it by two points.”

Brad begs Jesus, “Please, check the essay question one more time! There have to be two points you can squeeze out of that essay.” That’s how I always saw it.

But the older I get, and the more I understand this wonderful plan of redemption, the more I realize that in the final judgment it willnot be the unrepentant sinner begging Jesus, “Let me stay.” No, he will probably be saying, “Get me out of here!” Knowing Christ’s character, I believe that if anyone is going to be begging on that occasion, it would probably be Jesus begging the unrepentant sinner, “Please, choose to stay. Please, use my Atonement—not just to be cleansed but to be changed so that you want to stay.”

The miracle of the Atonement is not just that we can go home but that—miraculously—we can feel at home there. If Christ did not require faith and repentance, then there would be no desire to change. Think of your friends and family members who have chosen to live without faith and without repentance. They don’t want to change. They are not trying to abandon sin and become comfortable with God. Rather, they are trying to abandon God and become comfortable with sin. If Jesus did not require covenants and bestow the gift of the Holy Ghost, then there would be no way to change. We would be left forever with only willpower, with no access to His power. If Jesus did not require endurance to the end, then there would be no internalization of those changes over time. They would forever be surface and cosmetic rather than sinking inside us and becoming part of us—part of who we are. Put simply, if Jesus didn’t require practice, then we would never become pianists.

I think the idea that people achieve the level they are most suited to is an OK idea. In that case, God doesn’t “send” people to the terrestrial or telestial kingdom, or even to hell (if you believe in it or not)…rather, people go where they are most comfortable.

But I mean, I guess the problem I have is that this presentation seems needlessly exclusionary. There are some kinds of people who won’t “feel at home” at home? How sad is that?

…Well, that’s what practice is about, right? Learning heaven, not earning it, right? OK, so sure, “if Jesus didn’t require practice, then we would never become pianists” — and being comfortable when we perform at the concert hall is dependent on becoming a pianist.

…but…what if I don’t like piano? What if I really rather would play baseball (regardless of if I had delusions of becoming a pro baseball player or not)? So, instead, I should defer my own interest because…mom and dad prefer piano?

Maybe grace is part of what changes. Maybe one day, I can realize that regardless of whether I like piano or not, if mom is so keen about piano lessons, I can practice the best I can for her sake…but then, I have to at least have the awareness of her wishes, desires, and wants. And as a stupid kid, I am far from that position, much less seeing things from her eyes.

So, what makes it real? What causes the shift in attitudes? The shift in desires, maybe? In goals? In basic orientation?

If you have any thoughts, please write them down. (Remember to review our comment policy if you haven’t yet.)

Tags: , , ,

13 Responses to What is grace?

  1. Hedgehog on September 26, 2012 at 5:34 AM

    I enjoyed the version of the speech published in the Ensign. I found the emphasis on grace refreshing, and the analogy to music lessons. It was interesting to read the whole speech (as opposed to the reduced version in the Ensign), though the tenor came across rather differently. Now I’m trying to get over his equating EFY to heaven (that wasn’t in the Ensign). I think I can appreciate some of the difficulties you raise in the your post.

    I think some of it might have to do with our having more description of what heaven is like and what being there involves (compared to other faiths), and the lists if things to do, to conform to… The whole patriarchal structure of everything, for me at least, doesn’t look attractive as an eternal model, so that there are lots of questions I have about putting in all that work and then maybe not liking it anyway. But why is that ‘wrong’, surely becoming perfect doesn’t mean we all have to change to like the same things, want the same things does it? Is there room to still be myself as well, or is that just hopelessly arrogant? Is there only one ‘perfect’? So maybe I’m still at the ‘why not baseball?’ as opposed to ‘piano’ stage (except I’d pick music over sport any time), referring to the speech.

    My experience of grace? In attending the temple I have always felt a warmth there. On all previous occasions I attended, I had tried to put all those concerns about the stuff I didn’t like to the back of my mind, so as not to distract me, whilst participating. I always felt the warmth and a calmness. Last time however I changed tactics. As I participated I had an ongoing conversation, in prayer, about all the things that bugged me as they occurred, the small stuff as well as the bigger stuff, not in a way of complaining, but explaining how I felt. What I felt in return was an amazing love and acceptance and belonging. I didn’t get any answers about the things that bugged me (and bug me still), but I really, really felt at home, that I truly belonged.

    Consequently, I really liked this from the speech:
    “So grace is not a booster engine that kicks in once our fuel supply is exhausted. Rather, it is our constant energy source. It is not the light at the end of the tunnel but the light that moves us through the tunnel. Grace is not achieved somewhere down the road. It is received right here and right now. It is not a finishing touch; it is the Finisher’s touch.”

    If my experience is anything to go by, then maybe there won’t be so many who really won’t feel at home.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  2. Rigel Hawthorne on September 26, 2012 at 9:49 AM

    In some ways, feeling grace can be likened to the reverence one feels when visiting the tomb of the unknown soldier in Washington, DC. When you visit for the first time, you may not expect the impact it might have. You see crowds or people, military personal, and a historical marker. But as you watch the changing of the guard and see the respect and honor given with precision, you understand the ‘debt’ that soldiers feel towards the fallen, and on reflection, you feel that you also have a debt that is being honored by your own observance. This may pierce you and move you to tears.

    Entering the Viet Nam memorial can have a similar effect. As you start seeing the names of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, your interest is raised. As the grade to the walk way descends and the height of the monument increases, and the number of names becomes immense, you feel overwhelmed and saddened by the cost to our national family. Once again, you feel pierced and moved to tears.

    For those who don’t feel there is a debt to be paid in relationship to deity, but understand the debt paid by members of our national family, empathy without shared belief might be possible. Those who do not believe in the divinity of Jesus may take exception to the comparison of the cost of one soul in comparison to the cost of so many who fought for a nation. This is one of the complexities of the atonement which non-believers may not accept and can even be a life-long inquiry for believers. For those who do feel a debt, an experience akin to the visitation to the national memorials has occurred within them that pierces them with the very thought a cost of great value was paid for another type of freedom.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  3. Samuel Rogers on September 26, 2012 at 12:00 PM

    To me, grace and mercy are the same thing. All the goodness and warmth that we receive from Providence comes because Christ claimed his rights of mercy at the right hand of God. Christ has mercy on us sinners as we turn to him, which is grace.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  4. Christopher Lee Ogden on September 26, 2012 at 6:36 PM

    The analogy used by Brad Wilcox moves the ball slightly in the direction of a grace-based Mormon theology, but it by no means reaches the goal. The analogy is still very much a description of salvation by works.

    Ultimately, under the Wilcox analogy, the benefit of practice (the sanctification that comes from the atonement of Jesus Christ) is the result of work. The harder you work, the better you become at playing the piano (becoming godlike). Your mother (Jesus) is just there to provide you the opportunity to let you work toward earning your salvation by your own merits. But the mother (Jesus) has a very limited role in this scenario. She pays the piano teacher and then steps aside and lets you do all the work. In his analogy, work is still the mechanism for obtaining one’s exaltation. Grace is just there to make work possible.

    An analogy for a true Mormon grace-based theology would look much different. Grace is not just the mother that pays for your piano lessons. Grace is also the food that gives you the energy to practice. Grace is the piano itself, and the piano teacher. Grace is the air that carries the sound waves. Grace is what gives you the motivation to practice, because without the grace, you wouldn’t even want to learn how to play the piano.

    I think that when Mormons think about moving toward a grace-based theology, we need to start thinking less about how grace pays off our “debt,” and more about how grace sanctifies us and transforms our human nature into a godly nature in which good works are a natural consequence.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 2

  5. Howard on September 26, 2012 at 7:24 PM

    The reason grace is difficult to clearly define and describe is it is meaningful Devine sleight of hand. We are locked into our own psychology just as we can become locked in our own sins. The concepts of grace and atonement unlocks us from these mortal mental traps. It may be possible to sin against deity but few of us are in a position to do it in any meaningful way so sin is largely about balancing the books between people. Some of that is easily accomplished through repentance and some can never be balanced by the perpetrator themselves and truth be told it cannot be reversed by deity either, rather it is offset by the gift of Devine knowledge to the victim that transcends the victim’s claim.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  6. Howard on September 26, 2012 at 7:33 PM

    Divine

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  7. Rigel Hawthorne on September 26, 2012 at 7:56 PM

    In conversations I’ve had with a friend who is Protestant, it seems interesting to me who often ‘grace’ is the answer to questions in his theology. It’s kinda like we joke that for any Sunday School question at an LDS church, you can usually answer “pray and read your scriptures” and you will usually have an answer that applies the majority of the time. Well, it seems like “grace” would be the answer for a Sunday School lesson in his class. I’ve asked him about his interpretation of the verse, “to be carnally minded is death”, and carnally minded equals not having accepted grace. I’ve asked him about his interpretation of the nature of the keys given to Peter, James, and John on the Mt of Transfiguration and they answer is “attributes of grace, like faith etc.”

    I don’t consider his answer wrong, because every principle and ordinance of the gospel is rooted in salvation through the Jesus, but I would think there could be a little more ‘meat’ with answers to the questions I asked. So, I appreciate an understanding of Priesthood Keys, for example, and how they do help us to “learn heaven” as we have opportunities to bless others with their spiritual sanctification.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  8. Hedgehog on September 27, 2012 at 1:19 AM

    Howard: “sin is largely about balancing the books between people”

    Thank you. I’ve had some funny looks trying to articulate this concept in lessons at church in the past. We talk so much about justice and mercy as abstracts, laws to be met, without considering what it means in practice. We talk about Christ as a mediator between us and our Heavenly Father, but no-one else. In reality, the biggest job of mediation is between us, and everybody else. We are better at articulating what it means when we are the ones who want mercy, but still tend to see it as wanting mercy from our Heavenly Father, not other people. We absolutely don’t articulate that we are the ones demanding justice for the injuries and wrongs done us. But this is absolutely what it is. When we have been injured or hurt, demanding recompense, Christ is there between us and the perpetrator proffering his payment. Just as he has can pay others for the wrongs we have done them. It is up to all of us to accept his payment for the wrongs done us, more particularly if we are expecting others to accept his payment for our wrongs.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 1

  9. Andrew S on September 27, 2012 at 8:02 AM

    Thanks for the comments so far, everyone…let me try to ask a few probing questions into some of these.

    re 1

    Hedgehog,

    I did not realize that the speech had be abridged for the Ensign…but then again, I guess that’s not unexpected.

    My experience of grace? In attending the temple I have always felt a warmth there. On all previous occasions I attended, I had tried to put all those concerns about the stuff I didn’t like to the back of my mind, so as not to distract me, whilst participating. I always felt the warmth and a calmness. Last time however I changed tactics. As I participated I had an ongoing conversation, in prayer, about all the things that bugged me as they occurred, the small stuff as well as the bigger stuff, not in a way of complaining, but explaining how I felt. What I felt in return was an amazing love and acceptance and belonging. I didn’t get any answers about the things that bugged me (and bug me still), but I really, really felt at home, that I truly belonged.

    Interesting experience.

    re 2,

    Rigel,

    Another interesting example. I haven’t been to any of the war memorials, but I don’t tend to tear up to those kinds of things, anyway.

    re 3

    Samuel,

    Was there any event that made you internalize that you needed mercy?

    re 4,

    Christopher,

    really loved this:

    Grace is not just the mother that pays for your piano lessons. Grace is also the food that gives you the energy to practice. Grace is the piano itself, and the piano teacher. Grace is the air that carries the sound waves. Grace is what gives you the motivation to practice, because without the grace, you wouldn’t even want to learn how to play the piano.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  10. Andrew S on September 27, 2012 at 8:45 AM

    re 5/6,

    Howard,

    We are locked into our own psychology just as we can become locked in our own sins. The concepts of grace and atonement unlocks us from these mortal mental traps.

    And what is it that triggers this unlocking?What makes it take effect for any given person?

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  11. Howard on September 27, 2012 at 10:40 AM

    Andrew,
    When two people are locked in a disagreement a third often necessary to help resolve it because they have become internally solidified in their positions. For example a judge, a parent (orGod?) issues a judgement, but this usually results in one or both parties being disappointed and little growth for either. Pleading prayer and the concept of grace and atonement functions more like the Gestalt empty chair technique, one’s subconscious psychology is brought to the surface allowing growth and healing to take place, the realization of divine love and self acceptance (they may be the same thing) placates their claim.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  12. Samuel Rogers on September 27, 2012 at 7:43 PM

    Andrew S –

    All the stupid things I did as a teenager that I won’t name made me realize I needed mercy. It’s not going to sound profound and probably will sound cliche, but knowing that I was a well-educated member with “vast light and knowledge” made me feel that I had great responsibility. And when I would make a mistake, I felt like I needed mercy more than ever. I never did anything terrible, but every little mistake made me feel like a prodigal son.

    Now that I’m older and wiser, I am still constantly reminded of the need for mercy when I’m not the good father or the good husband I should be. I’m in need of mercy to bless my unworthy soul to improve and to bless my family with a mutual love and respect for each other that I can’t always maintain on my own.

    So I suppose it has always been in my failures and in my moments of weakness that I remember the need for mercy. Not very deep, I know.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

  13. prometheus on September 28, 2012 at 6:09 PM

    My understanding of grace has been evolving rapidly over the last several years. Here is what I currently believe (although some of it has been said already in the comments).

    Grace is fundamentally the transformative power of Jesus Christ that changes us into beings of love and forgiveness. It is freely and continuously offered to us. We have not earned it, we do not deserve it, and no action of ours can ever, ever make us worthy of it. It is a gift and the only thing we have to do to receive it is to say yes. If we can’t say yes, then we begin with a desire to say yes, or even with a desire to want to say yes.

    I also see it as a pathway rather than an event. It is an ongoing process, this transformation, that will change us so that we will be like Christ – we will love like He does, forgive like He does, and show mercy like He does. It is all about relationships, and the desires of our hearts – what kind of relationships we want.

    The Mormon conception of grace has been severely compromised by the practice of self-reliance and independence, unfortunately. Being self-reliant and independent (ideas not supported in scripture, as far as I am aware) is a severing of relationships, standing alone and impervious to need. We have incorporated this economic practice into our spirituality and as a result, we have the mistaken idea that grace somehow involves balance sheets and worthiness, prior effort on our part to qualify for the prize.

    I agree with Christopher that Wilcox moves the pendulum, but nowhere near as far as it needs to go.

    Like this comment? Thumb up 0

Archives

%d bloggers like this: