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?
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
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.)