Grace as a theological concept has always been difficult for me to grasp. Non-LDS Christians would probably say that’s because of my upbringing as a Mormon, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. In reading the dialogue even between members of different traditional Christian denominations, it seems clear that there is disagreement on the relationship between grace and works. By seeing the different positions outside of Mormon Christianity, I have become more aware of differences in perspective within Mormonism itself. Ultimately, all my reading has led me to realize that grace is not uncomplicated to religious thinkers.
What’s the challenge to grace?
There seems to be a desire to reconcile grace as an unmerited, unwarranted, undeserved gift with the idea of human action and responsibility for grace. Even those who are strong on grace don’t want to be seen as advocating for cheap grace, for example (where someone can conduct all sorts of horrific sins seemingly without remorse, and then on the deathbed proclaim a fantastic [and fantastically convenient] conversion to Jesus). Even those who prioritize the necessity of works don’t want to be seen as promoting works righteousness (where someone has to earn their salvation like paying off a debt — and God will cast off those who haven’t paid off some certain amount into jail.)
But since theism in general hasn’t made all that much sense to me, I have wondered if it’s possible to make sense of grace using non-theistic analogies. Here are some thoughts I’ve had on the subject:
Responsibilities for receiving gifts
Grace seems to be tied up to the idea of a “gift”. When you receive a gift, you may not deserve it. You may not have earned it. Thinking about what you’ve done to have earned the gift or to deserve the gift misses the mark of the gift. The gift is more about how the giver cares about you.
In fact, I’m going to put it more strongly: if you ever find yourself thinking about how you deserved this gift or what you did to earn that gift, you’ve missed the point.
Just because gifts are unearned doesn’t mean that they don’t come attached with responsibilities. Someone receiving a gift should be grateful for that gift. I don’t know how this gratitude must always look…what if it’s a gift someone doesn’t want (or doesn’t know that they want?) I think at the minimum, the recipient should not throw the gift back in the gift giver’s face. We recognize that a child who pouts that they were given something they didn’t want is, well…childish. Maturity means developing any other response than pouting.
Gratitude for gifts involves a sort of respect for that gift, and an honoring of that gift. A gift should be cared for, used in a way that would make the giver happy.
Gratitude for gifts involves recognizing and thanking the giver. That’s really what’s motivating everything else, anyway, right?
How to show respect for a gift?
If we know conceptually that gifts bestow a responsibility to be grateful for and respectful of the gift, what might that look like, practically.
As I go through a mundane example, I enter uncomfortable territory. What if a relative has given me a sweater I find absolutely ugly? Should I wear that sweater? Would giving it away be poor form? I am inclined to think that it would be.
This seems to be a silly example, but I can think of other gifts that others could give me that I’d be more strongly ideologically opposed to — how do I navigate being gracious and grateful with my ideological opposition?
Whatever the answer is, what this analogy suggests is that there is some sort of work that I must do with respect to a gift. This work — even if it is something as mere as not exchanging the sweater for something I would prefer but instead sitting in appreciation with the sweater — is not meant to help me earn the gift, because the gift was already given with no strings attached before-hand. This work comes after, and is evidence of my change in heart toward the gift and its giver.
What are other concrete examples for “works” performed in gratitude for gifts?
Interestingly, I think that within Mormonism, there have been some really good (as far as I can tell) ways of conceptualizing grace along these lines.
Grace in Piano Lessons
Brad Wilcox originally presented “His Grace is Sufficient” as a BYU devotional, but I believe since then, the church has used it elsewhere. Within this talk, he uses the idea of a parent providing piano lessons for his or her child:
…Christ’s arrangement with us is similar to a mom providing music lessons for her child. Mom pays the piano teacher. 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, 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.
The relationship between grace, works, talent and practice
I had originally sat on a draft of this post for a long time, because I wasn’t sure if I had said what I wanted. Yesterday, I listened to a podcast from other video game cover musicians on YouTube where they discussed the roles of talent vs practice in becoming skilled at music. While I agreed with them that it can be frustrating for a musician who spend time practicing one’s craft to have those hours, days, years of efforts summarized as merely inborn “talent,” I pushed back against the concept that talent is a myth.If you are interested, please read the full post on my blog for my full thoughts. However, my summary is that the relationship between talent and practice is similar to the relationship between grace and works.
Talents are gifts. As such, they are graces. They are freely given, unmerited, and unearned. You have it before you’ve done anything, so how could you have earned it?
But that obliges you to act. To make the best of your talent, you still have to practice. Perhaps your talent makes you more effective or more efficient at practice. Perhaps your talent means that your capacity for growth from practicing is that much higher. But not practicing means not respecting your gifts (and, by extension, not respecting the source of those gifts.) To be respectful of your gifts means that you use them effectively.
What do you think? Are these analogies of grace helpful to you? Does this interplay of grace and works make sense to you? Do you think it’s consistent with what you hear in Mormonism in general, and/or do you think the church is moving more in this direction?