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?
I think both analogies are excellent. Particularly grace as a gift with obligations attached, not in order to receive the gift, but in order to appreciate and value it. This is a common blind spot. We talk so much about giving service with the right attitude. But we don’t talk so much about how to receive service graciously. This skill is just as important. The parable of the bridal feast comes to mind. The bridegroom invites all these people, but they have better things to do. They don’t value the gift. It could be the same with grace. It is freely given, but to appreciate it requires that you actually “go to the feast” and WANT to go to the feast, and enjoy it.
Thank you. That gave me thought, though I’m not sure enough to comment more at the moment.
I really like this.
It’s interesting how you can have different cultures with gifts. When I give a gift, I much prefer the person get something they like and want. I would never want someone to keep something they don’t like out of some duty or obligation. So every storebought gift includes a gift receipt. My MIL pays cash with everything, so when she includes the receipt it ensures we don’t have to bother with in-store credit – we can get straight-up cash. When we got married we only got a few pieces of the china set we registered for. It would’ve cost a fortune to finish out the set, so we traded everything back in and got my husband a suit with all the in-store credit. We got so much more use out of that suit at church and interviews than we ever would out of any china, so we were still incredibly grateful for those who made that possible. I still do handmade gifts sometimes, but only if I’m positive the gift itself and handmade quality would mean something to the recipient.
In the same vein, some people are given talents. Sometimes people will use that as a guilt mechanism to make you keep doing something you don’t want to do. The joy comes when you can match the innate talent with an activity that brings you happiness, that is fulfilling. Using your talent on something that makes you miserable isn’t cool.
The gift of the Atonement is something meant to bring us joy and peace. When we use that gift in a way that is meaningful to us is what God desires. It’s like those times when people use the Atonement as a shaming technique – “What you did made Jesus cry” or “Do you really want to make him suffer even more because of your actions?” We warp a priceless gift into something that is draining rather than uplifting.
Actually, that was one of my biggest uncertainties when I was writing that. I personally fit very much in the category that I would rather someone get something they want than try to stick with a gift they don’t like. I know that there are people in my life who feel very opposed to that mentality, though.
I also like your comments about the issue of using a gift to shame others.
I have definitely been thinking a lot about that concept — that a gift can be absolutely free, but part of that freedom involves the freedom to take it OR leave it. I am also thinking about some other things I have found a bit problematic — as we know, Jesus spoke in parables. And he explained that he did it so that only those who were really interested would understand what he was saying. I have been conflicted a bit about that — it seems to me that you could interpret this just as much as Jesus wanting to keep some people in the dark as his trying to give people a choice to either take the gift or leave it.
I think about Grace as sunlight. It’s always there. It shines down and the light cleanses us, the way leaving a bottle of water in direct sunlight will kill bacteria and make it drinkable (if done properly – one of the things I learned at Girl’s Camp).
And we are *glass* bottles. So what happens when light hits glass filled with water? The light comes back out as a rainbow. This is our works. Our true, charitable works are the natural product of being filled with Grace. When we are filled with light, we can’t not radiate that light. (And perhaps Grace isn’t something that is meant to be stored. You receive it and send it out into the world in one motion.)
The goal then is to not do anything that builds barriers between the light and us (sin, pride, etc.). The commandments help us to avoid the worst of possible barriers.
I taught a R.S. lesson on E. Uctdorf’s talk “The Gift of Grace” last year and spent (likely too much of) my time trying to build an analogy of what Grace meant to me and this is what I came up with. It was one of the best lessons I’ve ever taught. Afterwards I read Adam Miller’s book “Grace is Not God’s Backup Plan” which clicked for me like very few things have.
I like this, RT.
it also reminds me of something I read about how Orthodoxy (like, in the Eastern Orthodoxy sense) views Heaven and Hell. The idea is that God doesn’t really send anyone to Hell, and neither is Hell being outside of the presence of God. To the contrary, God is ever present — like sunlight from your analogy, but it’s one’s reaction to being in the sun that is either heaven or hell.
I read something similar back during my lesson preparation. I found Mormon thought on Grace oddly lacking and found much more nuance and beauty in looking at other religions.
We are just too obsessed with earning our Grace in Mormonism. And then we come up with all kinds of reasons why we don’t actually do just that.
This is close to how I have come to think of the atonement, as a gift with conditions–not conditions that we must fulfill before we can receive the gift, but rather conditions that we accept by receiving the gift.
Your comment reminded me of something that came up through other discussion threads — people pointed out that while non-LDS Christians tend to think Mormons don’t accept grace, really, Mormons see the atonement similarly to how non-LDS Christians see grace.
I guess it would be interesting to see how people would contrast ‘grace’ and the ‘atonement’. And I wonder — for those (like RT, for example) who see grace positioned in Mormonism as being earned — does LDS treatment of the Atonement sound more grace-ful?
There is a concept in gnosticism called “open secret.” That might be a way to understand the paradox of grace. It is free for all, “open,” but because so few actually see or appreciate it for what it is, for most people, it is effectively “secret.”
Nate – I love that, I’ll have to look into it more.
But at the same time I then paint myself as being in on the secret, which makes me wary of myself and my own self awareness. It’s a position (I understand something that others don’t) that in other people makes me skeptical of them.
I’m LDS but I once heard a Baptist preacher on TV say that we are saved by grace and faith in Jesus Christ, not our works. Works were simply evidence that we accepted the Atonement. Amen brother.
RT, even for those who may intellectually understand grace offered through the Atonement, I think full appreciation can only happen through a lifetime of learning how to make Christlike behavior our own natural behavior. And to be honest, there are non-Christians out there that are a heck of a lot closer to that goal than me. Even if they have not intellectually embraced the concept of the Atonement, they have responded to the Light of Christ within themselves.
Good point, I think I was looking at it in the sense of knowledge rather than the sense of knowing.
I don’t know, Andrew. To me, the atonement is grace, and grace is the atonement. And while it is true that we tend to use “atonement” whole other Christians often use “grace,” I still think, based on my experience, that there are too many latter day saints that think they have to earn their way into the atonement by doing “all they can do,” which they interpret as exhausting themselves trying to keep all the commandments, before God will “apply the atoning blood of Jesus.” In my experience, that is not how it works. Rather, God immediately applies the atonement as soon as we begin to exercise faith.
For me, the atonement is an element and manifestation of God’s grace, but it is not all of God’s grace.
My experience with grace is those times when, opening my hands and heart to God, I recognize a gift of empowerment to love and act in ways that bless or help others, with insight and focus that carry a mark of divinity beyond my own capacity.
Like the hymn says “finding strength beyond my own”.
So, though I find much worth considering in Brother Wilcox’s writings on grace, his piano practicing analogy falls short for me.
I don’t believe our response to grace should be to decide to “practice as a way to to express appreciation for the gift”. I believe that, rather, receipt of the gift should move us to utilize it to bless. There is a difference between deciding to express appreciation for a gift and being inspired by a gift.
Yes, most of us start to practice the piano because it is a duty. And some of us continue on to practice because we value the gift of lessons. Or we value the opportunity to become better at something; “more pianist-like”. But hopefully we come to a point where we do not practice out of duty, or gratitude and respect for the gift, or because we understand that it will make us more like unto the perfect pianist, or even because we find pleasure or spiritual elevation in the unfolding capacity to create music, but rather because we have come to understand the experience which comes from using what that gift of piano lessons has given to us in order to bless someone else, regardless of how well we play.