The Problem of Grace

“Amazing grace! (how sweet the sound) That sav’d a wretch like me!”

John newton (1772)

Evangelical Christians love to talk about grace. It’s this blanket word, used to comfort and also clobber believers. Not ready or willing to forgive your abuser? You need to offer grace. You made a mistake that caused real harm? Thank goodness you’re covered by grace. They sing about it, write about it, talk about it incessantly. And yet the very theology of grace, at least that of American Christianity and its relationship to salvation, is at best a bandaid on a bullet wound. And at worst wielded as a weapon. 

Depending on the translation, the word grace appears in the Bible roughly 170 times. That’s a lot for one word. The word derived from the Hebrew in the Old Testament is defined by Strong’s Concordance as “the moral quality of kindness, displaying a favorable disposition.” Sounds harmless enough. In the New Testament, the Greek translation defines the spiritual act of grace as “..the divine influence upon the heart, and its reflection in the life; including gratitude.” Reflection? Great. Gratitude? Very healthy. When evangelicals talk about grace, they’re often talking about the Merriam-Webster definition which is “unmerited divine assistance given to humans for their regeneration or sanctification.” 

“Unmerited divine assistance”

This is where the theology of sin comes into play. That if the divine were to intervene, it must be unmerited; why? Because humans are inherently sinful and bad1. That’s why they need god’s grace (according to Christian theology). 

Because it is by grace you have been saved2. Grace meaning, you didn’t deserve saving but Jesus saved you anyway. Christians are programmed to find comfort in grace, it’s comforting to think “it’s ok if I make a mistake, I’m forgiven.” Grace forgives all, just as sin is to blame for all. It can abdicate all personal responsibility. The person isn’t responsible, sin is. We see this often in cases of sexual abuse within the church. The abuser is forgiven of their “sin” and allowed to keep their job, or go pastor at another church. And the victim is blamed for tempting their abuser, and never sees justice. In turn the victim is also expected to forgive their abuser. And just like that, the grace so feely given is now a weapon used to shame victims, sometimes never allowing them to heal from the trauma they endured. 

Spiritual Bypassing

Grace is also used a form of spiritual bypassing. Meaning, when someone has a real, tangible problem that needs real, tangible help Christians like to offer one liners pulled from scripture or popular Christian thought. They do this for several reasons. First of all its what they’ve been trained to do. Speaking in “Christianese” (I did not coin this term but I think it’s the perfect descriptor) as a way to offer empty platitudes without actually having to expense any emotional labor. Phrases like “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” and “God is in control” and “just keep praying about it” and countless other iterations that are supposed to offer some sort of comfort. But it is not comforting in all cases. In some cases (ok, a lot) its simply and a way to keep your fellow Christian with real life problems at arms length. Because if their life doesn’t fall into place in support of your narrative of blessing and grace, you can’t have it mucking up your Christian worldview. I switched to first person there for a reason; I can say these things with some authority because I lived it. I used to say these awful things because its what I thought I was supposed to. It was my language of origin.

Just like all other forms of spiritual bypassing, grace is a sweeping term used to cover a multitude of sins- and by sins I mean harmful human behavior that humans should be held accountable for; instead of blaming it on “the enemy” (Christianese for “satan”). From a behavioral standpoint, this is not super surprising. The human brain naturally looks for order in everything. So finding a way to explain evil in the world, is often easier than having to process the fact that humans are capable of evil entirely on their own. But looking for meaning where there is none, can be just as harmful as it is helpful. We see this in Christians grieving unimaginable loss all the time. Instead of accepting reality, they use their belief system to try and circumvent the grief process. This can cause a lifetime of mental health struggles, not to mention the generational trauma that they pass down to their children and children’s children. Ultimately they believe that if god has not “healed” their trauma, they are meant to live in pain for some greater purpose. Its a strange dichotomy of salvation and self-deprecation. 

Grace and power dynamics

This loop of grace is never ending: I’m unworthy of salvation, but by grace I’m saved, but I must continue to ask for forgiveness because I’m still unworthy, forever and ever amen. If this were a relationship, we would call the person saying you need to ask for forgiveness forever “the abuser.” And yet we were taught we were asking a “loving god” for this forgiveness. 

So I ask then what is the point of a belief system that has to convince you of your unworthiness in order to save you from it? Who benefits in this scenario? Certainly not the mortal human. And since god is invisible and different depending on who you talk to, humanity has no way of knowing if or how god benefits. The only ones for whom there is a measurable benefit, are the ones who declare themselves in power over another, as prescribed by their own interpretation of the bible. And in this case the ones in power are always male, and almost always white. 

And if any version of your belief system does not benefit and protect the least of these, as well as the powerful, then how is that belief system not unethical and amoral? If grace by its very definition is used to let the most depraved humans off the hook, where then is accountability for harmful human behavior? 

Can we redefine grace?

Grace is less about comfort and more about order. It’s a warm blanket to wrap around the chaos, to give us a sense of control. American Christianity constantly tells us we are out of control, that our emotions can’t be trusted. The heart is deceitful3, after all. But in order to keep us believing that Christianity is the only way, there has to be an offer of safety from all that harm and deceitfulness of our feelings. Enter, grace. Keeper of the secrets. Harbinger of eternity. The free gift offered from Christ himself. But if you must spend the rest of your days on this earth, dying to self4, believing you’re unworthy, while following a script so that you conform to other believer’s expectations, is the gift of grace really free? 

As for my own definition of grace? I think I’ll stick with concept taken from the Hebrew: “the moral quality of kindness…” Because kindness, should always be freely given; and unlike the religious right, kindness will always make the world a better place. (It also doesn’t require the mental gymnastics of earning but not earning my salvation from supposed eternal torment)

  1. Romans 5:12 NIV
  2. Ephesians 2:5b NIV
  3. Jeremiah 17:9 ESV
  4. Luke 9:24 ESV, Romans 8:13 ESV

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