Another Look: The Arithmetic of Grace
The LORD did not set His love on you nor choose you because you were more in number than any of the peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples, but because the LORD loved you and kept the oath which He swore to your forefathers, the LORD brought you out by a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
• Deuteronomy 7:7-8, NASB
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Peter W. Marty once wrote, “In a memorable Dennis the Menace cartoon, Dennis and his friend Joey are leaving Mrs. Wilson’s house loaded up with a plate full of cookies. Joey turns to Dennis and says, ‘I wonder what we did to deserve this.’ Dennis is quick to reply, ‘Look Joey, Mrs. Wilson gives us cookies not because we’re nice, but because she’s nice.’ So goes the arithmetic of grace.” (The World of Grace)
Dennis’ sentiment captures what I have always loved about the sentence from Deuteronomy 7 cited above, though I have not meditated on it or internalized nearly enough. If you take out all the intervening clauses in the verse and boil down what God is saying to Israel, what you have is, “I love you…because I love you.” It’s as simple, and profound, as that.
It’s not because we’re nice. He loves us because he loves us. Period. It’s who God is that makes the difference in matters of love, grace, and choice.
And who is he? A remarkably indiscriminate lover! After all, he loves you and me.
The Biblical record is clear from beginning to end, and well-summarized in these NT words: “Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him?” (James 2:5)
By “poor” he means not only those who have few material or monetary resources. All kinds of poverty are in view here — the intellectually poor, the morally poor, the relationally poor, the reputationally poor. In order to show that he does not discriminate against anyone, he has made a special effort to reach out to those who are, in our eyes, the most unlovely and undeserving.
God’s team roster is set forth in the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12). In the world’s eyes at least, we are talent-poor (poor in spirit, mourners, meek, crushed by injustice) and we are power-poor — we try to engage the world with inadequate, futile strategies (through extending mercy, seeking purity of heart, acting as peacemakers). Ultimately, we are the “losers” (persecuted, insulted, accused). Nevertheless, by his love and grace, Jesus calls us “blessed.”
Similarly, the Hebrew people God spoke to in Deuteronomy 7 were poor. Their ancestors had been homeless wanderers. Their parents and grandparents had become slaves, the dregs of society, under foreign rulers in Egypt. After about four hundred years of that humiliation, God intervened and delivered them in spectacular fashion from their bondage by pure grace.
You might think that would have made them grateful, but instead they became a group of unruly complainers wandering through the desert. Moses tried to shape them up during a long camp-out at Mt. Sinai, but they proved so unmanageable he had to plead with God at one point not to wipe them out in divine frustration and wrath. When they left Sinai to go to the Promised Land of Canaan, all but a few of them rebelled so badly they ended up wasting forty years walking the desert in circles. Eventually, Israel wore even poor Moses down. One day he’d had enough of their bitching and moaning, and he blew up in angry, exasperated unbelief — an act that won him a grave in the wilderness.
And, these were the people to whom God said, “[I] wasn’t attracted to you and didn’t choose you because you were big and important—the fact is, there was almost nothing to you. [I] did it out of sheer love…” (The Message) Tens of thousands of dirty-faced Dennis the Menaces got full plates of cookies because of who God is, not because they were so nice.
And guess what? The new life we have received in Jesus came the same way. There we are one day, playing in the yard, fighting and hollering, breaking stuff, getting all dirty and tearing holes in our jeans, when Mrs. Wilson opens the door and hollers out,”Hey kids, would you like some cookies? I just made some. Come and get ’em!” And if we have any sense at all, we stop what we’re doing immediately and race to see who can get there first.
Oh, there’s nothing like the taste of fresh cookies, washed down with cold milk!
The problem is, we start thinking we must be pretty special to deserve such a treat. We strut our stuff around the neighborhood and brag on the gift we received. “Why the big smile?” the kid down the street asks. “Mrs. Wilson just gave us cookies!” we exclaim. “Man, were they good!” And for some reason, we get all caught up in that warm feeling in our belly and start to think we must be pretty good kids to deserve such a treat.
Then we look up, and see that Mrs. Wilson has come out of her house again, and this time she’s offering cookies to the neighbor children who live behind us. Those kids are a pain in the butt! In fact, they’re weird. They dress and talk differently and they don’t fit in to our games very well. We try to stay away from them, but sometimes we can’t and it seems like we always end up fighting and yelling. It really gripes us that they get cookies too.
We forget the “grace” part. Remember? Mrs. Wilson’s the nice one, not me.
Peter Marty quotes Barbara Brown Taylor, who once said, “I’m not so worried about God loving me less. It is the prospect of God loving that other person I can’t stand, just as much as God might love me.” He then comments,
The most outstanding feature of God’s grace is its indiscriminate character. I’m thoroughly convinced of this, even if I cannot always appreciate it. All of the factors that determine how God might show favor rest solely on God’s wishes. Our capacity to discriminate, establish devilish screening devices, and discern unpalatable idiosyncrasies in other people cannot hold back God’s grace. Jesus refused to respect the boundaries people set up between respectable and disreputable people, between right-thinking and wrong-thinking people. In the end, it was utterances like his “prostitutes and tax-collectors entering the kingdom before the rest of us” that — literally — hung him. (The Wideness of Love)
If receiving grace doesn’t make us both grateful and gracious, we really haven’t grasped grace.
If, in our lives, we don’t “cause [our] rain to fall on both the just and the unjust,” we are not following the One who does just that. Lavishly. Freely. Indiscriminately.
If we’re upset that Mrs. Wilson is sharing her cookies with kids we don’t like, we’ve probably developed the opinion that we deserve them more. And that some don’t deserve them at all.
Hey, if you’ve got a head full of rules about who deserves the cookies and who doesn’t, I don’t think you have much room in there for a guy like Jesus. He loves us because he loves us.
And that’s the whole story.