CM – 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

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.

44 thoughts on “CM – Another Look: The Arithmetic of Grace

  1. Or as I heard on a Christian AM station in the Eighties,
    “If you can’t love ’em into the Kingdom, SCARE ‘EM INTO THE KINGDOM!”

    Problem is, the side effects of that build up in the long run.
    Sometimes the damage lasts a lifetime.

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  2. Remember who that Rabbi from Nazareth used to hang out with — Those of Great FAITH or the broken rest of us?

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  3. I’d say some folks are more separated from God/Jesus/Spirit and thus DO miss out on something that those more in tune to God/Jesus/Spirit receive, but even some “connected” folks also miss out (see the elder son in the Prodigal story).

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  4. To your point (maybe?), Isaiah certainly makes many references to telling (warning?) that salvation is not just for the chosen, but also for ALL nations, including some of those typically viewed as their enemy. So, yeah… some gray area shows up amidst the predominant black/white.

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  5. Lord, I will lift my eyes to the hills
    Knowing my help is coming from You
    Your peace You give me in time of the storm

    You are the source of my strength
    You are the strength of my life
    I lift my hands in total praise to You
    Richard Smallwood

    Performed by Prestonwood Baptist – look at their faces.

    PURE GRACE – I often tear up when I look at this video

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  6. @ Rick Ro

    “There is clearly something we “receive” through a relationship with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit that non-believers miss (and that goes beyond the simple Evangelical “believe in Jesus to be saved”)”
    ________________

    Yes, certainly goes beyond.

    Actually, I would say that everyone and everything is relating with God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit. “Non-believers” don’t miss out on this, they just don’t have the language to express it as we perhaps do.

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  7. That. A whole lot that. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is a pretty much literal example of “scare the hell right out of ’em.”

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  8. Curiously, the God of the OT looks very Black/White, Either/Or, In/Out. (Then Jesus comes along and says, To heck with THAT way of viewing God!)

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  9. I don’t think it’s an either/or.

    Problem is, Boolean Black/White, Either/Or has become the default mode of thinking.

    How else Can I Be RIGHT and (more important) You Be WRONG?

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  10. Libraries’ worth of theology, and endless folk preaching too, is devoted to working around the idea of grace, desperately bringing back the law. The underlying mistake, apart from our reluctance to allow Those People in, is the idea that Christianity is about who is and is not saved, and what we must do to get into the right side. Whenever anyone asked Jesus “What must I do to be saved?” he answered with “Something you are unable to do.” The form of this inability depended on the asker, but the substance was always the same. The question was subsequently answered: Christ crucified. After that, to ask “What must I do to be saved?” is to miss the point. The question has been asked and answered: There is nothing you can do, but you are saved anyway. The better question for a Christian to ask is “How should I respond to my being saved?”

    MODERATOR NOTE: Edited. No political codas please.

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  11. Amen. I have to keep reminding myself, “If God doesn’t make a way for the worst of us, there’s no hope for me.” Nothing I do elevates me to “worthier” than anyone else.

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  12. –> “I don’t think it’s an either/or.”

    Agreed. Several of us have mentioned that idea before, that it’s more “and/but” than “either/or.”

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  13. Nicely said, Tom. I like the word “Enjoy,” too. And I never thought of grace as an “atmosphere,” but that resonates with me, also.

    There is clearly something we “receive” through a relationship with God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit that non-believers miss (and that goes beyond the simple Evangelical “believe in Jesus to be saved”). There’s supposed to be an enjoyment that comes with the Good News. (Perhaps that’s why, when Jesus came to preach, people flocked to him; he Pharisees had missed on the “enjoyment” of worshipping God, and Jesus’ approach was refreshing!)

    I’m not sure if that necessarily means if you DON’T feel enjoyment because of your relationship with God then you’re doing something wrong, I just think that that’s more likely available to believers than non-believers.

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  14. it gets harder to ‘hate’ when you begin to see beneath the attacks coming from the ‘other’ that there is a lot of pain and suffering causing the person to act out negatively

    maybe we have to experience enough in life to get to the point where we CAN see past the presenting behavior into the suffering of the one acting out negatively
    and when we SEE the pain under their behavior, what’s to hate in it? Sometimes all we have in us then for the person are feelings of sadness and compassion for their suffering.

    and then I remember the children’s story about the Velveteen Rabbit where the ‘Skin Horse’ tells the Rabbit ‘how you become real’:

    ““Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’
    ‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.
    ‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’
    ‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’
    ‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.. . . ” (‘The Velveteen Rabbit’ by Margery Williams)

    So that kind wisdom comes hard to people, as Flannery O’Connor warned: ‘go and tell the Children of God of the terrible speed of mercy’

    Whatever ‘grace’ or ‘mercy’ is, I sometimes think of a poem the step-daughter of my best friend wrote wherein she said:
    “LET ME STOP BEING THAT THING AGAINST WHICH ANYTHING, EVERYTHING, CAN BREAK”

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  15. I don’t think it’s an either/or. Whenever we grow closer to God, we become more open, honest, self-aware, etc. which allows us to develop more genuine relationships with others. And whenever we grow in relationship with others, the security, peace, and fellowship we find makes us more able to risk loving God. Our love for God and our love for others drive each other upward in a “virtuous cycle,” so it doesn’t really work to tell someone that if they just focus on either one, the other will happen automatically.

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  16. t’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.

    Which is the first thing that gets lost when theology goes in the direction of God’s Omnipotence, God’s Holiness, God’s Sovereign Will (in short, God’s POWER – see “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” for a classic type example).

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  17. Vertical without Horizontal and you get an otherworldly FAITH with no connection to reality. At the core, a Selfish Gospel of Personal Salvation and ONLY Personal Salvation.

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  18. It does.

    In The Strong and the Weak, Swiss psychologist Paul Tournier writes about how “Strong” personality types (the type who NEVER EVER doubts, who has never had debilitating hardship in his head) can easily mistake their personality type for the Holy Spirit. In my own experience, this results in “God’s Speshul Pets”, always serene in their unshakable FAITH FAITH FAITH, looking down their noses at the rest of us who struggle. (“O ye of Little FAITH. Tsk. Tsk.”)

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  19. Robert (and others) — I encourage you to read Richard Beck’s article that is linked on the Bulletin Board. I think he’s spot on. “Vertical” theology is often hard to grasp, but our teachers tend to encourage us to get that straight first. Learn to love God, and you will then learn to love your neighbor — that sort of thing. However, Beck thinks that “horizontal” formation is often essential before or while we are trying to grasp the divine. Find grace in my relationship with the neighbor, learn to love and receive love from the neighbor — and then, perhaps, we will begin to grasp the divine.

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  20. Remind me a thousand times of this because I’ll forget that many times and allow my ego to think it’s merit based. At least when I’m “behaving”. It’s when I’m behaving badly that I need that thousand and first reminder that his love is not incumbent upon my behavior, good or bad. What an awesome and beautiful being is our God!

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  21. The Hebrew word “Satan” literally means “accuser.” Part of why it’s so hard to believe in God’s unconditional love is that we are constantly bombarded by “accusing” voices telling us we are unloved and unlovable. And, our society and institutions have been co-opted to become amplifiers for that accusing voice, seeking to beat down and scratch out the image of God that all people bear. Everything from extreme inequality and poverty to racism and sexism is, in that sense, a tool of Satan designed to destroy certain people’s ability to believe they are acceptable and lovable and “good enough.”

    So, it’s not just that we, as human beings, for some reason have trouble believing in God’s love. It’s also that our broken and corrupted world is actively trying to break and corrupt us. That’s why we need to be constantly refreshed with God’s love and God’s presence – because we’re being constantly worn down. And it’s also why we as Christians need to speak up against anything that degrades, diminishes, devalues, or dismisses the image of God in any other human being.

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  22. Ok, then another illustration from Fr. Robert (assuming “faith” and “trusting” are roughly equivalent);

    Faith doesn’t do anything; it simply enables us to relate ourselves to someone else who has already done whatever needs doing.

    Illustration: Imagine that I am in the hospital, in traction, with casts on both arms and both legs. And imagine further that every time you visit me, I carry on despairingly about the fact that my house, in my absence, is falling apart: the paint is peeling, the sills are rotting, the roof is blowing away in the wind.

    But then imagine that one day, after a considerable interval, you come to me and say, “Robert, I have just paid off the contractor I engaged to repair your house. It’s all fixed — a gift from me to you.” What are my choices in the face of such good news? I cannot go out of the hospital to check for myself—I cannot know that you have fixed my house for me. I can only disbelieve you or believe you. If I disbelieve you, I go on being a miserable bore. But if I believe you — if I trust your word that you have done the job for me — I have my first good day in a long while. My faith, you see, accomplishes nothing but my own enjoyment.

    Look at it another way. Suppose I had decided, while staring at the hospital ceiling, that if only I could work up enough faith, you would undertake to repair my house. And suppose further that I had grunted and groaned through every waking hour trying to get my faith meter up to red hot. What good would that have done unless you had decided, as a gift to me in response to no activity on my part whatsoever, to do the job for me? No good, that’s what. Faith doesn’t fix houses — carpenters and painters do. And faith doesn’t pay bills, either. Faith, therefore, is not a gadget by which I can work wonders. It is just trust in a person who actually can work them — and who has promised me he already has.

    (from The Astonished Heart, Faith and Sacrament)

    (Without rich text code which got my first response put into moderation.)

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  23. “Grasp” seems like a poor choice of a word, but what is left that coveys the image of “receiving” or “appropriating”? Why not use the word “enjoy”? We have difficulty, to say the least, to conceptualize an action that is totally out of our personal control–we are so thoroughly conditioned by an environment of exchange. Our talk about grace often leaves the impression that it is something external to our lives. I see grace rather as atmosphere, the environment in which we exist. It seems to me that the only thing about grace that I do have some influence over is whether or not I allow myself to enjoy its reality in my life and by extension for others around me to be recipients of the fruit of my pleasure. To not enjoy grace is like holding my breath–refusing to breath the cool clean air.

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  24. “The one thing you can never sell is grace. The human race would rather die than give houseroom to the outrage of free acceptance, while we are yet sinners. You can get people to buy acceptance after their sins are under control, or only when their disasters have been forestalled by proper behavior. But all the Gospel has to offer is acceptance now; in our sins and in our shipwrecks. And without condition. With no guilt left to be expiated and no good-deed lists asked for. You can always sell religion. But the Gospel of grace isn’t religion and therefore you can’t sell it for beans. Any gospel that sells is, by definition, not the Gospel. The whole sorry business is one of the oldest stories in Christianity. When St. Paul went out the back door of the church in Galatia, in the front door came a bunch of sales rep types from James and the Jerusalem church crowd. They had on polyester suits, they carried limp Bibles, and they were accompanied by three hundred Christian singers. And they said, ‘We’re so glad our brother Paul was able to spend some time with y’all. But he’s a very busy man, and he’s only able to give you the highlights of the faith. So we’re here to fill you in on all the really important things without which you Gentiles are not going to make it to Salvation City.’ And so what did they give them? Circumcision, Kashruth, The Law. In a word, religion. And what did the Galatians do? They bought it like it was going out of style, which it already had—and which made them twice the fools Paul said they were.”

    (TV Preachers, chapt. 23, More Theology and Less Heavy Cream, Robert Capon)

    Trust Him. And when you have done that, you are living the life of grace. No matter what happens to you in the course of that trusting – no matter how many waverings you may have, no matter how many suspicions that you have bought a poke with no pig in it, no matter how much heaviness and sadness your lapses, vices, indispositions, and bratty whining may cause you – you simply believe that Somebody Else, by His death and resurrection, has made it all right, and you just say thank you and shut up. The whole slop closet full of mildewed performances (which is all you have to offer) is simply your death; it is Jesus who is your life. If He refused to condemn you because your works were rotten, He certainly isn’t going to flunk you because your faith isn’t so hot. You can fail utterly, therefore, and still live the life of grace. You can fold up spiritually, morally, or intellectually and still be safe. Because at the very worst, all you can be is dead – and for Him who is the Resurrection and the Life, that just makes you His cup of tea.

    Between Noon and Three

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  25. If receiving grace doesn’t make us both grateful and gracious, we really haven’t grasped grace.

    Let’s say we are neither grateful nor gracious. That means we haven’t grasped grace. Is there something we can or should do to grasp it? Or is grasping grace as beyond our control as being the recipient of it, or understanding its arithmetic?

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