Thursday, October 23, 2014

Misunderstandings: We don't get grace

I think we live in a world of concepts. We (especially me) are good at conceptually understanding things and unfortunately, we often fail to realize that it never goes beyond a concept. While with something like math or engineering, that's a very valuable tool to have, unfortunately, when it comes to how we live our lives, our values, our priorities, our morals, our worldview, well, we have applied it here as well, and therefore, while we often purport to hold to certain ideals the way we live our lives is very different. I know I do this. I'm not going to sit here and call everyone hypocrites, that's not my goal, but I think we ought to clearly examine and understand ourselves better. To better know what exactly it is that we are affirming in our professions of belief, in our faith.

I think the unfortunate truth for at least myself, much of the time, is that the concept of grace is something that I don't really get. Certainly, I understand it, I can explain it to you, I can attest that I am a sinner that has been saved by grace and it is only by the grace of God that I move forward each day. However, if I were to examine my life closely, I'm not sure that I would find a life that's entirely changed by grace. If I were honest with myself, perhaps I'd find more of a person who is entitled, who feels like he deserves to be treated well, a person, ultimately, who believed that he was basically a good person, and perhaps to a certain degree better than everyone else because of his intellectual understanding of grace. Perhaps this blog post is something akin to that. In which case, maybe you should stop reading.

If you've continued, I will continue with where I'm going with this. Simon Peter asks Jesus how many times ought he forgive his brother, and Jesus responds with a story about two servants (Matthew 18:21-35) who owed money. Now this first servant owed 10,000 talents, which he was unable to pay back and his master, to whom he owed this debt, forgave him. He then proceeded to attempt to collect from the second servant, who owed him 100 denarii, and when met with the same exact response the first servant, the forgiven servant, threw the second into debtors' prison. I think this story is somewhat familiar to many of us and I think the application is simple. We are like the first servant, God is the master, and the second servant are the people around us. And so the moral of the story is that since we've been forgiven and shown grace we ought to forgive and show grace to those around us.

Naturally, Jesus utilizes some extreme numbers as a hyperbole to illustrate just the extent to which we've been forgiven, and the mere pittance that we are owed. Being educated as an accountant, I suppose, it's somewhat natural for me to just do some of the math. If we just looked at the straight numbers, we see that the first servant owed the master 10,000 of some kind of denomination of money, if we assumed for the moment that a talent was equal to a denarius, then we can understand that this first servant owed 100 times what he was owed (10,000/100). If we look at a little more context, a denarius is a day's wages for a laborer, whereas a talent was about 20 years' wages for that same laborer. So by that math, assuming that a laborer worked every day of the year (356 days), a talent is 7,120 times a denarius (356 x 20). So if we do the math on that, then we can see the servant owed a ridiculous 712,000 times what he was owed. Great, conceptually we understand that.

Though 712,000 times something is a rather abstract concept. What if we made this out to be something even easier to relate to? Let's say, the servant makes a modest $52,000 a year (the number is for the math). Assume he works a standard 40 hour week per today's standards, 52 weeks per year, etc... So by that account, we can say that a denarius (a day's wages) is about $200 (52,000/52=$1,000 per week, $1,000/5=$200 per day). By that same logic, we can see that a talent is about $1,040,000 (52,000 x 20). If we do out the math that way from the parable, we see that the first servant owed $10,400,000,000 ($,1040,000 x 10,000) and he was owed $20,000 ($200 x 100). Kind of ridiculous, right?

Despite all of that assistance we can derive from giving the parable some more modern day associations, the concept of $10 billion is still kind of foreign to us. It's pretty inconceivable for us to really fathom the idea of just simply $10 billion let alone applying it to us (unless you who are reading are a billionaire, in which case, I apologize that my point is not valid). My point is this, I've done the math, I know, in my head, that I owed God $10 billion and he forgave me of that debt. He basically gave me $10 billion for free. That, in comparison, the $20,000 someone owes me, while perhaps not insignificant on its own, is rendered insignificant when compared to the debt that I've been forgiven.

So the question is not whether or not I intellectually understand and can explain and write a coherent blog post about this parable. The question remains, what does a life of grace look like? And beyond that, how am I living that out, or perhaps more accurately, am I living that out? Now these are difficult questions to answer in and of themselves, simply because I think, they are in their nature very conceptual and thus, rather abstract to us. The question that I have found, that perhaps helps me to better assess this situation is this: what do I feel like I deserve?

Things I deserve have to come from somewhere, thus we can draw the fairly straightforward correlation, of what I feel like I deserve is what I feel like other people owe me. Though I may intellectually admit that I'm not owed anything, or perhaps that I'm actually owed punishment for my sin, the question is, if I really believe that? What would my life look like?

I don't mean that we should wallow in guilt. Perhaps this is one of those times when a relational/relative perspective is helpful. It's hard for us to conceive of how immeasurably much we've been forgiven, so perhaps we ought to just recognize that relatively, I'm owed a rather insignificant sum. I believe that if I want to understand grace, I need to share it with others, the more grace I give, the more I get how much has been given to me. At first, it my application may not REALLY be grace. I may be expecting some sort of return, that happens, but when that does, it means that I don't get grace. For grace to be grace it has to be unmerited. I'm not giving grace to someone if it's because they've done something for me first. I know people that give gifts to others because others have given a gift first. It's better than not giving a gift at all, but that sort of mindset sort of defeats the concept of a gift doesn't it? The same is true for grace, for what is grace, other than a gift? And what is a gift other than something unmerited, unearned?

How can I really get grace? Not just intellectually understand it, but really GET it. Well, I don't know that I have a precise answer to that, but here are three ideas that may help:

1.) Think about yourself less.

Be humble. Start forgetting the question: what am I going to get out if it? by ignoring it. When I extend grace to others, then I begin to understand better the grace that I receive. Gifts are given because of the nature of the relationship between the giver and recipient. Make it about the other person, when I do that, maybe I'll start understanding better.

2.) Be generous.

I'm not asking us to enable people who would take advantage of our kindness and generosity. I'm not asking us to let people walk all over us. However, I am asking us to help others out and not be stingy about it. As we mentioned in point 1, I need to make it less about myself. If giving grace helps me understand it better, then I should be giving grace whenever I can.

3.) Be thankful.

Things you don't appreciate are things you feel like you deserve. Things you deserve aren't grace. A large hindrance to our understanding of grace is our feeling that we deserve to be forgiven, that we deserve to be loved, that we deserve to have good things happen to us. When I can learn to be thankful for things I have/receive, I will learn to see more and more how much and the nature of things I really deserve. And when I learn to be thankful, I begin to see how much of what I get (or don't get) is really grace.

This isn't all there is to getting grace. However, I believe that it's a start, and a challenging one if we're honest with ourselves. But if I profess to know the grace of God, then my life needs to be significantly, and tangibly different from someone who doesn't. At the end of it all, it comes down to being honest with ourselves.

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