Grace, Effort, and the Majesty of God

What is the glory and majesty of God? One of my favorite pictures of that glory is in Ps 93:1. “The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty.” Majesty is also a fearsome concept. Consider Job, for instance, “Will not his majesty terrify you, and the dread of him fall upon you?” Or Ex. 20:19 (the people telling Moses to talk to God): “You speak to God. Do not let him speak to us or we will die.”

In the Old Testament, glory and majesty are overwhelming and fearful realities. As the author of the letter to the Hebrews says in 12:29. “our God is a consuming fire.” And while that image never goes away (Hebrews is in the New Testament after all) a new image of majesty is offered up which transforms the old image. Take the Christ hymn in Phil. 2, for instance. Christ Jesus,

who in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking for form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

This process of being robed in human form, of being robed as a slave is why the Father highly exalted him (or, we might say, robed him in majesty) in the next verse. The New Testament sense of majesty is very upside down. True greatness is found in service (literally, “slavery” to others). Weakness is the greatest strength. Humility is among the virtues.

This redefined sense of majesty is carried all the way to the end of the New Testament. The Eternal Ruler of the Apocalypse is not a great king, he’s a dead baby sheep who has been given life once again.

Once this theme is acknowledged, Jesus’ teaching begins to make sense: His followers will be persecuted and will die. The great are the least among us. There’s even a passiveness to his politics: Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s. We can safely assume that Jesus understood full well the evil and injustice of the Roman empire, but he didn’t come to fight evil and injustice, he came into the world to be treated like a slave and ultimately to be crucified (the most humiliating form of death).

There’s a profound irony in all this. The Great King over all is a loser. His kingdom is for losers.

Of course those words have huge emotional impact in our society. We can destroy a child’s self-esteem with those words. Those words can start a gang war and lead to drive-by shootings and endless recriminations. In our society being a loser is not a good thing, it’s a humiliating thing.

Losers. … Luke 17:33

But what do losers get? If we can lose our self-will … If we can lose any success we’ve had … If we can lose the accolades of others because we’re so smart, so athletic, so beautiful, so rich … If we can lose our life, there will then be a void which God will be free to fill with divine life, if we give God permission.

And that’s one of the tricks about understanding the magisterial humility of God. Being humble, God isn’t going to pump divine life into us whether we want it or not, he’ll only fill a void and never force something else out of the way to make way for his goodness.

Ah, and it’s at this precise intersection between divine humility and human loss that the true and profound meaning of human effort in relation to divine grace begins to make a world Kingdom of sense. I have built into me a sense of self-preservation. Empower that natural sense of self-preservation with my sinful nature and I find that I have an overwhelming urge to succeed, to look good, to be liked … And my first task as a Christian is to “empty myself” of all those “self” things so that the quiet and humble God can pour his “self,” his Holy Spirit, into the emptiness.

That self-emptying requires effort. But just as God’s actual sense of majesty is ridiculously upside down, and just as God’s Kingdom is ridiculously upside down, so my effort is ridiculously upside down. I’m not striving to be a winner; I’m striving to be a loser. And to the extent that I can lose my self-will, pride, accomplishment, and the admiration of others, the divine life will come rushing in like a torrent.

Once we get this, then that particular both/and of the New Testament begins to make a great deal of sense. The works of the law will only lead to death. But works are absolutely necessary to life.

Bachman-Turner Overdrive was, to a certain extent, the sound track of my youth, so I can’t help but close this essay with the brilliant Randy Bachman. Of course this isn’t what he meant at all, but the thing about poetry is that a good poem can have multiple legitimate meanings. (Okay, I admit that calling B.T.O. lyrics “poetry” is a bit of a stretch, but stick with me for a minute, boys and girls.)

It’s the work that we avoid / And we’re all self-employed / We love to work at nothing all day. // And we be Taking care of business (every day) / Taking care of business (every way). [italics added]

How can we avoid work and at the same time “work all day”? By working at “nothing,” rather than working at something, so that my “nothingness” can become the divine fullness within me? That’s takin’ care of business, every day, takin’ care of business in every way.

And if you do that, well then, “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”


Grace and Effort

So what is the relationship between divine grace and human effort? Let’s start by imagining me as the quarterback of the Washington Redskins instead of Robert Griffin III … or not. It doesn’t matter how much strength training, how much coaching, and how many years of practice I had, I could never be a NFL quarterback, much less a quarterback like RG3. He is gifted with a certain body type and a certain set of talents that makes him who he is. Me? Not so much.

Excellence at that level is, from one perspective, pure gift: RG3, LeBron James, and Stephen Hawking are uniquely gifted. No one else could do what they do. That’s the “grace” side.

But their success was not inevitable and that’s the “effort” side. There was no guarantee that Hawking would become a brilliant physicist or that James would become so dominant on the basketball court. While they are uniquely gifted, what we see is the result or training, repetition, suffering, effort, etc.

There is also a flip side to these observations. There are probably young men out there who are every bit as gifted as RG3, but who did not have the discipline to do what he did through the years to develop that sort of excellence. Even though certain people are gifted (or graced) with remarkable native talent which is a necessity to excel, excellence still requires a great deal of work. It’s not either/or, it’s both grace and work.

This offers a limited but helpful analogy to the various, seemingly contradictory strands related to salvation in the New Testament. We must recognize that salvation is pure gift (ie, divine grace) while acknowledging, at the same time, that it is hard work. The young and brash apostle Paul created a seemingly uncrossable divide between faith and “the works of the law” in Galatians. To be fair to the young apostle, he did say that naked faith was not enough: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith made effective by means of love” (Gal. 5:6).

My folks were very involved with the Navigators, a Christian parachurch organization that promotes discipleship among believers. There are a host of such organizations (Navs, Campus Crusade, InterVarsity, Youth with a Mission, L’Abri, etc.) which are a Protestant analog to the monastic movements of the Roman and Eastern churches. Common among all of them is the understanding that there can be more to the Christian life, but it requires great effort, great discipline, and great dedication to achieve it. I suppose some might find it ironic that the Navs, as committed as they are to sever Christian discipline, have an historic affinity with the Presbyterian Church and Reformed theology. Scripture memorization, small group accountability, prayer, meditation, and study, in no way contradict their commitment to the pure grace of salvation.

This perspective on Christian commitment above and beyond just going to worship on Sunday morning ought to remind us of RG3, Kareem Abdul Jabar, Serena Williams, Leo Messi, etc. Athleticism, after all, is one of the best analogies we have for the Christian life. Even Paul was fond of it. “I do not run aimlessly, nor do I box as though beating the air; but I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified” (1 Cor. 9:26f).

Salvation is free, but so is the exercise trail in South Sioux City; fervently believing in it and driving out to it on Sunday morning won’t get me fit. I have to embrace and exercise the gift if I ever hope to have, not just life, but life abundantly (Jn. 10:10). This is why it is important, critical even, to affirm that salvation is hard. Not in a burdensome way, but in a 5k run or RAGRBRAI sort of way.

Bonhoeffer on Cheap and Costly Grace

Dietrich Bonhoeffer begins The Cost of Discipleship with a rant.

Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace.

Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares. The sacraments, the forgiveness of sin, and the consolations of religion are thrown away at cut prices. Grace is represented as the Church’s inexhaustible treasury, from which she showers blessings with generous hands, without asking questions or fixing limits. Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?

In case you find the first paragraph to be ambiguous ;), I will finish this post with the opening sentences of the many of the remaining paragraphs in the chapter. In his succinct style they function like outline bullet points:

Cheap grace means grace as a doctrine, a principle, a system … an intellectual assent.

Cheap grace means the justification of sin without the justification of the sinner.

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.

Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves.

Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock. [ital. in original.]

Life is Hard

Life is hard. By this I don’t mean to say it’s full of drudgery (although it can be) or that it is beyond our means to cope (although it can be). “Hard,” in the opening sentence ought not carry a negative connotation. Basketball, when played seriously, is hard. It requires a great deal of sweat and aches and pains in order to get into shape. It requires the tedium of repetitive activities (shooting free throws, foots work, hand work, etc.) so that those parts of the game become smooth and natural. It requires a great deal of discipline. And yet, when the bodies of professional basketball players begin to break down, they are loathe to retire from the game when they should.

The same can be said for any other sport. The same can be said for musicians, for visual artists, for bakers of bread, and makers of beer and sausages, and all the other necessities of life. Excellence, in any field, requires great discipline and discipline is hard.

And yet something about the discipline that leads to excellence is highly rewarding. It’s fun, or if it isn’t fun in the moment, it’s fulfilling. This is what I mean when I say that “hard” does not carry a negative connotation. Rather the difficulty and challenge leads to rewards that far exceed the difficulty itself.

For some people life isn’t hard, and for those unlucky few, life is hardest of all. Here my mind turns to football. In my own community we had a star football player that was recruited to be a star Division I player and was, barring injury, almost certainly on his way to being a star in the pros. Being a natural and gifted athlete he never had to work very hard at any sport until he arrived in Iowa City. He never cultivated the discipline for the effort that faced him. He washed out, felt sorry for himself, got in trouble with the law, and is, for the moment, a rather lost soul.

We can broaden Jesus’ statement, that it’s harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle, into a principle of life. For anyone who is so rich (in wealth, in athleticism, in brains, in beauty, in social grace) that they are not required to cultivate the discipline of a life well lived, their lives will somehow be diminished. It’s not just that life is hard. It’s that life ought to be hard. We humans are created in such a way that we need the discipline in order to become all that we can be. (And excuse the triviality, but the U.S. Army motto is the Army motto precisely because it’s true.)

If this is the case – if life is hard – then it would be surprising, shocking even, if salvation were not hard also, for salvation is not only part of life, it is life itself.

Morality and Discipline

Morality is the attempt to do the right thing, whether I have the skills or ability to do it or not.

Discipline is practice, repetition, stick-to-itiveness, so that I can develop the skills or ability to do what my will and body want me to do.

Religion tells me to be moral. Christianity tells me to be disciplined so that God can transform me.

Cheap Stuff

Mike Elgan, tech journalist (who also writes the quirky little newsletter called “Mike’s List“) recently wrote an article at wondering if gadgets have become too small and cheap to be realistically useful. (My source was Cranky Geeks, by the way.) Cheap is good, right? Not necessarily, Elgan opines.

“The problem with such low prices is that if everybody gravitates toward zero margin (or below) electronics, then quality will suffer. Just look at the airline industry. People now use the Internet to book flights based exclusively on airfares. The result is lousy service, no food and overworked, underpaid pilots.”

The American auto industry offers another great example of this same phenomenon. American cars are functional, but they are not particularly nice. A decade ago GM decided to try to put the shine back on the Cadillac brand name. They promised they were going to create the first true American luxury car in a generation. The decidedly lukewarm results came out a few years later. The new three-letter car line (CTS, SRX, DTS, XLR, etc.) was nice, but they certainly were not up to the standards of either the European or Japanese luxury cars. Doors and molding didn’t match perfectly, the leather was not quite top grade, the ergonomics weren’t as good as the competition, etc. It seemed the American auto industry was only able to make things that were almost luxurious. GM’s original goal was to compete with European luxury cars in Europe. Other than the decidedly in-your-face Escalade (which Latin American drug lords purchase by the clip-full), non-U.S. sales of Cadillac continue to founder, partially because of reputation but primarily because they’re built with a very low standard of luxury.

The trajectory of this process is clear. When price is overwhelmingly the most important factor, three things happen: First, quality suffers as prices decline; second, we forget how to make quality in the first place, and third, eventually (as we settle into the pattern of mediocrity) quality becomes a nearly impossible goal to achieve.

This same phenomenon can be found in the realm of spirituality. After the60s when western young people turned to India to fill the spiritual void created by the Enlightenment and resulting consumerist culture in the West, a spiritual export industry was created in India. All sorts of Hindu-Lite gurus showed up in Europe and the Americas. I am told that real Hindu spirituality is extremely rigorous and difficult; it takes years of discipline to become adept at these practices. But ordinary Indian folks in the sub-continent saw these watered-down forms of Hinduism being practiced in Europe and America and clamored for this easier and gentler religion. Soon the gurus were migrating back to India from the West. The result is a greatly diminished Hinduism that the old guard rails against.

And of course, the same is true for Christianity. Evangelical “discipline” in some of the “emerging churches” means getting to church 15 minutes early to get your latté because the line at the coffee bar in the narthex has gotten quite long since the church began to grow. Okay, that was a cheap shot and a bit of an extreme. And yet it’s not that far from what a scholar as mainstream as Leonard Sweet has recommended: church as bistro (Sweet) rather than church as athletic arena (St. Paul).

The number one complaint I hear about Eastern Orthodoxy is that it is too hard. The services are too long, the expectations are unrealistic, the canons about fasting – well that’s at very minimum “excessive effort” and probably a form of evil that is tearing apart Christ’s real Church.

But when a person was nurtured in a Christian tradition that has all the fine characteristics of the AMC Pacer or Chevy Chevette, it’s no wonder that an “imported” Christianity with all the bells and whistles seems a bit excessive. (Imported from the Middle East, no less … did anything good ever come out of the Middle East?)

But I digress. What got me thinking about all this is the Thanksgiving holiday itself and one of my “Thanksgiving memories” (which I’m pretty sure didn’t happen on Thanksgiving at all, but rather during my brother’s college Christmas holiday break). He was home from attending Bible College back in Michigan and that day he was talking with our parents around the dining room table. I was listening in. In the course of the conversation, Phil. 1:10 came up.

[Phil 1: 9] And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, [10] so that you may approve what is excellent, and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, [11] filled with the fruits of righteousness which come through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

Paul is calling us to approve or discover the excellent, and by implication, to do that which is excellent. Marc’s point was that Paul is not calling us to merely good stuff, but to the excellent, to the superior, to the things that are better than good. Marc mused that the biggest danger in most Christian’s lives is not the bad, but rather the good that we become satisfied with when we don’t get around to doing the excellent for which we ought to strive.

Someone somewhere that I read called it the cult of mediocrity. Excellence is hard. And once we become accustomed to mediocrity, excellence becomes close to impossible, on the one hand, and on the other hand, excellence appears to be elitism.

I’ve since come to find out that my brother’s insight is a somewhat common homiletical theme for this passage, but I heard it first from him, when I was young and impressionable. And strangely, I always associate that conversation with post-Thanksgiving meal conversation.

This year, with the rise of netbooks priced well under $200 running a Linux or possibly Android OS on an Atom processor – tiny and mediocre computers that are only good for tiny and mediocre jobs – I add a question, as a new thread to this old Thanksgiving reflection: Is my church (whatever that church may be) too small and cheap to be particularly useful? Just how much do I have to give to get the spiritual life I need?

It seems an excellent question.