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5 Ways We're Confused By Grace: A Psychologist's Take

Mark McMinn

Exploring this perplexing theological concept

Professor of Psychology / Director of Faith Integration in the Graduate Department of Clinical Psychology, George Fox University
September 22, 2014

This is his fifth post in a series of six articles on connecting positive psychology with Christian life and faith.

Early in my career I wrote a book about grace. After shopping the manuscript around to half a dozen publishing houses, and getting half a dozen rejection letters, I gave up. It’s possible that old manuscript still exists among 50,001 archived Microsoft Word files on my MacBook, but for all practical purposes it is dead and gone.

As I look back now, 30 years later, I wonder why a young psychologist without any formal theological training would have been so interested in grace. The closest I can come to explaining it requires me to explain my quirky behavior at Home Depot.

Grace Depot

Several years ago my wife Lisa and I built our house. Building a house is a great adventure, but also complicated, so I had much to learn. I spent many hours searching the internet, reading books, and talking with real contractors and inspectors.

But all the reading and talking wasn’t enough. Sometimes the words confused me. I needed something more tangible and visual, so I would go the nearby Home Depot where I might stand in the same aisle for 30 minutes or more, staring at tools and materials, visualizing how this fastener went with that piece or lumber, how a particular clamp could work with a specific copper wire to ground a circuit, or how two pieces of trim might be joined to create the visual appearance we wanted.

Standing in Home Depot aisles sounds inefficient (and it probably was!) but eventually the visual and tactile experience of the materials connected with the theoretical knowledge gleaned from reading and talking with experts.

Whenever this connection happened I experienced an almost mystical moment of, “Ah ha! I got this!”

Thinking, singing, praying, and writing about grace is a lot like standing in an aisle at Home Depot. I want to stare and ponder and try on different possibilities until I have that “Ah-ha!” moment.

I’ve been standing in this grace aisle a very long time now.

Some passions don’t go away with time. A decade ago I had another chance to write about grace. This time the book actually got published, though it stuttered a bit with an initial trade book, a quick out-of-print decision, and then a more stable professional book. Somehow I also managed to write a scientific article on the topic published in a journal of the American Psychological Association.

Do I sound like an expert? I’m not. I’m barely even a beginner.

5 Reasons Why Grace is Perplexing

Truth is, grace confuses me more than just about anything. Why am I so perplexed by grace? I think of several reasons.

1. ‘Grace’ Is Used in Sloppy Ways

We’re so drawn to the idea of grace that we use the word often, but sometimes we use it carelessly in ways that don’t make much sense. Someone comes through a delicate brain surgery and we proclaim, “God is gracious.” But if this is grace (and it probably is) then it raises some difficult philosophical problems.

What accounts for the fact that the brain tumor showed up in the first place? What about the person who dies on the operating table undergoing the same procedure?

We tend to use the word grace to describe positive outcomes and remain theologically silent when terrible things happen. I don’t have a good answer for this, but is does confuse me. I think grace must be bigger than positive outcomes.

Maybe grace is as evident in failure and struggle and loss as it is in happy endings. Some of the most gracious people I know are those who are willing to suffer alongside others in their darkest moments. I suspect God shows this sort of grace also.

Here is the paradox of my life, and many lives: we believe in grace—we long for it—even as we try to earn our way and avoid being indebted to others. 


2. I Want to Earn My Way

Like many American families, we had a saying in my childhood home: “We get our work done before we play.” So we did.

I’m grateful for all the values I learned about work in my childhood; they have served me well professionally, economically, and morally. But as much as I value my work ethic, sometimes I wonder if it interferes with my ability to understand grace.

Pastor Tullian Tchividjian defines grace as “unconditional acceptance granted to an undeserving person by an unobligated giver.” This terrifies me because I want more control than this. If someone is going to accept or reject me, I want to know why.

Earning something may take a lot of work, but at least it feels predictable. If I work hard for a particular outcome, then it will likely come about. I earn it. To rely on others to help me find my way feels irresponsible, childish, entitled. I love my iPhone because it means I never have to stop and ask for directions any more. I can find my way just as surely as I can earn my way.

If I have a Saturday home repair to do, I would much prefer to go to the rental store or the hardware store than to borrow a tool from my neighbor. Then the next day I go to church, sing choruses about grace as my eyes well with joy.

Here is the paradox of my life, and many lives: we believe in grace—we long for it—even as we try to earn our way and avoid being indebted to others.

Often it seems that grace stays within the walls of our local churches. We visit grace once a week, more or less, and then we go back to our daily experiences where we earn our livings, reputations, credibility, love, and just about everything else.

3. I Confuse Grace with Love

Whether it’s Huey Lewis, Air Supply, or Celine Dion singing “The Power of Love,” we know it’s true: love is a powerful, life-changing force. Because love is so central to human experience, and so central to Christianity, we may easily conflate love and grace. But they are different.

At least in our human experience, love is something that is won. Whether it is through good looks, unusual kindness, power, success, or prolonged proximity people grow to love one another. Sometimes the growth curve is so fast that it hardly seems to involve time at all.

But here’s the test of something that can be won: can it also be lost? People who fall in love sometimes fall out of love. Loving friendship eventually atrophies with time when one person moves away. Even the love of a child, which is arguably the most grace-filled love we can experience, can be compromised with enough betrayal.

We talk about unconditional love as if it is some natural extension or amplification of regular love experiences. Often this is probably rhetoric, sort of like saying, “I love you so much.”

Add enough abuse and struggle and rejection to a love labeled unconditional, and it is likely to become ex-love.

In contrast, grace truly is unconditional.

4. Sin Is Out of Style

Though sin and grace have separate chapters in most systematic theology texts, I’m convinced they are so closely related that we can’t understand one without the other. And because the word sin has fallen out of favor, it is increasingly difficult to understand grace.

This goes two ways—one more obvious than the other. If I deny my own sin, or the collective sin of the groups to which I belong, then I continue on in my fantasy that I can earn my way. But when I stop and recognize my insufficiency, that I am broken and needy and undeserving, then I can begin to fathom grace from God and others. That’s the obvious direction.

Think about it the other way around. Could it be that we have removed sin from our vocabulary because we so rarely experience grace? An experience of grace provides enormous security: “I’m accepted even when I mess up.” From this place of security we dare to look honestly at ourselves, to see our frailties and shortcomings, to lean into honest self-appraisal.

5. I Reduce Grace to an Event

Like many in the evangelical Christian tradition, I tend to think about justification with God through the work of Jesus as the primary expression of grace in my life. Christians have different phrases for this: “saved,” “born again,” “inviting Jesus into our hearts”… Then we tend to add some eschatological language in the mix and talk about grace as that single event that assures our eternal destiny.

I’m not speaking lightly of any this. This is life changing, radical, amazing grace. But if my understanding of grace stops here, I need to spend more time standing in the aisle and staring at it.

If I can start to see grace in a relational context, I begin to see how persistent it truly is. The whole message of the Bible is a story of a gracious God who relentlessly pursues this fallen creation. And so also this is the message of your life and mine.

Theologians speak of the sanctifying nature of grace, which means over time we become more and more like Jesus. Whenever this happens, it is grace at work in our lives—God’s grace directly experienced and the grace of God experienced in other formative life relationships.

Still Standing in the Aisle

So here I stand, still confused about grace but intrigued enough that it remains a lifelong passion. I’ll stand here as long as it takes until I eventually have that “Ah-ha” moment, in this life or the next.

I’ve been writing this series of blog posts to explore ways that positive psychology and the church can work together well, based on a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. In my earlier posts I’ve explored wisdom and gratitude. We’re also funding two projects on grace. Laura Geczy-Haskins and Jeff Moody are each working with two church congregations who will soon launch a grace campaign in their churches. Laura calls these campaigns “grace extravaganzas”—a phrase I rather like.

In my final blog post [out in late-October 2014—Ed.], I will write about some of the ways the church leaders, my students, and I find to promote grace awareness in these congregations. If you have any thoughts that might help us think well about grace, I would love to hear them.

Check out Mark’s other four articles in this series

  1. “Why Science Needs the Church & the Church Needs Science”
  2. “The 5 Ingredients for Becoming Wise”
  3. “Flowing Like Honey: Gratitude & the Good Life”
  4. “‘Oh, thank God!’ or, The Man Who Mistook God for a Hat”