Still Resisting Grace
Lent and Holy Week are about giving up our reliance on our own resources and trusting the power of God for everything. It is about learning to rely on God’s grace. We go there begrudgingly. We can’t imagine that we aren’t what we do. We can’t imagine that God loves us whether we perform well or not. We can’t imagine that our lives matter unless we are feverishly accomplishing things and adding to our resume. We can’t imagine that God loves us even when we make mistakes—even big mistakes. We can’t imagine that we are loved more than we could ever dream or imagine. We resist this grace—this love—because to let it in means our pride has to die, and who wants to die? The following reflection was first posted in March of 2014.
In one of her letters, Flannery O’Connor writes “All human beings vigorously resist grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
If O’Connor is correct, then one of our biggest challenges during Lent is whether or not we really want the love that we long for. Big love is often difficult to let in. Four years ago, my wife, who is an Episcopal priest, marked the 20th anniversary of her ordination. Not one to want a fuss made over her, she wanted to observe this day by presiding at her parish’s Wednesday evening service. Normally, about six people show up for this service. I decided to invite some people from St. Timothy’s, the parish in which she was ordained and served for nine years, to surprise her at this service. And surprised she was. During the service I pre-empted her homily and gave one of my own. Among other things, I focused on the impact she has had on other people as a steward of God’s Word and sacraments. She was sitting in the front row facing me as I was speaking, and I could see her discomfort with all this love. When I ended my homily, I looked at her and said, “We love you,” at which point she stood up to make sure I was done. I then said, “You want me to sit down and shut up, don’t you!” To which she answered with an emphatic, "Yes!"
When we are overwhelmed with love, we find it hard just to sit there and receive it. Why? We find it hard to sit there because for a variety reasons we have come to believe we are not worthy of such love. Grace attacks our self-understanding and is experienced as a threat. It disarms all our usual defenses and we just don't know what to do with such a gift. We resist because we aren't sure we want to live with the kind of freedom such love offers us. You see, if I really live each day believing that the One who said to Jesus, “You are my son, the beloved; with whom I am well pleased (Mk. 1:11), is also saying this to me; and if I really live each day believing that “nothing…will be able to separate us from the love of God" (Rom 8:39); and if I really live believing that I have been created in God’s image and likeness, I would have to let go of all the ways I habitually try to justify my existence through other means. Letting go of such long held behaviors is painful. And, of course, if I am going to accept such big love, that love will insist that I love others—even the most unworthy—as generously as I have been loved, never an easy task.
Lent is all about discovering a new level of freedom. Will we take the risk and let God's grace fundamentally change us? Will we just sit there and let it in?