When Kyle Idleman decided to write a new book on the power of grace, he was stepping onto a well-trodden road. In the introduction to Grace is Greater he writes, “Numerous theology books teach the doctrine of grace, and some of them have helped me enormously. To be clear, though, this is not one of those. … I am much more interested in helping you experience grace.”
This distinction is central to the pastoral calling. Certainly, pastors must teach a sound theology of grace. But if people leave our churches without hearing stories of God’s grace, seeing the results of its healing power, and feeling it soak into their lives, our work is not complete. We spoke with Idleman about telling the story of God's grace, eliminating the blind spots eroding our full picture of grace, and setting the right “temperature” to produce vulnerability in our congregations.
In your new book, Grace is Greater, you forgo a detailed theological explanation of grace, and instead help readers experience grace by telling stories of its power. Why did you take that approach?
As a pastor, I spent a long time explaining grace on an intellectual level, but underestimated the need for people to experience it. So I wanted to write in such a way as to bring back some balance to that message. And it wasn’t difficult to find examples of grace in action. After 20 years as a pastor, I’ve heard so many stories about the power of these experiences. There’s something extremely compelling about people sharing a testimony of grace—either the grace they’ve received or the grace they’ve shared. When we listen to those stories about the power of grace, its beauty comes to life.
How do you help people in your own church experience grace?
We have found that an effective way to help people experience grace is by telling stories. It’s not difficult to find biblical examples. In the Gospels, Jesus didn’t use the word grace, he didn’t give a long theological explanation of it, but his whole earthly ministry was marked by stories of grace. We also celebrate God’s grace in our own people’s lives. We incorporate those stories as much as possible into our worship experiences. Stories open up the door to experience.
We are learning to be more intentional with vulnerability. For a long time, the church leadership world emphasized authenticity, which is good, but vulnerability takes that a little bit further. The power of God’s grace can be unlocked through our vulnerable moments, when we’re willing to talk about our struggles, doubts, challenges, and fears. That’s part of what Paul is talking about in 2 Corinthians: when he is weak, God’s grace is shown to be powerful. So vulnerability is a core value that we intentionally celebrate.
How does vulnerability differ from authenticity?
Two years ago, I had an opportunity to preach about a struggle I’d been having. At the time, I was emotionally spent. I was on edge. During an argument with my wife, I lost my temper and punched a hole in the door of her closet. We covered it with a mirror, and I forgot about it. Sometime later, the mirror fell and shattered, uncovering this hole I’d tried to cover up. When I got up to preach that weekend, I told that story. After the sermon, I had a line of people ready to tell me stories of the holes in their doors and walls.
Vulnerability is being honest about our struggles. It’s more specific than authenticity. You can be authentic without being vulnerable. Authenticity is no longer pretending, but vulnerability is revealing. When we ask someone to give a testimony about, say, a health struggle, we tell them not to feel like they have to have the whole thing wrapped up. It doesn’t have to be a happily-ever-after story. Instead, we ask them to be honest about the journey, to share why it’s hard and where they feel like God has let them down. That takes things further than authenticity.
Celebrating my vulnerability did not come naturally. I wasn’t taught to do it. It’s not intuitive for any of us. By nature we are self-protective, and vulnerability risks rejection. But I’ve found that the more vulnerable I’m willing to be with my fears, failures, and struggles, the greater God’s grace becomes.
My tendency as a pastor was to portray strength and self-sufficiency: “I’ve got things together, and I’m not struggling.” But when we pastors are vulnerable about our weaknesses, about the grace we need, we set a tone that allows other people to join in. Our vulnerability creates a safe place where grace can be experienced.
In small group settings, it takes just one person being a little bit vulnerable, pulling back the veil a little, for everyone else to do the same thing. If people are going around the room and sharing their stories, and someone shares a struggle or a challenge they’re going through, just watch. The rest of the room will join in. The first act of vulnerability sets the temperature for everyone else. But if the first few people keep things surface level and refuse to go deeper, then that sets the tone of the room as well. As a pastor, I want to set that temperature so others will want to celebrate their weakness. In doing so, we will point to the beauty of God’s grace.
Why do you think it can be especially difficult to show grace to our neighbors and coworkers—the people we see every day?
The people who have the most power to hurt us are people who are closest to us. As I worked on this book, I collected between 250 and 300 stories of people who were struggling to give grace. They had been hurt in significant ways. They wanted to give grace, but it was a struggle. One thing every story had in common was that they involved deeply personal wounds: abuse, an affair, or a business partner who cheated them.
Within a community of believers, the closer you are, the more potential you have to hurt one another. So we put up walls, and we don’t get too close because most of us know what it’s like to be hurt in a significant way. But we can’t have true community unless we’re willing to risk that. It’s tough!
What are a few ways we could handle forgiveness better?
I have three teenage girls and a 12-year-old son, and when it comes to conflict and extending grace and forgiveness, what I want to say to them as a father is often what I want to say to the church as a pastor. Which makes sense. We’re brothers and sisters. Church should have a family dynamic to it.
First, we need to do a better job in the church of stepping back and thinking, Do I have a right to be offended in the first place? Often we don’t. We can be overly sensitive to a careless comment from a friend, an aggressive driver on the road, or a condescending tone of voice from a spouse. The Bible says it’s to our glory to overlook an offense (Prov. 19:11). It helps to have a sense of humor, and we should encourage that within the church. When Jesus walked this world, he was not easily offended. He knew the hurts of the people who were trying to hurt him and again and again showed them grace.
Second, the church should not be known for outrage towards people outside of our community who need grace; we should be outraged by people inside our community who refuse to give grace. In Matthew 18 and the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant, a servant receives grace from his master but then refuses to give it to a fellow servant. In teaching on that passage in the past, I missed an important element: when the other servants saw what their fellow servant had done, they were outraged. Within that community of people who had received grace from the master, the entire community was outraged when one person didn’t show it to another. We want to have a loving intolerance for a lack of grace within our community.
We usually think of grace as a healing balm. But are there ways in which God’s grace can be painful?
To understand the beauty of God’s grace requires me to recognize the ugliness of my own sin. That can be painful. I would much rather tell myself I’m not that bad.
God’s grace can be like Betadine, that orange antiseptic spray. When I got hurt as a kid, my mom would spray it on the wound to clean it and make it better. There is a sense in which grace is like that. It is healing. It is soothing. But it can also be painful. If I need to experience grace in my life, it may mean peeling off a scab and opening up a wound. That’s necessary so I can be healed and made whole.
One of the most beautiful things I get to see as a pastor is how God’s grace redeems brokenness. It redeems pain. God never wastes what we go through. It’s such a privilege to see God take something very difficult and use it to teach people dependence on him, teach people compassion, teach people gratitude that is not based on their circumstances or their possessions. God’s grace brings good out of the worst things.
Is there anywhere you, personally, feel like you still need to grow when it comes to helping people experience God’s grace?
I’m convicted by Hebrews 12:15: “To see to it that no one misses the grace of God.” When people miss God’s grace, it creates this bitter root within the heart or this poisonous root within the community or relationship.
People come to church with regrets, and they are trying to figure out what to do with them. When those regrets bleed into shame and people walk out of church feeling bad about who they are or how they’re perceived by God and other people in the community, then that bitter root becomes even more poisonous. I’m trying to pay closer attention so that when I see somebody come to church with regrets, I ask myself, How do I lead them to repentance and to grace without turning their regret into shame? We pastors should have the same commitment as Jesus, who was careful not to break a bruised reed.
And the truth is, many pastors struggle with the same regrets. But it’s especially difficult for them because they hold the pastorate on their shoulders. They feel like they need to model what the Christian life should look like.
How do you think a pastor can be honest about their regrets and shame while still presenting leadership strength that a church might need?
One of the hardest things for me to do as a pastor is to voluntarily confess my sin to someone else. It’s embarrassing! But when I do that, it frees me from the guilt and the shame. When we confess our sins to one another we’re healed.
We talk a lot about repentance, but not necessarily confession. But that’s a big piece of regret not turning into shame—it’s bringing what’s in darkness into the light. When I confess my sin to trustworthy people around me, the darkness loses its grip on me. To be clear, practicing confession is presenting leadership strength.
Kyle Idleman is teaching pastor at Southeast Christian Church in Louisville, Kentucky.
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