The Journey of Grace

It moves in one direction only, and it never looks back. /

A short definition of grace is hard to find. “Unmerited favor” is the classic one, but “favor” sounds old-fashioned. “Undeserved love” is another try, but then, what love is really deserved? The minute “deserving” comes into it, the romance and emotion, all the feeling, melt away. A jawbreaker definition of grace is the old acronym that defines grace as “God’s Redemption At Christ’s Expense.” Don’t expect to get too far when you use that one!

What is grace? Grace is love that seeks you out when you have nothing to give in return. Grace is love coming at you that has nothing to do with you. Grace is being loved when you are unlovable. It is being loved when you are the opposite of loveable. The cliché definition of grace is “unconditional love.” It is a true cliché, for it is a description of the thing. It just sounds a little 1970s (as in “Have a Nice Day!”). Yet the words are apt.

Let’s go a little further. Grace is a love that has nothing to do with you, the beloved. It has everything and only to do with the lover. Grace is irrational in the sense that is has nothing to do with weights and measures. It has nothing to do with my intrinsic qualities or so-called “gifts” (whatever they may be). It reflects a decision on the part of the giver, the one who loves, in relation to the receiver, the one who is loved, that negates any qualifications the receiver may personally hold.

In 1965, Joe Meek produced a would-be pop single that was sung by Bobby Rio and the Revelles and was entitled “Value for Love.” It was a great tune, but, like almost everything Joe Meek produced, it only grazed the Top 30. The lyrics were wildly false. The singer keeps telling the girl she should go for him because he is “good value for love.” He is “worth” her falling for him. Sure, Bobby Rio! That line never works. It never will. It is all weights and measures. Grace is one-way love.

The one-way love of grace is the essence of any lasting transformation that takes place in human experience. You can find this out for yourself by taking a simple inventory of your own moments of happiness. They probably almost always had to do with some incident of love or belovedness that has come to you from someone outside yourself. You felt ugly or lacking in confidence, and somebody complimented you, helped you, or spoke a kind word. You were at the end of your rope, and someone showed a little sympathy. This is the message of Otis Redding’s immortal 1962 song “Try a Little Tenderness.”

Grace, one-way love, has the power to turn despair into hope. It is almost always some form of grace, some outside source of unexpected and unhoped-for compassion and kindness, that creates the change from discouragement and despair to endurance and perseverance.

Grace as one-way love is thus the opposite of law. Law depresses and incites. Grace enlivens and enables.

Take an inventory of yourself. Watch other people about whose happiness you care. You will see it over and over: one-way love lifts up. One-way love cures. One-way love transforms. It is the change agent of life.

The phrase “one-way love,” which is an attempt to put into simple words an idea that eludes quick description, could be misunderstood. It could be misunderstood as a love that is not returned or that exists in no relation to the response it craves, like unrequited love.

The phrase points to the fact that love, in order to be received without guilt or expectation of return, must be received in a one-way operation. For instance, if I think that anything is expected or demanded as the result of a compliment, the compliment loses its force. Instead of complimented, I feel manipulated. Grace depends on the fact that its origin is wholly outside myself. This is the heart of love: it comes to me from outside myself. Moreover, while it almost always elicits a response, which is my love in return, it comes toward me without any reference to my response. One-way love does not deviate on the basis of its goal. It is determined solely by its source.

Romance makes this clear. Almost any teenage boy will tell you that when a pretty girl shows interest, he will always go along. I am not sure I have ever met a young man who is able to turn down the advances of a pretty or sexy woman. The fact that she likes him, or indicates that she does, is enough to ensure his response. It doesn’t matter whether she is right for him, or has good qualities, or displays any kind of rational compatibility. If she likes him, he swoons right there on the floor.

This is an important idea. One-way love is the change agent in everyday life because it speaks in a voice completely different from the voice of the law. It has nothing to do with its receiver’s characteristics. Its logic is hidden within the intention of its source. Theologically speaking, we can say it is the prime directive of God to love the world in no relation to the world’s fitness to be loved. Speaking in terms of Christian theology, God loves the world in a kind of reverse relationship to its moral unfitness. “God proves his own love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8, HCSB).

In the dimension of grace, one-way love is inscrutable or irrational not only because it is out of relation with any intrinsic circumstances on the part of the receiver. One-way love is also irrational because it reaches out specifically to the undeserving person. This is the beating heart of it. Grace is directed toward what Scripture calls “the ungodly” (Rom. 5:6). Not just the lonely, not just the sick and disconsolate, but the “perpetrators,” the murderers and abusers, the people who cross the line. God has a heart—his one-way love—for sinners. This piece of logical and ethical incongruity and inappropriateness is the problem with Christianity.

It is also the New Testament account of grace: God’s one-way love is a love that acts independent of all response to it yet at the same time elicits a response. “We love because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19, NIV). Grace works independently of its response, but typically engenders it. Right from the start, in the prologue to John’s Gospel, we hear that “the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17, NIV). “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17, NRSV). . . .

Christ’s repeated “mission statement”—that he came to call not the righteous but sinners (Luke 5:32; Matt. 9:13; Mark 2:17)—is the exact shape of grace. Christ was not a sinner himself, for he was the divine embodiment of perfect law. But his direction was to sinners and to sinners uniquely. This is expressed in his encounters with the tax collector Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1–10); with the man with the shriveled hand whom he healed, contrary to the law, on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1–5); with the woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years (Mark 5:25–34); and with the persistent blind beggar outside Jericho (Mark 10:46–52).

The labor of one-way love expressed in the life of Christ is also succinctly, and devastatingly, enacted in his relationship to Peter. Peter is a neon sign above the entire New Testament. His story beams the grace of God to sinners and never runs out of light. Peter misunderstood Christ and once even embodied a satanic temptation (Mark 8:31–33). Peter tried to push Christ to do the short-term good (Mark 9:5–6). Peter lost his trust in Christ when he stepped out of the boat (Matt. 14:28–31).

Peter is therefore at the center of the New Testament’s drama concerning grace. Worse than anything he did during Christ’s three years of teaching, Peter denied his relationship with Christ when it really mattered (Matt. 26:69–75; Mark 14:66–72; Luke 22:54–62; John 18:15–18, 25–27). The denial of Christ by Peter is one of the worst breaches of faith in the Gospels, second only to Judas’s denial. It was insistently warned of in advance, and it was carried out at the single loneliest point of need in Jesus’ life. It was indefensible. It was repeated, denied, and defended—yet strangely not judged.

“Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11, NRSV). This is the one-way love of grace in the life of Christ. As he forgave Peter, so the Lord forgave the woman taken in adultery. He did not throw a stone against her. His apparent imperative in John 8, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again,” is not an imperative. It is a descriptive. Few who have ever been forgiven a crime possess the inward desire to offend again. It was obvious that she would not sin again. And if she did, she would be forgiven again; and the chances of her offending again would be reduced by half. Under grace, imperatives become indicatives. . . .

Unlike the law, Christ’s approach always worked. The people whom he treated under the sign of grace broke down. Each of them had his or her nervous breakdown. Being loved one-way, without reference to their response, they always said, "Yes." This “yes” is the breakdown that arrives with undeceived diagnosis in the presence of love. Zacchaeus broke down. Mary Magdalene broke down. The woman who was “set free from [her] ailment” (Luke 13:12, NRSV) broke down. Peter broke down (Luke 5:8; John 21:17). Every one of the original disciples broke down (Matt. 26:56). “All fall down.”

Grace has a domino effect. It is at the bottom of the house of cards that is human identity. It is the ground floor of our striving after love. When grace comes in, when it rewrites the script, when its light shines in the basement of the house that is ourselves, unbuilt to God, grace demolishes and creates. It does what it promises.

Paul F. M. Zahl is a retired Episcopal minister. He is dean emeritus of Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry (Ambridge, Pennsylvania). He is the author of Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life (Eerdmans, 2007), from which this article is excerpted and adapted with permission.

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