“I cannot be good as I desire to be, and I do wrong against my wishes.”
Little else in my spiritual journey with God has the effect of bringing me face to face with these sentiments of the Apostle Paul as does the topic of grace. For all my lofty aspirations to embrace and embody this fundamental aspect of Christian faith, I often feel no closer to personifying it than when I first began. Weekly I am reminded of my debt to this gift of God, and so I offer these thoughts not as some expert in theology and faith, but rather as a lowly fellow seeker. As one who sees the pearl of great price and is actively, if feebly, selling all I have to possess it. And yet, grace is already mine without effort. Perhaps the first among the many paradoxes of the Christian faith that collectively frame the narrow way to God. I hope to offer some clarity and some encouragement in this essay.
“Grace and peace to you from our God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.” ~ Corinthians 1:3
Let me begin with an attempt to define what I am talking about when I use the word, grace. Let me employ a metaphor: Grace is the gasoline that fuels the engine of my faith. It is the incredible idea that God has made a way for me to become more than my finite imagination can conceive of, and all that divine will has prepared for me. Grace finds the fullness of its expression in the death and resurrection of Christ, God’s ultimate gift to creation. Through the grace unleashed in the power of Christ’s sacrifice, I may stand before God, holy and acceptable in God’s sight — not by anything I have done or will ever do, but as a response to this act of sacrifice alone. That’s the company line, and I believe it.
Through grace God provides me with a way to become more Christ-like — but let me clearly explain what I mean by this overused phrase: To be Christ-like for me means to become a channel for God’s love, to be an example of one in relationship with my Creator. Grace is what brings me the insight and the ability to do this. Even as it’s God’s will that I and all creation live in a transformational awareness of God it takes the gift of grace to see this and act to attain it. Okay, lofty words, but were does the rubber meet the road? I suspect that in so much as there are billions of different people on this planet, there are billions of different possibilities, so let me offer three from my own experience in the hope that they will act as guides in your faith life.
“For it is by grace you have been saved, as you had faith; it is not your doing but God’s gift, not the outcome of what you have done — lest anyone should pride himself on that;” ~ Ephesians 2:8 – 9
First, grace becomes real to me in humility. I may be a bit of an oddity in the gay and lesbian world in that I have a very healthy ego. I was never tormented as a child or adolescent, I was not rejected by my parents, and I did not grow up the church to face the specter of institutionalized condemnation in the name of God. In short, I’m pretty lucky (or blessed, if you prefer). I stand fairly confidently in my opinions, I am not easily dissuaded, and I do not like to sit in the back seat. My confidence expressed freely can leave others feeling implicitly unimportant, and on occasion explicitly belittled. I don’t mean to hurt other people, I don’t like myself when I do, but I do.
Grace lets me see that being right is not always the right thing to be. This is especially true when it comes to God. The idea of grace has opened my eyes to the fact that although I feel the need to engage my enemies with a defense of God’s presence in my life, I don’t really need to. The issue of God’s presence has been fully settled by God. My attempts to defend God’s presence are too often launched in the spirit of my own frail power, and not as a result of divine engagement. God does not need an apologist. God may choose to have been present my witness, but God doesn’t need me to make the world right. It is enough that I am willing, and more than enough that I learn to rest in God, commune with the Holy Spirit, trust in the mercy of Christ. Just as Jesus prayed in the garden, “Thy will, and not mine, be done.” Grace allows each of us to step outside of ourselves and change.
“Treat one another with the same spirit as you experience in Christ Jesus.” ~ Philippians 2:5
Second, and closely linked to humility, is forgiveness. This is the lesson that I am currently engaged in learning at the forefront of my spiritual course work. In short: Grace is not simply God’s plain to forgive my sins, but it is God’s way for me to forgive the sins of others — the trespasses against me we are so found of reciting in the Lord’s Prayer. Just as I am learning not to force my will upon others, I am seeing more clearly how much I must not take offense against others who have imposed theirs on me. I must not assume that they mean me intentional harm, and even when they do — and let’s face it, as gay and lesbian Christians we are often the target of intentional persecution — I must realize that it is done out of their own weakness and fear. Or to turn the tables, I must learn to abhor the sin while still loving the sinner. Can I do this in my own strength? Absolutely not! But in God’s grace, I can. I can because in God’s sight, this is true: We are all equally beholding to, and equally blessed by God’s love.
In fact, more than threatened by the invective and persecution of others, I feel sorry for them. I feel sorry that they choose to give me so much power over their happiness. I feel sorry that they still feel the need to defend God, demonstrating how little they really know God. I feel sorry that their witness of Christ to others is predicated upon tearing down and not building up. But pity and forgiveness are not the same. And for me personally, forgiveness from the heart remains a constant challenge. I know I should, nay must, forgive others who threaten me, and yet my need for the grace from God to do this is mighty.
“You must serve one another, each with the talent he has received, as efficient stewards of God’s varied grace;” – 1 Peter 4:10
Finally, grace fuels my desire to love. And by love I do not mean to simply feel humble and keep my mouth shut when I want to set someone straight, but to actively seek ways to build others up, to sincerely honor their God given dignity. Likewise, I do not mean to take the insults and injustices of others and feel no hurt from them through my emotional forgiveness, but to seek out ways to honor their God given dignity, too. To love in community, to see all those around me to whom my life has been closely joined, and to act toward them in ways that affirm and express God’s profound love for them. While God does not need me to present a defense, God does delight in my offering an offense. As I embrace God’s love for me and the grace this love floods into my life, I must turn to those around me and allow this love to flow outward in their behalf. I must not let my pride or my resentments or even my fears stop me.
“I have written you these few lines of encouragement, to testify that this is what God’s true grace means. Stand in that grace.” ~ 1 Peter 5:12b
As members of the sexual minority, it is important to realize that so much of what encompasses our journey toward God, transcends the differences our sexuality presents within the greater context of Christianity. I hope these ideas that I have offered can resonate for anyone who reads this. But as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender women and men, we can also take away something special. For even as God is universally attuned to all creation, God is also individually in love with each and every one of us. So to our community God’s grace brings us the confidence to stand as followers without the need to defend our place in God’s kingdom against the fearful and the bullies who may surround us. God gives us the power to forgive those who have trespassed against us because of who we are, and who we choose to love in intimacy — a gift that frees us from their tyranny. And then God’s grace enables us to love others with confidence, and at times with courage. The acceptance and transformation by and of the greater church will come as we demonstrate in love the reality of God’s grace in our lives. It is not an easy work to accomplish, but we have one another from whom to draw upon our encouragement, and we have God’s grace to fuel our lives as we act in humility, forgiveness and love.