Psalm 84:11 rightly places the source of Grace as God:
For the Lord God is a sun and a shield, the Lord will give grace and glory: no good thing will God withhold from them that walk uprightly.
Grace is a free gift. It cannot be earned by any effort on our part — by fasting, celibacy, acts of kindness or by prayer vigils. Whatever the value we place on our time or our energy we cannot suppose that God will ever be indebted to us. The simple truth is that the perfect God loves us imperfect beings with a love far greater than we can comprehend. In the gift of Grace we hear the voice of God assuring us that as we commit ourselves to walking with Christ, so we will be empowered in that walk.
Moffat states that there are “grace words” which do not contain grace (Deuteronomy 7:7, 9: 4-6). Grace embraces other concepts, such as forgiveness, salvation, regeneration, repentance and the love of God. In the Old Testament there are two words for “grace,” the first, hesed is translated in the Authorised Version as “mercy” 149 times, “kindness” thirty eight times, “loving kindness” thirty times and “goodness” twelve times. Hesed is a word which can be used in two ways and can apply to both God and to humanity. When referring to God, hesed can be translated as “grace”. When it refers to humanity it is translated as “steadfast love” which is extended to another person or to God. It is also found in covenant terms. The other “grace word” is hen, which is used when referring to the action of a superior, either human or divine, toward an inferior. Hen is not a two-way word, for no person can do God a favour.
Grace is also the antithesis of the law. According to Titus 2:11 grace came into the world with Christ. Charis is the Greek word that is translated in the New Testament as the equivalent of the Hebrew word hen, while eleos represents hesed and is translated as “mercy”. Though Jesus is never recorded as using the word “grace,” he described his mission as seeking and saving those who were/are lost. Many of his parables are vignettes of grace, e.g. the story of the prodigal, that of the great supper, and also the tale of the labourers in the vineyard. Grace, God acting solely as love expressed, may grant to the seemingly least deserving the greatest favours. Paul, in his letters, explains grace by asking the Galatians the questions, “If by following the letter of the law I can present myself as perfect before God, then what need would there be for grace? If I can work out my own salvation then why had Christ to die? (Galatians 2: 21) Jesus has done for us what we could never have achieved by ourselves. 2 Corinthians 12: 19 states, “My grace is enough for you, for my power is perfected in your weakness.” Here is the reassurance that no matter what our circumstances, as we call upon God we discover the presence of God’s sustaining power.
Grace is available to all that are humble enough to seek it. Indeed it is the discovery that we are the object of Divine Grace which works humility in our persons. For having discovered our own unworthiness, we find ourselves to be valued by God and, even more than that, we are loved and blessed by God’s grace. “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble” is the message of the apostle Peter (1 Peter 5: 5). Those who are proud, arrogant and self-sanctified can never understand the outworking of grace, for they are unable to claim it as their own by their efforts or by any amount of preconceived self-righteousness. In 1 Peter 4: 10 we hear Peter speaking of grace manifested in different ways, “Every one should use whatever gift they have received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms.” Paul’s words recorded in 1 Corinthians 15: 10 state, “It is by the grace of God that I am what I am, and God’s grace to me has not proved ineffective, but I have toiled more exceedingly than all of them; but it was not I who achieved anything but God’s grace working with me.”
“I am what I am”, was for many years the introductory theme of the Gaywaves program on community radio station 2NCR FM in the Northern Rivers of New South Wales, Australia. In spite of the campaign waged by members of local Government and various churches, a campaign which threatened our businesses and our lives and had a domino effect on our children, these words were not muted nor silenced and continued to speak out our truth each week. How many times have we sung out these words as a symbol of the joy and pride (and sometimes defiance) we have as those whom God created lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender? Have we ever stopped and acknowledged the source of these words? Many who have been affronted or hurt by the attitudes within the Christian church have not been aware that in the New Testament which has served as a blueprint for the Church for nigh on two thousand years are Paul’s words, “It is by the grace of God that I am what I am.” These words should be flown as a banner as we march against the anger and hate generated against us in restrictive canon and governmental legislation. Hear again Paul’s claim, “By the grace of God I am what I am.” Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender intersexual and heterosexual, we are what we are by the grace of God.
Who am I, and what has been the effect of God’s grace on my life? These are questions for each of us as individuals. I’d like to sketch in a few details of the difference God’s grace has made in my life. At seventeen, during a youth rally, I became convicted of my sin and my need for God’s forgiveness. In tears I sought God, and in the stillness I discovered God’s arms enfolding me. It was as if in one loving act, God wiped from the record of my life every act and word of unkindness I had entertained, and I stood clean and stainless in the presence of a myriad of witnesses. Since that moment I have known that even the greatest of my efforts would have been of no avail, that there were no examinations to be sat or grades to be achieved in God’s sight. God loves me totally just as I am, imperfect, impulsive and totally human. Yet as such I take my place alongside my elder brother Jesus, whose living and dying procured the remedy for my sins. It is in Christ alone I have standing before God.
When one includes the various gifts of God such as loving-kindness, kindness, mercy and goodness – all translations of the Hebrew word hesed, the way is then opened to affirm the various ways in which God’s grace is demonstrated. I can recall being so desperately poor, financially, that there was no money with which to buy food. I would petition God each morning for specific amounts of various vegetables and fruit for that day’s meals as I walked to the entrance of the flower markets where I worked. And each day, as I walked back through the markets, not only those quantities of vegetables would be lying by the roadside where they had fallen when trucks were being unloaded, but there was always something extra. To me, this extra portion has always identified God’s gifts in every area of my life.
In those times when I have been searching for answers in moral or spiritual dimensions, as soon as I have ceased my fidgeting and fratching, through the prevailing quiet I discover that God has provided the answers. When, by the words or actions of others, I have been bewildered and emotionally crippled, in God’s arms I have experienced God’s strength made perfect in my weakness. When I recall miracles that regularly occur in my life I see God’s grace at work. Recently I offered to testify at a friend’s trial and the travel arrangements were made for my journey. When the time came for me to make this journey God’s loving-kindness and provision were revealed, for the time I had scheduled to be in that city coincided with the final week of my Mother’s life. Because by God’s grace she had been flown intrastate to that capital city hospital, I was able to sit with her, talk of my love for her, and describe death as naught but a doorway to God’s dimension. This was the most precious and intimate time I had ever spent with her, and I was available to be present through God’s grace alone.
Having once lived 100 miles out of Bourke, almost at the South Australian/New South Wales border and truly in Australia’s “outback,” I have experienced the lack of spiritual community that physical isolation engenders. To those on rural properties communal worship was available only in the closest large town. At one period in Australia’s history various churches sent forth travelling clergy to cross the thousands of miles which comprised pastoral leases and freehold land. Once a year their circuit would take them to each property, and there they would baptize any children, perform marriages or bless bush weddings. In the cities our spiritual dimensions expand and mature as we interact with each other, but for all that are isolated there is no such opportunity. For those in prison or hospital, those locked into their homes because of extreme pain, or those isolated by distance or the closure of a local church, there is no chance for communal worship, and sometimes this isolation can lead to despair.
To such a ministry I was called, but this was a ministry outside the parameters dictated by the regulations of the denomination in which I was ordained. Years ago I took time off and weighed up the consequences of my choices – either I abandoned the ministry God had laid close to my heart, or else I would need to resign and seek another denomination which believed this to be a genuine and necessary outreach. Through the months during which I agonised over these choices I prayed earnestly for a miracle. It came, but not in a form I had anticipated. Instead events occurred which led me to shut the door firmly on my ordaining denomination, and simultaneously I was accepted and empowered by my current church family. In God’s hands this ministry has spread across the globe and is touching the lives of diverse people. Looking back at those events I cannot but marvel at the loving-kindness God showed. No matter what else occurred, what friendships were destroyed and hopes dashed, God’s grace was never withdrawn. Grace has enabled me to change the focus of my attention from my own concerns and thus to be aware of those Jesus terms as my neighbours. Being assured of the ever-present love of God, each of us is able to leave our life in God’s hands and get on with the task of expressing love toward others of God’s children. My burdens have never felt lighter since I have known God’s grace, which is why I have the energy to help shoulder the burdens of others.
When my thoughts and concerns are so deep that my eyes are fixed on the ground, like a ray of sunshine bursting through storm clouds comes God’s voice, “Look up and see what my love has wrought!” And as I raise my eyes, in branches far above my head waiting to be discovered are sleepy tawny frog-mouth owls, or mother wrens perched on wee nests, or else there’ll be a flock of black cockatoos wending their way to a nearby food source. When the weather is grey and the roads fog-shrouded, look up at the sky, for among the hills there’ll be the trace of the first hues of a rainbow. In many blossoms are seeds which wait for the plant life to be ended so that death may subsume their essence into promised new life. So it is with our own lives. With God’s grace our earthly lives develop, mature and finally conclude, and with our deaths our spiritual essence is released into eternity.
“It is by the grace of God that I am what I am, and God’s grace to me has not proved ineffective, but I have toiled more exceedingly than all of them; but it was not I who achieved anything but God’s grace working with me.” If there were ever a phrase I could ask to be read over my grave this is it, for any good in me is there by the grace of God, not by my talents nor efforts. It is God’s grace that has reached out and claimed me, forgiven and reconciled me to my Creator. It is God’s grace that has strengthened and encouraged me. It is God’s grace that has picked me up those times when I have stumbled and fallen on life’s pathway. In the beginning there was God; in my living and my dying there will always be God’s love and grace.
Rev. Vera I. Bourne of Lismore, N.S.W., Australia, served as Outreach Clergy at Christs Community Church.