Forms of Grace

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And Jacob dwelt in the land wherein his father was a stranger, in the land of Canaan. Now Israel loved Joseph more than all his children, because he was the son of his old age: and he made him a coat of many colours. And when his brethren saw that their father loved him more than all his brethren, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably unto him.

Poor Joseph. Birth order and his father’s feelings were not his fault. He was only 17. But still, you’d think common sense or modesty would have warned him off of telling his brothers about his dreams. They weren’t terribly nice guys, for instance Simeon and Levi had murdered all the men in Shechem’s household as they lay recovering from circumcisions. Clearly Joseph underestimated his brothers’ hatred for him, and would have been murdered himself if Reuben hadn’t stepped in and gotten him sold into slavery instead. (Reuben, who may have felt he owed their father some form of apology after he’d slept with Mama Bilhah). Joseph was apparently still peeved at his brothers many years later, because when they showed up in Egypt he “spake roughly unto them” and put the fear of God into them by framing Benjamin for theft before revealing his identity and insisting that they all move to Egypt, reuniting the happy family. All this is of course a prelude to the enslavement of the Israelites and their dramatic exodus back to Caanan (a land flowing with milk and honey–no going back to Egypt to buy corn [1]).

This story is about forging a covenant people. It’s such good drama that Hollywood, Broadway, and Disney have all had turns at telling it, and like all good drama, the story involves flawed characters whose motives aren’t always admirable. Here we have a cast of sinners motivated by jealousy, retribution, and the will to survive, whose lives turn out to form an enduring story of faith. God works in mysterious ways.

2.

In Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, Theo loses his mother in an act of terrorism. This loss is an inflection point in his life, as he says, “though everything that’s happened to me since then is thoroughly my fault, still when I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier.” Functionally parentless, Theo spends his teenage years in the home of family friends, then foraging for necessities with his only friend Boris, and finally living with a benevolently oblivious antiques dealer in New York. Theo and Boris do a lot of drugs and drink lots of alcohol, but do a good job of keeping a pet dog alive. Theo grows up to be a crooked businessman, and the woman he helplessly loves is unavailable. He’s an unrelentingly miserable character.[2] Yet, his life produces an event that is very right, and wouldn’t have happened without him or Boris. Boris puts it this way (I condensed this from a couple pages of dialogue):

“The world is much stranger than we can know or say. And I know how you think, or how you like to think, but maybe this is one instance where you can’t boil down to pure ‘good’ or pure ‘bad’ like you always want to do?…good doesn’t always follow from good deeds, nor bad deeds result from bad, does it? Even the wise and good cannot see the end of all actions. Scary idea! Remember Prince Myshkin in The Idiot?…Well, Idiot was very disturbing book to me. In fact it was so disturbing I have never really read very many fictions after…because all Myshkin ever did was good… unselfish… he treated all persons with understanding and compassion and what resulted from this goodness? Murder! Disaster! … Very dark message to this book. ‘Why be good.’ But…what if–is more complicated than that? What if maybe opposite is true as well?…What if our badness and mistakes are the very thing that set our fate and bring us round to good? What if, for some of us, we can’t get there any other way?”

Or as the benevolent antiques dealer puts it, “Can’t good come around sometimes through some strange back doors?”

3.

A few years ago my dad was riding his motorcycle home from work when a car cut sharply in front of him. He was unable to stop, and went flying over the car. He always wears a helmet, but unfortunately helmets only protect the head. One leg was broken in a half-dozen places, and an intestinal artery was severed, causing so much internal bleeding that he required 6 units of blood. When the ER surgeon was rapidly tying things off in his abdominal cavity she noticed a tumor on his kidney. It turned out to be cancer, he had that kidney removed, and he’s fine now (although he can’t run anymore because of the leg injuries). Kidney cancer is notoriously deadly because usually by the time a person has any noticeable symptoms it has metastasized. The ER surgeon found my dad’s kidney tumor before he experienced any symptoms; she saved his life twice.

 

 

I think these stories have one thing in common, which is that they are manifestations of grace. I’m not talking about silver linings, where a benefit is inherent to a challenging situation. That’s not grace to me. I’m talking about transforming things that are ill-conceived, tragic, or even immoral into things that are right and good. That transformation is not a foregone conclusion, in fact just the opposite. Grace operates when it’s neither expected nor deserved. And I think it’s not the case that tragedy or waste or sin are always transformed. Some losses can’t be restored in this world; opportunity costs are real. Some lives begin and end tragically, some cancers are found too late. But sometimes, unexpectedly, grace changes things.

The miracle of grace is that somehow God takes the tattered and stained cloth of human life and rearranges the atoms to make it whole, not by applying soap and patches (to make a cleaner, more functional, but essentially unchanged fabric), but by an uncomprehendable transformation. Being born again is such a transformation [3]. Alma called it a mighty change of heart [4]. It’s intrinsically impossible to work this change by ourselves because we do not make ourselves; we are the clay, not the potter [5]. We have to want the change (Alma says it happens by faith), but we rely on God to execute it. I think this is why grace in the context of sin is a miracle. I don’t find it miraculous that God can forgive sins by having Jesus pay the price for them. That seems transactional to me, because it’s shifting who pays for the soap and patches. What’s miraculous is that by some means I can’t understand, made possible by Jesus, God remakes the fabric of our spirits, atom by atom. I don’t know what to call that. Rebirth works up to a point, but birth is a discrete event and transformation by grace isn’t done all at once. Change of heart is a decent metaphor, but the change doesn’t feel “mighty.” It’s gradual, uneven, unexpected, and undeserved change that grace works in me. It seems like grace works this way in the world, too.

The uneven nature of grace might make it capricious, except that the undeserved part means it can’t be. Without entitlement, grace cannot be inconstant. What is there for me to do, then, but to open my eyes to it and thank God?

 

 

[1] We think of corn as maize (a new world crop), but the word corn also means the leading crop grown in a region. Corn in the Bible probably refers to wheat or barley.

[2] It’s an unrelentingly depressing book. Which is no reason not to read it! A reason not to read it is that it’s way too long for the story it tells; it gets tedious sometimes. I’m no literary expert, but I’m surprised it won the Pulitzer. It has some great characters (Theo is not one of them – he seems wooden compared with the other characters and in the end I didn’t really care what happened to him), and the last 10% of the book explores some interesting philosophical, even theological, questions. But you wade through a lot of words to make it that far.

[3] Alma 5:14

[4] John 3:5

[5] Romans 9:21

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19 Responses

  1. Rachel says:

    Thank you, Emily U., for this beautiful and thoughtful post. I especially loved this: “Grace operates when it’s neither expected nor deserved. And I think it’s not the case that tragedy or waste or sin are always transformed. Some losses can’t be restored in this world; opportunity costs are real. Some lives begin and end tragically, some cancers are found too late. But sometimes, unexpectedly, grace changes things.”

  2. Caroline says:

    This is absolutely beautiful, Emily U.

    “The miracle of grace is that somehow God takes the tattered and stained cloth of human life and rearranges the atoms to make it whole ”

    I love these thoughts on grace. If and when you give a sacrament meeting talk or teach a lesson on anything that has to do with Jesus, I hope you take what you have written here and use it. Your dad’s accident is such a perfect anecdote to illustrate your thoughts.

  3. EmilyCC says:

    A powerful reminder of a concept that we don’t hear in Church much. Thank you for this, Emily!

  4. MargaretOH says:

    I love this, EmilyU. We gave our daughter the middle name Grace partly as a reminder to her to look for how God has acted in her life. I think “opening our eyes to it” can be an incredibly difficult task, yet necessary for the development of our relationship with the divine. Thanks for a moment of peaceful contemplation today.

    • Emily U says:

      I agree it’s an incredibly difficult task. How to see the true things about God, ourselves, or the world that we can’t see yet? I don’t know but it’s something important to grapple with.

  5. Em says:

    I love the concept of grace because it is something we don’t talk about enough. We want to emphasize the importance of works and repentance and while we believe in grace I think we fear overemphasizing it and err on the other side. I have always loved the scripture that says “it is by grace we are saved after all we can do.” You can repent. You can do better. You can do good works. But the miracle that makes you whole, and new is something you can never do yourself. To me it is such a stunning example of how our Heavenly Parents, and Christ are so different from us. I may forgive, but I don’t forget. When someone wrongs me I can choose to go on loving that person and to not let the even taint the friendship, but the thing still happened and on some level it defines the relationship. That isn’t true of our Heavenly Parents. When we truly repent and when grace changes us the event is forgotten completely, like it never happened. We’re whole, and new, not just papered over.

  6. Violadiva says:

    It’s so important, especially in a church culture that really emphasizes exact obedience, that we don’t lose sight of this critical gospel principle! We cannot obey or earn our way into Heaven, like Em quoted above — “after all we can do.” When we take a good, hard look at our privilege, we must fully and totally confront the idea of grace working in our own lives….”there but for the Grace of God go I”

  7. Liz says:

    I love this post, and have sent it to so many friends. I especially like the quote from the antiques dealer – “Can’t good come around sometimes through some strange back doors?” I have had several things in my life that have come through the back door.

  8. Jess R says:

    I love this line:
    Without entitlement, grace cannot be inconstant.

    I’d never thought about it like that before, but logically that is so true. That’s really what it means when people say that all we have to do is reach out and accept it. Thank you so so much for this post!

  9. Linda says:

    Smart, deep and gorgeous, Emily! Thank you, thank you.

  10. neva trejo says:

    so beautifly expressed-i wish it could raudiences

  11. Patty says:

    Good thoughts. I just read Marilynne Robinson’s “Lila”. Also lots of interesting ideas, probably related to grace if I were prone to deeper analysis. BTW, I think you are spot on in your analysis of “The Goldfinch”.

    • Emily U says:

      I *love* Marilynne Robinson’s other books, and am really looking forward to Lila. I’m sure you’re right that it has some thoughts on grace, I think her first two books about the people in Gilead definitely do.

  12. Ziff says:

    Great post, Emily. I really like how you’ve described grace. Your conclusion is beautifully expressed, but I’m still not sure I grasp it:

    “The uneven nature of grace might make it capricious, except that the undeserved part means it can’t be. Without entitlement, grace cannot be inconstant.”

    Isn’t it possible for an undeserved gift to be dispensed unevenly? I guess that’s not what you’re arguing against, but rather that the unevenness doesn’t matter? Or the uneven distribution isn’t something we can or should complain or worry about?

    • Emily U says:

      Hi Ziff, that’s right. What I’m trying to say is that an undeserved gift can’t be expected. But it can be uneven. Uneven things might look capricious, and that is a bit scary for a believer like me who wants to look on God as constant and reliable, which of course God is both of those things in certain ways, but by my own experience (and of course I can only speak for myself here), God’s grace is very unevenly manifest in my life. I hate to use the word unreliable because that doesn’t feel quite true, but I find grace feels pretty distant sometimes. It’s very possible for me to read uneven manifestations of it as meaning God is not there. Sometimes I have read things that way.

      I wouldn’t say the uneven distribution doesn’t matter, or that we shouldn’t ever complain about it. We are only human, and I think we have a hard-wired sense of fairness that is constantly assaulted from the time we are 2 year olds, and we are going to complain that sometimes. I think/hope we humans can be forgiven for sometimes reading life’s unfairness, and God’s sometimes distance, as a lack of evidence for God’s presence. For me, realizing my complete lack of entitlement to God’s grace is a way of saving a space for belief to exist.

      • Ziff says:

        Thanks for explaining further, Emily. That makes a lot of sense! I really appreciate the post and your response to my comment.

  13. Emily U says:

    I just wanted to say thank you to everyone for your kind comments. I love that we have this space to share ideas and feelings together.

  14. spunky says:

    I am late to the game, but also wanted to express my appreciation for this post. It is all to easy to become comfortable and compliant in life; and then to blame lack of faith for the cause of tragedy– or worse, blame God for what might seem like a random tragedy. Your words describing grace fit my life very well; thank you for expressing this so I could better attribute the blessings I have, as deeply imperfect as I am.

  1. February 7, 2015

    […] wrote a beautiful and moving post about some of the forms of grace she has witnessed, and how “grace operates when it’s […]

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