“Amazing Grace” is by far one of my favorite hymns. It always has been. I imagine it’s pretty high up on the list for many other Christians, too. It’s a beautiful, powerful hymn and I’m sure it will remain one of the great, classic hymns for many, many more years. But for all the times I sang it when I was growing up, I never really stopped to ask: “What is grace?”
If someone had asked me to give an in-depth explanation on what grace is, I’m not sure I could have done it. Even as I attended seminary, I learned that there are lots of different answers to this seemingly simple question. The standard answer for me, and I imagine most other Protestants living in the West, was something like this: “Grace is the unmerited gift of God’s mercy towards sinful people.” That was what I believed grace to be – the gift of God’s (at least temporary) merciful disposition towards sinners.
I had mentioned in an earlier post “Why Orthodoxy?”, that even as I became more involved in a local Baptist church towards the end of my undergraduate days, there was still a nagging sense that something wasn’t quite right. At the time, I thought maybe I just didn’t belong or maybe my faith wasn’t strong enough to feel like I was a part of this new community of believers I had joined. Looking back now, though, I tend to think it was my sub-conscience or maybe even the Holy Spirit showing me that there was something lacking in my traditional Southern Baptist beliefs. This view of grace as a disposition was one of the bigger issues that consistently nagged at me in those final days in College Station.
While it is true that God holds a merciful attitude towards sinners, and this is a wonderful and amazing thing to learn, I was never comfortable with the idea that grace was essentially an open window of time when God would show mercy to those who sought Him. Isn’t there something… off… about the idea that God, who is love, extends grace as a mere temporary disposition? A reprieve from punishment by an “angry God”?
I would wrestle with this issue (and several others) over the next few years. Eventually, though, I learned more about the nature of God’s grace towards us, but I would have to go to Constantinople to find it (figuratively speaking, of course).
To put it as succinctly as I can, I’ll paraphrase Archbishop Lazar Puhalo. In one of his many spiritual talks and lectures via youtube, Archbishop (or Vladika) Lazar said, “Grace is God personally reaching down and touching us (healing us) with His uncreated, divine energies.”
So according to Orthodox Christian theology, grace isn’t a mere attitude – grace is God’s uncreated energy and the means by which God interacts with us. When the Orthodox describe grace as God’s “energies”, this doesn’t mean that grace is like electricity – an impersonal force or phenomenon in the cosmos. It is a part of God Himself. The Orthodox make sure to distinguish between God’s essence and God’s energies. No human being can possibly know or even fathom the essence of God – no one can understand the mystery of the Trinity and what it is that makes God who He is. However, this does not mean that we can’t know God. Indeed, God loves his creation very much and wants us to know Him, so the Lord chooses to interact with us by His energies.
In order to help clear this topic up a bit and avoid the idea of grace as being an impersonal force, perhaps it might be better to think of grace as God’s means of healing human beings – it’s like medicine. Grace is nothing less than God Himself reaching out from beyond space and time into our realm to touch each of us with His energy so that we might be healed of our sinful nature and become like Him. By God’s grace, we can become what we were meant to be from the Beginning – beings made to live in communion with the Lord forever in His image and likeness.
Again, to be sure, there is an aspect of a merciful attitude on God’s part towards us when it comes to grace. But that’s not the extent of it – grace is a concrete reality. On the issue of grace, like many aspects of Orthodoxy, I found fullness where Baptist theology had been lacking. After all, if we concede that grace is merely a disposition (and a temporary one at that), can we truly say that we serve a God who is love? If grace were simply a passing attitude, then God, who we know to be love, would be generous and kind and full of mercy at one moment and then angry, jealous, and full of a desire for revenge and punishment the next. Is God a schizophrenic? Of course not! It is so easy to project our own passions onto God, even though we know that He has revealed Himself to be consistently loving, merciful, empathetic, and active in bringing about healing and restoration.
So grace is the means by which God interacts with us and heals us in order to make us like Him, so that we might be in communion with the undivided Trinity forever – that’s truly amazing grace.